The first time I went to one of these annual walk-through concerts, over a decade ago, I assumed from the kinds of ambient and avant-garde music being promoted, and from the fact that the event was four hours long, that we'd be likely to be offered some four-hour-long works, of which there exist quite a few, by austere quasi-minimalist composers like LaMonte Young or Morton Feldman.
Nope. Some of the music sounded like theirs, but the performers played mostly in half-hour sets with breaks between them, which, in a world in which unbroken four-hour-long music exists, struck me as slightly cheating.
This year, however, something close to that order of magnitude finally happened. A pair of new performers, violinist Helen Kim and pianist Samuel Adams (yes, that Samuel Adams, and I noticed that his famous dad had come along to listen) occupied the main chapel for 75 minutes with Feldman's For John Cage. Wispily ethereal, like most of Feldman's work, it actually maintains interest for all this time by the minute variations Feldman continually runs on a set of tiny upward scale passages, microtonal on the violin just slightly off from the piano.
The performers had to play much louder than the score's ppp because, even in the separated main chapel, a continual wash of echo from other performers down the hall kept seeping in. Plus plenty of found sounds in the chapel itself, including my empty water bottle rolling off the bench and onto the floor. But this is a work dedicated to John Cage, who would not have minded such intrusions in the least.
Other performers I heard in the main chapel were Sarah Cahill playing a session of Lou Harrison piano music, which is also what she did last year, and Kitka, the small but mighty acapella female choir, which this year gave us extremely spicy South Slavic folk music.
I spent most of the first hour, which is always the least crowded part, wandering around in search of performers I hadn't heard before. I was most taken by a pair of women in the large columbarium, Krys Bobrowski who played glass harp on a set of industrial beakers while Karen Stackpole rubbed large gongs with a mallet, setting up an ambient sound of conflicting overtones that buzzed mightily. I also liked Robin Petrie and friends, as they were billed, who played a gentle folk-like ambience on hammered dulcimer, guitar, and hand drum. The Real Vocal String Quartet, who were playing a jazz-bluegrass fusion work and humming as they played, sounded promising. For the rest, I heard a guy playing a xylosynth, which is what the name sounds like; another group whacking away at wooden xylophones in a dead, dry sound; a saxophone quartet playing slow ambient dissonance; another sax and plucked cello in slow jazzy improvisations; an ambient electronic hum so quiet and motionless I couldn't tell whether I could hear it or not; a slow noodle on electric guitar; a strangely weak violin and cello duo; a solo violinist playing what the sign outside his niche said was "Cluck Old Hen Variations" and it sounded like that; and what I can best describe as a modernist baroque harpsichord.
I did catch a set by old favorites Paul Dresher and Joel Davel on their battery of electronic synthesizers, and the superiority of their music-making to much of the rest was renewedly impressive. But I missed their space-mate Amy X Neuburg entirely, and percussionist Laura Inserra (but I picked up a CD of hers at the main sales table), and every time I tried to look in on Probosci, the new group that most impressed me last year, the other group sharing their cramped space (the Garden of St. Matthew, which is always overcrowded) was playing instead.