Two at EMPAC
Last week was a good week for cutting-edge experimental music.
The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center in Troy hosted avante-garde multi-instrumentalist John Zorn on Tuesday, and a trio of avante-garde musicians on Thursday: violinist Sarah Neufeld, percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and saxophonist Colin Stetson.
Zorn was the only performer I’d heard of, and I was only vaguely familiar with his music. But I tend to like avante-garde music that mixes genres such as jazz, rock and classical, especially when performed live. In fact, I’d argue that the best way to experience this music is live, because it can be harsh and jarring and difficult to tolerate as background music, while a live performance can provide a sense of the performer’s virtuosity and stimulate the mind by thwarting one’s expectations of what music is all about.
Zorn performed a rare solo set on the alto saxophone, playing for about an hour. His music often felt like a sonic assault, full of honks, screeches and the rhythmic clicking of keys, but there were more conventional stretches, too, where Zorn demonstrated that he’s much more than just a ferocious noise-maker who likes to provoke people into questioning whether what he produces can really be considered music at all.
I didn’t know much about Zorn heading into the concert, but I had some idea of what I was getting into — unlike the man seated in front of me, who got up and left about 10 minutes into the performance. (I doubt Zorn noticed — I suspect people have been walking out of his concerts since the early days of his career.) I stayed through to the end, and found the music fairly mesmerizing, although it’s difficult to say exactly why. Certainly I admired Zorn’s skill, and the unusual sounds he created. But neither of those things would matter if Zorn wasn’t also adept at evoking a variety of moods. Some of those moods were disquieting, while others were calming, but they were all fairly memorable.
Neufeld, Sorey and Stetson all performed solo sets. Neufeld is a member of the alternative-rock band Arcade Fire, while Stetson performs with a number of acts, including Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. The Arcade Fire connection intrigued me, and might explain why I finally broke down and purchased tickets, but I wasn’t expecting to hear a bunch of Arcade Fire songs. Instead, I was treated to an experience similar to the Zorn concert: compelling yet often discordant music, distinguished by moments of beauty, tenderness, aggression and robust physicality. Stetson, in particular, made playing music look like an intense work-out: He performed most of his songs on a massive bass saxophone, which isn’t something you see every day, and was probably worth the price of a ticket alone. (Having played saxophone in high school, I can’t imagine lugging something like that around.)
Neufeld was a strong opener, wowing the crowd with a pummeling violin performance. She was followed by Sorey, who played a lovely piece on the piano, then moved to a kit with a lot of cymbals (I couldn’t see that well from where I was sitting, so my description might be entirely accurate), and then to a more traditional drum set. Sorey seems to come out of the avant-garde jazz tradition that includes masters such as Ornette Coleman, but his use of audio recordings and strange noises, such as scratching and tapping, made his music seem like something from the future, or possibly the soundtrack of an especially cerebral science-fiction movie. Stetson’s performance was probably my favorite, most likely because of my saxophone bias. His music ran an emotional gamut, swinging from off-putting and abrasive to strangely compelling and catchy, and back again. By the end of his performance, Stetson looked exhausted, and I felt pretty worn out myself.
Both shows were challenging, and as good as each performer was, the music they made was not everyone’s cup of tea. It was too difficult, too weird, too uncomfortable. Many people probably wouldn’t even think of it as music. I don’t have much to say in response to that sentiment, except that each set was music to my ears, which is all that really matters to me.
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