[one] and the Backstage Door

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the Contempo Flux contemporary chamber music class’s final concert of the term out at UCLA. It was a diverse program full of interesting pieces — many of which were new to me — and the level of playing was, on the whole, phenomenal, but there was one piece in particular that stuck in my mind: Anna Thorvaldsdóttir’s [one] [YouTube] for piano and percussion inside said piano*.

It’s not the sort of piece I would normally be drawn to. Misty and atmospheric, it unfolds slowly and freely, with little sense of melody or rhythmic pulse. If I’d only been listening to a recording of it, I honestly would’ve been kind of bored — it’s just not my jam. But watching it happen in person was a deeply engrossing experience, and one that I’d very much like to have again. In thinking about why, I realized that it was because [one] is very close to being a theatre piece.

At first blush, this might seem surprising. Normally, when we describe a piece as “theatrical”, we mean that it’s intense, colorful, over-the-top. There are people wearing costumes, there’s unexpected lighting, players might sometimes break away from their instruments and shout things — whatever your baseline for a “musical performance” is, add a layer of dramatic flair to it and you’re well on your way. (There were some fine examples of this on Tuesday’s concert of contemporary string quartets at Disney Hall: The Calder Quartet’s facial expressions and body language added a great deal of humor and verve to Christian Wolff’s Edges, and there’s the even more obvious example of George Brecht’s String Quartet, in which all of the players strolled around gleefully shaking each other’s hands. (Whether or not this is even a piece of music and whether it makes sense to call Brecht the composer of it given the degree of interpretive freedom are semantic questions for another day.)) There’s something of a spectrum that starts with “conventional classical music performance” on one end, shades into “theatrical performance of a classical piece” and then “theatre piece with little plot and boring staging” before winding up at “full-on opera/musical/play/etc”.

The Thorvaldsdóttir was none of these things. It was subtle, subdued, intimate — not exactly adjectives commonly associated with musical theatricality. And yet. Given the understated nature of the music, the actual sounds produced felt, in some ways, almost incidental, as tho the two performers were the real focus of the piece. It was as tho the point of the piece was to watch two highly trained people carrying out a complex, highly specific set of almost arbitrary actions with great care and attention to detail. There is something beautiful in that. There is something enthralling about watching expertise in action. The percussionist changing their sticks, the pianist reaching over the keyboard to find the strings themselves, the little cues the players gave each other to coordinate certain attacks — these all felt like mystical actions in a mysterious drama. They felt, well, theatrical.

Not, of course, in the conventional sense. No one would confuse [one] with Hello Dolly! or Macbeth. But there’s a lot of experimental theatre out there, ranging from the surreal miniatures of the Neo-Futurists to the aggressive strangeness of performance art, and [one] seemed to sit quite comfortably somewhere in this mix. If conventional musical theatricality marches up to the front door of the theatre on its way to a conventional theatrical show, [one] slips around backstage to approach the theatrical realm from its experimental fringe. Theatre and Music aren’t on two ends of a continuum; they’re mushy, indistinct blobs that blur together and become one another in many different places.

That this specific form of theatricality would be totally missing in an audio-only recording of the work (which is still how most classical pieces, even operas, are recorded) is also striking. Given the easy availability of high-quality recordings, live performances can sometimes lose some of their luster. Sure, unless you have a great speaker setup, the sound is probably better live, and if it’s a famous performer or a significant event, there’s some cachet to having been in the room where it happened, but sometimes there are unexpected wrong notes, uncomfortable seats, inconvenient commutes, and any of the myriad other things that can make a live concert a less than ideal experience. In the face of that, it’s good to remember just how much can be lost in the transition from live performance to set recording. The theatrical aspect of the Thorvaldsdóttir isn’t, I don’t think, an explicit part of the score, nor is it central to the concept of the work, but it’s a powerful part of the live experience all the same, and a part that’s entirely missing from an audio-only rendition. It’s good to have a periodic reminder that, no matter how good recordings are, there’s still a lot to be said for seeing things live.

*Anna Thorvaldsdóttir may be a familiar name to regular readers of the blog