domingo, 18 de fevereiro de 2018

Climbing a flight of sounds

I cannot pinpoint what exactly drives me so strongly to write about Joana Gama's concerts. It may be the beauty of her sound, the repertoire she chooses to play or the often defying circumstances she accepts to perform it. Her rendering of Satie's Vexations was a recent, hard to describe tour de force that I will forever recall.
Today's concert at the  National Pantheon in Lisbon was the new challenge to which she courageously submitted herself.
First off the magnificently selected and carefully ordered works. Satie's Quatre Ogives could very well be the National Pantheon official hymn, instead of that totally unacceptable Beethoven Muzak played through a despicable PA before the concert, maybe in an effort to "set" the mood.
I am also sure that Satie (had he been able to finally listen to his organ-piano today) found this particular version, played at this particular site, the very epitome of this work.
Cage's 4'33" was played exactly as originally requested by the composer without any tricks or in any strange versions. The National Pantheon, I am positive, never sounded like this!
Feldman's Palais de Mari closed the program. Satie's beautiful Quatre Ogives sketched and probed the place. Cage's classic responded echoing the still sounding acoustic signature of the Pantheon, while the shadow of the Ogives chords kept roaming the room. Feldman's Palais made use of all these collected materials and combined them. The listener could finally be able to find a narrative in all this, were one willing to listen.
The National Pantheon has a special significance, being the burial ground of some major figures of Portuguese history, along with some controversial others. There is a general atmosphere of respect albeit not of a religious nature. By enhancing its acoustic qualities in this non-sacred but also certainly non-profane way, this concert created an unexpected link between the elements that permanently inhabit this space and those that happened to have crossed it today.
Finally, Joana Gama has chosen to exhibit her qualities in this unquestionably challenging atmosphere, demonstrating yet again, apart from her obviously outstanding musical qualities, a courage and stamina that seem to be her trademark.

(foto A.ClaudiaB.Cruz)

segunda-feira, 15 de janeiro de 2018

Running a marathon while standing still

I first came across Satie's Vexations in the early 70s, through an article John Cage wrote about a concert he'd organized, where the piece was played in its entirety. It was I think a world first. I remember his remark that throughout the entire 24 hour or so concert, there was always at least one person in the audience.
All these years later I finally had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Vexations. Portuguese pianist Joana Gama played it at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.
It is very difficult to find words to describe Vexations. One could mention Satie's ever present humor, both in the musical content, in the structure and in the idea of repeating a simple musical phrase 840 times. Humor is also present in the way the upper chords seem to smudge the intriguing theme, hiding it and thus making it even more intriguing.
But the musical aspects are probably the least interesting characteristics of Vexations. To me the most distinctive aspect of this piece is the unusual time and listening experience it provides. Few composers dared dealing with time and listening the way Satie did in this piece written in the 19th century...
I am not sure if Satie was at all familiar with Max Plank's quantum theory, let alone Niels Bohor's interpretation of it, when he wrote Vexations. But the idea that a particle doesn't have any properties until it is observed and measured applies perfectly to Vexations. 

Time becomes real. The experience of listening to Vexations, to its simple musical components and to listen to each repetition in sequence, reveals time, builds time. It does not measure time, it produces time.
Simultaneously it provides a fascinating listening experience. In the performing space, Vexations slowly becomes a soundmark (to use R. Murray Schafer's terminology) after a number of repetitions. Against it the dynamics of surrounding acoustic environment evolve. Every sound, every whisper, cough, cell phone ringing, child running or chair dragged is measured against the "acoustic reference" that the piece becomes after a while, thus determining the balance or lack of it of the particular acoustic environment in which the piece is being performed.

In time with each repetition, a quite delicate set of acoustically mediated, ever changing, relations is produced. No repetition is the same however immaculately it is performed. As it was the case here.
Vexations functions, in a way, like an installation. But it is based on the tension building fact that it is being performed under daunting conditions by a human being. It is this seeming contradiction that provides such a unique experience.
If it is difficult to find words to translate the experience of listening to Vexations, it is virtually impossible to praise successfully and to adequately express my admiration for the performer. 

Performing Vexations is like running an ultra marathon. It involves the exact same physical strength. the same discipline, the same courage. 
However instead of running, the performer has to keep as still as possible, stay focused and exert an unbelievable amount of restraint during the 14 hours or so that the piece lasted.
I will never be able to adequately praise Joana Gama or express the admiration that she deserves.