Monday, February 10, 2014

a lecture and a concert

Between them, the two events I attended on Sunday probed two far distant edges of my musical tastes.

The lecture was by Mark Cohen, author of Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. He spoke for 45 minutes (and answered questions briskly for another 15), expounding with greater coherence than I thought he showed in the book his view of Sherman as the breakthrough figure in bringing Jewish humor, and ethnic humor generally, into the white-Anglo mainstream. Sherman's heyday was, he reminded us, before Fiddler on the Roof. Up to Sherman, ethnicity made the mainstream nervous. Sherman himself liked to point out that, though most of the great Broadway hits were by Jews, from listening to them you would never know it. Some early articles on Sherman actually avoided mentioning the word "Jew" or "Jewish", although his first album was his most blatantly ethnic; industry insiders were sure it wouldn't sell except to a demographic they were careful to define geographically, but by which they obviously meant "Jewish". However, it sold vigorously nationwide, and and even JFK was reportedly heard casually singing a song from it.

The lecture was in the afternoon at a Jewish community center in Marin, where it was dripping wet, and the fact that I had to drive all the way up there for it anyway made me susceptible to the charms of an evening concert, at one of those industrial warehouse spaces in the City, by the Kronos Quartet. Especially as the opening act was the always-delightful live tape-loop artist Amy X Neuburg. She performed four songs, three of them old favorites - she's apparently found a satisfactory new toothbrush, and is once again performing "Every Little Stain", which begins by setting up a loop of the sound of rhythmically brushing her teeth - and one slow one that I think was new to me.

Kronos also performed some new and some old stuff. They played Terry Riley's good old minimalist/folk/Indian amalgam G Song and the 1930s blues number I liked so much at their last concert. They played Penderecki's String Quartet No. 1, which consists entirely of chittering sounds and nothing my ears process as music at all, and they played it by facing backwards towards a screen along which the score was scrolling past a colored bar of the kind that indicates the line of scrimmage in televised football games, which was enormously distracting and proved only that the players' timing was anything but exact. They played a piece by a Canadian named John Oswald which consisted of instrumental humming, slowly overlaid in recording until it became unpleasantly loud. And they played a newly-commissioned piece by a young Lebanese-American named Mary Kouyoumdjian. Speaking before the concert, the composer proved to be a native speaker of uptalk, but any illusion that she was thereby not to be taken seriously would be quickly destroyed by her searing composition, which had the charming title of Bombs of Beirut. It followed the pattern of Steve Reich's Different Trains, consisting of the quartet playing dark, somberly beautiful music underneath recordings of Lebanese voices recounting their lives before, during, and after the war and how disruptive that was - plus one unaccompanied, and rather unforgettable, section consisting of what the notes said was an actual tape recording of the bombings and attacks one day circa 1977 - several minutes of endless explosions: roars, crashes, boomings, and screams.

No, not very Shermanesque.

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