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Not By Punk Alone

By John Keegan

Steve Reich

Thursday, April 25, 2015

Gund Hall, Harvard University

After last week's ear whoopin' it seemed that a more genteel social calendar was in order. Two of modern music's great iconoclasts saved the day. Avant working classicist Steve Reich and Avant multi-media vox popster Laurie Anderson spoke at Harvard last week. Reich spoke at the Graduate School of Design.

In addition to wondering why a minimalist modern classical was invited to speak at the School of Design, Reich's introduction drew parallels between music composition and architecture; form, structure, space, repetition, environments and aesthetics. Reich then introduced and played WTC 9/11 as recorded by the Kronos Quartet. He explained the piece was created for tape, and a mix of three live and or recorded quartets. It's comprised of three movements. All three based on voice recordings. The first movement used the taped voices of first responders. The second used the recorded voices of WTC neighbors - Reich has a home four blocks from ground zero. The third movement used the recorded voices of volunteers who, in keeping with Jewish tradition of Shmeerah, sat with the bodies of the dead to comfort their souls until the (delayed) burials. The not so easy listening party was followed by an entwined discussion Q and A.

Reich was comfortable and engaging. His responses and digressions were matter of fact and practical. The piece, WTC, began with the tone of a rotary phone (what's that?) left off the hook: an F note that persisted through the movement. When asked if the music preceded the vocal recordings or vis-a-versa Reich said the piece was built off the melody of the vocal recordings and that the digitally elongated last note of the phrase drove to the harmonic motion of the piece. Reich noted that the elongation was an old idea that originally couldn't be accomplished with the technology of the day.

The Q and A was lively and diverse. Someone asked who his "thought partners" were. He liked the phrase and discussed the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein not being stuck up by his brilliance and the New Jersey physician poet William Carlos Williams who stayed in NJ. When asked about the role of technology in his music he stated that for him the musical idea drove the search for the technology. He asked three young composition students how they would describe their work. The influences ranged from early 20th century to Reich himself to Kendrick Lamar. Reich thought that this breadth of influence was fantastic. He said that when he was at Juilliard in the early sixties there was only one answer to the question - Schoenberg and the 12 tone system. "No harmony, no rhythm, no melody, no folk roots". If you didn't fall in, people "laughed behind your back or in your face". Given the topic of the piece, someone asked Reich if he considered himself a political composer and if composers had a duty to be political. "Absolutely not", he replied. "The only duty of a composer is to create the best possible music they are capable of."


Laurie Anderson

Friday, April 26, 2015

Paine Hall, Harvard University

The lecture is sold out but the rain leaves a few open seats in its wake. Anderson is, as you might expect, a story teller. She's bright, orderly, charming and engaging. She begins by telling the audience about her latest project; a film that involve the death of her dog. It seems way too Psych 101 but one can't help but wonder if the dog is somehow a stand in for the recently departed Lou Reed.

Anderson describes herself as a multi-media artist. She suggests that those in the audience consider the same - because it gives you "freedom to pursue your interests and avoid the thought police". She free associates to a concert for dogs she performed in Australia. She pantomimes the big dogs up front with drool and droopy faces who "seemed to really like it".

She tells a story related to the film. She dreams she inserts a dog baby into her womb so she can give birth to it. Everyone in the delivery room knows that it's a dogbaby but no one says anything. "The dreamer tells the story". She talks about the value of a proxy voice to an artist. Anderson uses vocal, visual and costume doppelgangers in performance, specific pieces and installations. She gets "tired" of her own voice. Using other voices gives her freedom to say and do more than she can using only her voice.

She segues into a moving story about being hospitalized as a child. She uses it to emphasize the ephemeral nature of memory and the importance of what is consciously or unconsciously omitted as we tell our stories. She uses her alternative deep voice. She nods to Burroughs about it in the Q and A. The voices of the people we are closest to "are always with us".

Anderson shows screen shots of some of her projects. She discusses how her failures led to discovery. She didn't know anything about making music and that "maybe it was a good thing" although it didn't always make her "the best collaborator". Her successful collaborations with NASA and a group of nomadic throat singers where shape shifting affairs that seldom went exactly as expected. She professed her love for broken things, ugly beauty, fractured images, visual and musical loops, ideas that start as failures, reusing objects - "do we need more shapes?" As a solo performer Anderson felt a responsibility to provide the dialectic or conflict in a performance. She discussed one of her first performance pieces. She stood on two blocks of ice, in her ice skates, playing the violin. The piece ended when the ice melted.

After the ice melted, Anderson was asked how she chose which projects to work on. She responded, "Will it be fun"? Her parting advice, "We are here to have a very, very, very good time. The rest will work itself out."

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