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Institute for Advanced Study Opens Music Series With "A Different Kind of Concert Experience"

Nancy Plum

With the addition of some very aggressive research scholars to its roster, the Institute for Advanced Study has served notice that it is turning away from a cordial intellectual "think tank" to being a major contender among research centers. So it is only natural that its music series, led by Institute Artist-in-Residence John Magnussen, would be looking toward new and innovative forms of musical presentation. Ensembles nationwide are introducing audiences to new ways of hearing music, and many organizations have decided that music's latest evolution includes multi-media presentations.

In Friday night's opening concert of the Institute's second year Recent Pasts 20/21: An Exploration in New Music series, pianist Bruce Brubaker selected 20th century piano works rooted in the concept of minimalism (a style which stresses repetition and rhythmic patterns) combined with literature ranging from T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens to Franz Liszt and Arthur Rubinstein. This music and literature were further accompanied by visuals created by a camera outside the front door of Wolfensohn Hall capturing action by two dancers. Through this Pianomorphosis, Mr. Magnussen hoped to "meld together theatrical elements, conceived to explore an alternative way of experiencing pre-composed music."

The new 21st century experience began as soon as audience members entered the hall, with electronic music continually playing. This recording fused into Mr. Brubaker's live performance of Philip Glass' Metamorphosis Two, a work in which the repetition was via an interval in the left hand. This work was a continuous piano piece of approximately 15 to 20 minutes, with non-stop dexterity required of the pianist. Because of the volume of the live piano, it was often hard to hear the literature being read (a problem which persisted throughout the concert), making it difficult to hear whether the literature selections were linked by a common thread or where each different piece began and ended. Although it might seem difficult to find musical interest in a piece which is based on repetition, in Mr. Brubaker's hands, the Glass work was never boring and moved easily from one coloristic section to the next.

The two piano works which followed, John Adams' Phrygian Gates and John Cage's Dream also required the same dexterity, with very even playing, providing an effect of shimmering glass at times. The visual effect often seemed to be Mr. Brubaker's hands, moving at lightning speed across the keyboard in tandem. The Cage work had more variety than the other two, with impressionistic sections reminiscent of Erik Satie. With his blaze of technical facility, Mr. Brubaker convincingly shared the musical images of the pieces, cleverly ending the piano works with Alvin Curran's accessible Hope Street Tunnel Blues III.

The one piece of the concept that did not always seem to fit was the visual impression of the dancers outside Wolfensohn Hall. It was unclear if Michelle Smith and Marie Zvosec were presenting a story, commenting on the text (which might have been hard to hear at that particular point), or offering a third, contrasting element to the performance. The idea of placing a camera outside the door to the hall to capture random action was intriguing, and coupled with filming the inside of the piano while Mr. Brubaker was playing the Cage piece provided visual variety. The three elements – music, literature, and video – were clearly intended to be equal partners in the performance, but technology and acoustics may have made the piano the most important component.

These types of performances are intended in part to jar audiences from their 19th century traditions of come in, sit down, listen, applaud, as well as introduce new music in a more appealing way than a purely auditory format. Although a few in the audience weren't quite sure it was time to leave at the end of the concert, the concept of Pianomorphosis has a clear beginning and end, and certainly succeeded in Mr. Magnussen's thought that it "might raise more questions than it answers." In its innovation and originality, this concert was well in keeping with what seems to be a new era unfolding at the Institute for Advanced Study.


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