A Refreshing and Innovative Concert: “Private Works” 2012

“While individual interpretation has always been a part of experiencing art, concert music has remained a public endeavor. At the same time, through the ubiquitous public use of headphones, there is an increasingly predominant private music experience in this country. Why not find a way to combine these two opposing paradigms?”(-Private Works 2012 Facebook event page.)

Private experience in a public setting is the main goal of an innovative music concert in its second year curated by composer/musician extraordinaire Scott Comanzo.  In short, this concert series aims to make the audience of the pieces on the program experience music individually, so that no two people hear the same concert, but also to combine this private listening and unique experiences in the public setting. Every listener hears a different concert, but they all hear it together in the concert space(s).

Last year’s concert featured a host of innovative ideas: a saxophonist walking outside of the concert space and (supposedly) wading in a river while playing, although only he can verify that; ensembles performing for an audience of one person; multiple concerts throughout the building (The Hartt School’s Fuller building); a piece based on smell; personalized experiences of hearing by manipulation of one’s earlobes, and the infamous Taste Durations.  Whether it was lightheartedly enjoyable or serious art, last year didn’t disappoint and this year expanded further.

This year’s composer in residence was Nat Evans (http://natevansmusic.com/), whose piece “Blue Hour” was a refreshing journey. We (the audience) met up around 7:30pm on last night’s windy, somewhat chilled spring New England evening.  We walked briefly to the middle of the University quad, a rolling green field darkened by the clouds and the oncoming night.  Each audience member had a personal listening device with the piece on it and listened via headphones to Mr. Evans’s music-concrete arrangement of found sounds, environmental/nature sounds, and instrumental sounds.  Free to roam, some of us lay down on the grass, some traveled to the outskirts of the quad, and others wandered aimlessly as this 41-minute sonic landscape allowed us to listen to the sunset.  We all experienced this piece differently because of our spatial separation and our headphones, but the consistent elements were the sunset environment (the performance space) and Mr. Evans’s powerful, serene, Zen-like, and at times understated (in the good way), music.  From sonic images of double stops on cello, birds calling, and objects such as chains, all recorded in high fidelity stereo, this provided a perfect closure to the day, and fit well with the waning light and the existential roaming of a field by oneself, listening to sparseness, subtlety, and bare sound.  It was truly an enjoyable experience sonically and personally, as we all could make whatever we wanted of the music and could roam freely with our ears, eyes, and bodies.  The piece Blue Hour is available for your listening via Soundcloud.

We then journeyed inside for the rest of the concert.  In the concert space we experienced five more pieces, each designed to give us a different experience than the person sitting next to us, while still being in the same room.  Evan Cogswell’s Transformations Whilst Traveling on a Road took elements from string quartet music he had written and moved the performers around the space.  This was accomplished by volunteers leading the performers slowly by holding their music stands.  The result was two fixed cellos (they couldn’t move, of course) with a sea of violins and violas walking slowly around, between, and in the faces of audience members.  This resulted in ever-changing personal surround sound for everyone, and produced quite an interesting effect, especially when the entrances of instruments were staggered and created a sonic image through the players’ current spatial locations.

Grig no. 2 by last year’s Private Works composer Zane Merritt involved the audience moving from place to place while being bombarded by quiet and differing click tracks played through a variety of spatially separated speakers.  The places to and from where we moved had various snack foods, and we were asked by the composer to observe our chewing on these various snack foods along with our footstep noises and the click tracks, thus generating a feel of different rhythms by ourselves, the other moving audience members, and the presence of the click tracks.  It was truly a piece concerned primarily with rhythm and the various sources of rhythm that individualized our experiences, and provided a nice twist on the idea of spatial separation when combined with chewing, walking, and the counterpoint of multiple audience members performing those tasks.

Impatience by the curator, Scott Comanzo, stole ideas (as any good composer does) from Mr. Evan’s and Mr. Merritt’s music, combining recorded sound through speakers, performers wearing headphones and presumably listening to something, and those performers whispering phrases they memorized into audience members’ ears.  This expanded on the concept of individualized collective experience by giving the audience members interesting made up adages to contemplate in their own mind before being whispered another adage.  The theme of the adages centered around impatience, boredom, and speed, and I enjoyed them in their uniqueness and tendency to provoke deep thought.

Threshold by Benjamin Mansavage Klein took a rather scientific but fascinating approach to individualized experience.  Since all of our ears have different thresholds for hearing different frequencies, he played back recordings of infinitesimally soft sounds, so that every person’s ears would hear different sounds (or not hear them) based on their thresholds, which are determined by biological processes (which I’m guessing are both genetics and personal experience).  He arrived at this method by noticing that his ears have different thresholds–that is, his left and right ears differ in their ability to perceive certain sounds.  He observed this phenomenon when one of the stereo channels on his computer stopped working.

Lastly, the second iteration of Taste Durations, a tradition started at the first Private Works, served as the conclusion to the program.  Four edible ingredients in 15 different liquid combinations were tasted by the audience members, doled out to them by the “Eucharistic Ministers”–the people dropping the liquids into your mouth or spoon via bulb droppers.  They ranged from the sweet, the salty, the acrid, and the watery in this combination of what may have been coffee, vinegar, salt water, and sugar (these are my guesses, as the harmless ingredients weren’t revealed to us).  While it caused some composition professors to leave around the fifth liquid when the tastes started getting more radical, it provided us with a Cage-ian take on music, where duration can be transferred to any method of observance: visual, tactile, or in this case, gustatory.  Thus, this taste test provided a way for us to experience musical duration.

All in all, this refreshing concert called Private Works offered experiences that one wouldn’t normally get, from staring up at the moon while listening to music in a field, to personalized surround sound, to tasting music.  I would highly recommend that you check out the works of all the composers on this program, and get to know Mr. Comanzo as well for an always unique (and thoughtful) approach to music and art in general.

Thanks for reading,


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