by Andrew Choate
Two concerts by two canonized American musicians took place in Los Angeles within four days of each other. Terry Riley played a solo piano set on Sunday, August 11th, and Anthony Braxton played a duet with Jacqueline Kerrod on Wednesday, August 14th. The ergonomics of these two performances revealed deep contrasts in the way each music was framed by its presenters and how they were received by their audiences.
Riley’s concert was an exclusive affair organized as the closing festivities for a multi-city and multi-venue retrospective of the Dilexi Gallery, a 1960s San Francisco space known for showing Jay DeFeo, Joe Goode, Jess, and many other California artists currently recognized as under-recognized at that time. A co-organizer for the event was dublab, an online radio station popular with the post-college literati. The concert was at Temple Israel of Hollywood and it was free; you simply needed an invitation from someone affiliated either with the Dilexi retrospective, the radio station, the venue, or the event. After it was announced, privately, it was full within a day.
Upon arrival, audience members were directed to a delightful courtyard to mingle. Free drinks were served while luscious ritual music from around the world was sophisticatedly DJed by Gabie Strong at a pleasant volume. A casual forty-five minutes after the listed start time, the music faded out and the doors to the evening’s focal performance were opened.
Once inside, audience members could choose to sit on pillows and blankets laid out in a fifteen meter circle around the piano, or sit in chairs in one of two sections equally dispersed around the pillow circle. Four screens of identical projections by Alex Pelly illuminated four sections of walls within the temple while subtle and agreeable strains from the not-so-subtly-named SFV Acid misted the hushed, anticipatory conversations. Paley’s projections were of the synthetic-biology petri-dish-washout variety. In other words: ambient visuals, nothing to focus on. In fact, their placement on the wall meant that I had to turn my head to really look at them, so I just let them squiggle in my peripheral while I silently waited for the performance to begin. SFV Acid faded out and the audience of a couple hundred people or so sat silently for several minutes before Riley came out and took his place at the piano.
He played cheesy new age cocktail party music, the kind of stuff that is so non-committal that it wouldn’t be out of place in a hotel lobby. Flimsy motifs unfurled and tangled with each other; innocuousness was exemplified, then multiplied exponentially. While his playing was rudimentary and styleless, it was also conflated with what seemed like a desperate attempt to teach himself jazz. So it was background music on one hand, because it didn’t reward sustained attention, but––and this is the sad part––he was playing so many notes that it seemed like he was trying very hard to be inventive and jazz-y. But he was making a music that only superficially engaged with the style of jazz: this was new age noodling, not jazz.
He’s new age at heart so it wasn’t surprising that he found enlightenment in major chords at regular intervals. His patterns had a triteness about them that remained, unfortunately, just above the level of quotidian; if they were simpler, they might have motivation, focus, or rigor. But the variations he added made it seem like he genuinely wanted to be playing some kind of jazz, as if dilettante ragtime is the key to Anthropocene illumination.
When I refer to his playing as “cheesy,” I mean superficially emotional. The music was tragically drab while it soared for convoluted resolutions. Thankfully, there was something illuminating about this concert: the audience’s behavior. Before it began, people were “so ready” and “incredibly psyched” that looks of expectant awe dripped from the eyes of designer-drug wimps and self-anointed tastemaker-elites alike.
After the concert, audience members appeared stunned by beauty: dazed, glassy-eyed, mouths agape attempting to smile in lieu of speech, which seemed drastically out of reach. Everyone nodding knowingly to each other, wide-eyed and catching their breath from the awesomeness just beheld. What I noticed from the strangers and acquaintances I talked to was an all-encompassing sense of wow-ness. But I don’t think they were moved by the music. I think they were materializing what I call philiothority: excessive love and reverence for authority, for the already-canonized. Making friends with authority, accumulating and spreading brotherly love for authority. The proximity to fame which a private, exclusive event like this makes available encourages this kind of blind piety toward cultural authority figures. People want the event to be special because attendance required such a high level of cultural or financial capital.
Three nights later, venerable saxophonist Anthony Braxton took the stage at The Broad, as the anchor of the programming for “Black Fire Sessions,” a series of events organized in conjunction with the traveling exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power 1963-1983. His duet with Jacqueline Kerrod on harp was one of five performances that took place over the course of the evening, often simultaneously and scattered in various places within the museum. Braxton’s concert was also sold out by the day of the event, but tickets were still available a few days prior, when I bought mine. Even though I’m a huge fan of his music––I decided, unequivocally, that I had to move to Chicago when I was 18, just to be closer to where his music came from, and the potential that he might return and perform––I was on the fence about whether to attend this event for months. For one, I didn’t want to support The Broad; secondly, the idea of their duet occurring “in the lobby” had a bad ring to it, causing me to envision coteries of patrons walking past the performance without giving the music much more than a passing acknowledgement. Ultimately, I decided I had to go, if anything for the sake of my sixteen-year-old self, who would be furious if I passed up such an easy opportunity to see a hero. Fortunately, the performance was significantly better than I had considered possible; unfortunately, the atmosphere was worse than I could have imagined.
I found a place to stand about ten minutes before the concert was scheduled to begin, off to the right of the stage, behind folks that had brought their own chairs. The music started and it was pure Braxtonian intergeological cosmosophist olympiarchery juggernaut crunching. I was glad to be there. His lines were harsh and zaggy, then fluttery and caressing. Then I realized I could barely hear Kerrod even though she was only fifteen meters away from me. Likely because the stage she and Braxton were on was set up directly across from the escalators on the ground floor, which were taking swarms of indifferent patrons directly to the third floor to catch the performances taking place up there. From where I was standing the concert sounded like it was taking place in the middle of a bank lobby, in the middle of the day, with a constant murmur of “portfolio” this and “with taxes” that. Truly: the transactions from the gift shop were barely less audible than what was happening onstage. But it was the conversations taking place among patrons––with no attempt to hush a voice––that were the most jarring and discomfiting.
Even though I could see very well where I was standing, I decided to change location and go into the main area, closer to the escalators, to see if the sound was any better. Braxton’s confoundingly personal logic continued to elevate my senses while the chatter around me never ceased. Artists that sang and danced in Jimetta Rose’s performance upstairs less than ninety minutes beforehand felt comfortable standing less than ten meters from Braxton and Kerrod––in the middle of the audience––talking at full volume. And they were right: it would have been pointless to shush them, because the muttering was coming from all directions.
I refocused on the music. Braxton’s signature Warne Marsh-tranquility-and-spice-meets-a-short-circuiting-microwave sound was assiduously intact. His constellations of harmonics mixed with purposefully breathy sputters and all of me was absorbed into the music, or vice versa, or both, or everything a billion times over. I got lost in the sounds. Then I heard the same sequence of sounds from a minute before, repeating somehow, like an uncanny auditory illusion. I rewoke from my concentration to realize the echo was someone making, posting, and evaluating an Instagram, Snapchat, or Facebook story. Oh dear. ‘Compartmentalize and…breathe,’ I told myself. And…listen…jagged…cascades…from the jugular waterfall…spritzed the eardrum. Exhale.
I’m standing five meters from the musicians and the crowd noise is louder than the music. I’m wondering what the point of this presentation is. No one who doesn’t already know Anthony Braxton is going to be engaged. Because they can’t hear him. I continue to swivel around the stage and discover that the area right where the escalator is plopping out patrons actually has less chatter than elsewhere. Not because these folks aren’t talking, but because they immediately have to find somewhere else to go lest they get plopped on by the next batch of escalatorers. Braxton, meanwhile, is moving among alto and soprano and sopranino saxophones, attacking the horns with eyes wide open, in that classic face-bursting bulge he’s always made when emphasizing every aspect of an aggressively or difficultly contorted sound. His eyes challenge the limit of their sockets: deep set, wide open.
I move to the far left of the stage, one hundred and eighty degrees from where I began listening, onto Kerrod’s side. In-between my bouts of anxious consternation with the poorly designed ergonomics of this listening experience, I’ve been discovering that Kerrod is a monster. She has been ravaging her harp, not with maniacal destructiveness, but with a nimble engineering of lighthearted evisceration and manipulation, like the needs of the moment are but a distended cephalopod away. She’s not hurting her instrument; she’s showing how her control over it extends into her not being in control over it, that the relationship between instrument and performer, at this caliber, is symbiotic.
The harp, in her hands, is like a combination of piano, doublebass, guitar, and santoor: opaque percussive thrums, with chords. She’s full of rattling hijinks, with stuff stuck in the strings and swiftly removed, plus punchy jitters of plateauing and plateauing and plateauing and then vertigo-plunging-into-abyssal-ravines. The brunt of the crowd murmur is gone over here. Or maybe it just dwindled because they’ve been playing for forty minutes and everyone has dispersed. I don’t care; I can hear the musicians and I’m up against the stage on the side trying to soak up everything I can, from the newness of discovering this phenomenal harpist (a significantly more distinctive and thrilling collaborator with Braxton than many of his much-heralded former students like Ho Bynum or Halvorson) to the Gemini-divergent paths of Braxton’s palisades around the score.
As it draws to a close, after more than an hour, I’m embarrassed about how tired I am, eventually giving up my good standing spot so I can go lean against the glass wall to the outside. Only my left ear is pointed in the direction of the music; my right ear is facing the flocks of customers huddled by the exits discussing their next rendezvous. Braxton is still standing and blowing his heart and mind out. But this isn’t standing music. It’s sitting-down-and-paying-attention music. It’s also dancing music. (Please someone have an Antony Braxton dance party, so we can all get down to the funky intellectuality: these strands are not divergent!) Seriously: standing still for over an hour listening to this music doesn’t make sense. The music is complex, wild, heart-racing stuff; it’s not the kind of thing you can stand still in front of for a significant duration and apprehend the emotional contours or heady layerings of with any grace. Speaking of grace: the ergonomics of this concert were never considered by the designers of this event. Demographics, yes; ergonomics, no.
A coincidental proximity of dates connected the experiences of these events in my body, but something much more dreary connects them to an emotional center of contemporary culture: philiothority. Newspaper-liberals and cultural aristocrats alike are attracted by exclusivity, fame, and authority, preferably inextricably intertwined in an orgy of ambiguous aura. It might seem counterintuitive to label the literati as lovers of authority, but it shouldn’t be surprising. When you are in a position of power, it behooves you to clap for what else is in power, in culture just as much as in politics. You can tell who is doing well in the world of culture by how loudly they clap for the already-well-recognized.
Even in environments of elite cultural performance – actually, especially here – audiences are complicit with a lack of criticality, which they seem to trade for access to the artist.
In regards to Riley’s performance, it was clear that he could have done anything on stage and everyone would have been mesmerized by the show. Riley’s desperate gasps at artistry were buried by the waves of self-congratulation rippling through the room. Grins of pride for the caché accrued by one’s attendance trumped any need for fervor from the music.
The problems with Braxton’s performance were primarily ergonomic, in that the institution putting on the show had no interest in honoring the music by creating a reasonable listening environment. But an adjacent strand of philiothority was on display here, one particularly native to jazz audiences, for whom the fact of seeing a person play is more important than seeing them play well. These audience members attend jazz shows like they are a checking a famous name off a list in an Excel Spreadsheet of Jazz Legends in the Sky (ESOJALITS). They don’t care that the environment made for the concert is disrespectful to the entire notion of listening; they are too eager to have seen a jazz legend, emphasis on the past tense, to mirror their own outlooks.
Rampant philiothority can be challenged of course, but it requires more effort than many folks want to put into their cultural experiences. Because it requires taking culture more seriously, “as seriously as your life” as Val Wilmer cogently put it. Otherwise we’re left like animals in a cage, accepting whatever nourishment comes our way with glazed-over glee.