At St. Mark's Church in the East Village of NYC, UK bassist Dominic Lash and a New York-based duo of Ben Owen and Barry Chabala performed two pieces by Wandelweiser composer Antoine Beuger in a concert organized by the Incubator Arts Project.
The first set was the duo of Ben Owen and Barry Chabala who played Antoine Beuger's "un lieu pour être deux" with a laptop and an acoustic guitar. Soon after the set started, Owen generated a very quiet continuous electronic sound with his laptop, later adding another tone with a different pitch to form a harmony. His electronic tones were extremely soft and delicate, hardly noticeable when they faded in and out, and carefully kept to a minimal volume to blend into the stillness of the room. Meanwhile, Chabala made a short series of sounds by rubbing the guitar strings. The sounds from both musicians were sparsely inserted into the silence according to the score. This was divided into 50 sections, which only instructed the number of sounds (0-3) to be played in each section. There are two numbers written in the middle of a blank paper for each section, and who would play which number of sounds was decided by the toss of a coin by the musicians beforehand.
Each sound entered and left in a very modest and quiet manner. Sometimes it was the sounds of water coming from the laptop, sometimes the delicate rumbling of a small object (like a pebble) rolling inside Chabala's guitar. While listening to these quiet sounds, all the environmental sounds surrounding the room - rain, cars passing by on the wet roads, muffled noises of car horns, stomping noises of people upstairs, the rustle of trees and even the wind outside the window - started to be heard more clearly and three-dimensionally. I'm not sure I've ever noticed the rustle of trees or the sound of wind in the middle of Manhattan before. These environmental sounds were heard as if they were parts of the music rather than unwelcome noises. A fragment of a familiar melody of some old song was heard vaguely and repeatedly from somewhere outside the room, over and over again, as if it were coming from a long buried memory. The indistinct fragment of the old song merged into the subtle events of the performance slowly and so naturally, that it was unclear whether it was coming from outside the room or from Owen's laptop (in fact, Chabala said later that he was also unsure about this).
At most concerts, the musicians and their output command most or all of the audience's attention, but here it felt more like the performers and the environment were existing equally, sharing the same space and time, creating harmonious music as a collective entity of chance events. There was also less of a sense of boundary between the performers and the audience, as if the stillness of the audience were a part of the music, too, and the distance normally existing between the active performers and the passive audience in most live concerts felt much smaller. The sense of time was lost during the 20 minute set as if the flow of time were gradually changing. Even though it was a series of sounds I was actually listening to in real time, it felt like the music was coming somewhere far distant from reality.
The second set was Dominic Lash performing Antoine Beuger's "calme étendue". In the first ten minutes or so, Lash was completely silent, standing still on the stage and holding his double bass. The intense but somewhat soothing stillness of Lash and the double bass certainly impacted the atmosphere of the room even without a single note, as if the music had already begun in the silent minds of the performer and the audience.
The silence of the performer and his instrument seemed to be the core of the space in this piece. They were like a center which united all the environmental sounds heard in the room with transparent threads to the invisible music, so the rustle of trees, cars passing by, chirps of birds, and stomping noises of people upstairs started to feel like parts of the music which was developing silently. Despite there being no actual performed sounds at this point, there was a tight sense of unity over the whole situation - the performer and the instrument which remained still, the environmental sounds randomly coming from outside, the silent audience listening to the whole situation carefully - with all of them sharing the same time and space.
Lash's silence did not cause a cooped-up feeling to reject the environmental sounds at all. Instead, it had an openness to accept all the other noises heard in the room naturally like breathing the air. The naturalness of his silence made me feel that the performer and the audience equally exist here, just like the wind and trees, rivers and oceans equally exist on earth.
After the long silence and stillness, Lash played a very quiet, short note of double bass, which was hardly noticeable like a soft breeze blowing through the room. In the following long silence, the environmental sounds were heard more vividly - the bell of the church chimed, the fragment of the old song at a little louder volume came from the other room, the heavy rumbling noises of people stomping upstairs almost like marching. While those rather active noises were jumping in the room, Lash kept playing very short, quiet tones of double bass occasionally with lengthy silences in between. Despite the rather loud environmental events, Lash's sparse bass sounds never felt lost amidst the noises, even with the subtlety and calmness of his performance. Every time his double bass sound disappeared, a vibration of the resonance remained in the room as if more musical events were following.
Lash's performance in this set made me realize that music could be heard even without the actual sounds of instruments. It is possible for a listener to experience the music outside the actual sounds of instruments or performers when (or if) various elements happening in the same time and space - the environmental sounds, the silences of un-played instruments, the stillness of the performer, the stillness of the audience who are listening to the situation carefully, the sounds and images appearing in the brains of the performers and the audience - are somehow united to be one entity to create a harmony in a particular situation of a live concert. The listener may be able to experience the music in the field of sounds inside their brain where actual sounds and imaginary sounds, visible images and imaginary images, are mixed together. This could be a new way of experiencing the music in new dimensions, an aspect often explored by the music of Wandelweiser composers like Antoine Beuger and Michael Pisaro.
When I realized that all the sounds and silences were existing equally, I was overwhelmed with an unusual sensation - I felt as if I were absorbed into something like nothingness and allness at the same time. The flow of time was lost again, and I felt like I was connecting to some unknown phenomenon and far distant places exactly in the same moment. It was almost like experiencing the moment of eternity, watching a horizon spreading infinitely as if the walls surrounding me were cleared away, and I was hearing the music (in my mind) in the distorted flow of time.
Just like a small metal object silently sitting in the center of an empty museum room can evoke various images in a person's mind, making him/her experience an overwhelming sensation which feels like eternity or a profound depth, a musical performance consisting of minimal sounds and silences can create a transcendent musical experience for the listener. It might be very quiet music, like transparent air that could be easily unnoticed, but once a listener perceives the presence of the music, it will never leave his/her memory.
It was a surreal experience for a live concert - the 45 minutes felt like 20 minutes or so, and also many hours at the same time.
Antoine Beuger's Music - Experience of Music in New Dimensions
Antoine Beuger's compositions seem to welcome any possibility. It is not just the music that is created by the sounds of the instruments performed along with the score, but the music that accepts all the accidental sounds (and noises) happening in the situation equally. If it is performed in an extremely silent room where the environmental noises are hardly heard, or if it is performed in a room where various environmental noises are jumping in, or if the volumes and the natures of outside noises are different, the same composition may give the audience completely different impressions. By accepting these various elements of eventuality, Antoine Beuger seems to show that one single composition could contain infinite possibilities in the ways of experiencing the music.
This is not a music where the composer confines the way of listening within a certain frame, so the piece can only give the same impression to the audience under any condition. Instead, this is a music that can be heard and experienced with different impressions every time it is performed. This must be one of Antoine Beuger's goals - to present the audience the infinite possibilities of experiencing the music in new dimensions.