A few weeks ago my brother Howard went to a concert by the San Francisco Symphony, in San Francisco, where he lives. He was gaga about it and encouraged me to go when it came to New York. Howard told me that the concert featured Jessye Norman playing the typewriter, and I knew I had to be there. It was Tuesday night, 3/27/12, at Carnegie Hall.
The SFS is celebrating their centenary, and their music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, programmed a series of concerts called American Mavericks. This was the first concert in the series. The first half was John Cage’s *Song Books*, the second half was Henry Cowell’s *Synchrony*, John Adams’ *Absolute Jest*, and Edgard Varèse’s *Amériques*. The Cowell was exciting, the Adams was a bore (I fell asleep and didn’t really mind), and the Varèse was out of this world. But I’m going to write about the Cage.
The stage of Carnegie Hall was set up with all sorts of riff raff - - two grand pianos, various electronica, a few tables, chairs, a few poles with neon lights, and most significantly, three wooden huts. The huts looked kinda like the kind of storage shed where you put your lawn mower. The opening of each was covered with a white screen.
The three singers were Joan la Barbara, Meredith Monk, and Jessye Norman. La Barbara and Monk are pioneers in extended vocal techniques, both composers, both incredibly gifted and imaginative singers. Monk is also renowned for her use of movement (I would call it “dancing”, but - - well, why not). Norman is what I call a Fallen Wagnerian Soprano, a singer of a certain age who once tore up the joint singing Wagner, but ya know, you can only do that for so long, before the voice says, “OK, enough of THAT!” She’s now trying to rebrand herself as a jazz singer, with may I say unmixed results? I’d never heard her live, have been a fan for ages, and was on the one hand excited to hear her in the flesh (which isn’t as much flesh as it used to be) and on the other hand a little cowed at the prospect of hearing her at this stage of her career.
The piece is abstract in the extreme. The score, rather than giving pitches for the singers, says things like, “Leave the stage by going up (flying) or by going down through a trap door. Return in the same way wearing an animal’s head.” I was so looking forward to seeing what animal’s head would be used, but alas. Also no flying, no trap door. I should say that there was quite a lot of what any man off the street would call “music” - - tinkling on the pianos, and electronic sounds, and singing from the three singers. The mood was calm, whimsical, delightful. The best word to describe the performance as a whole is “dazzling”.
The piece started with La Barbara in the hut on the right, singing (pips at the top of the voice, groans at the bottom, sort of “John Cage writes for Yma Sumac”), with a camera filming her face and showing it in large close-up on the hut on the right. This went on for a while. Oh, I forgot to mention that the piece lasts for about 35 minutes. OK, so just when you’re about to have had enough of pips and groans, the shade started slowly moving up on the hut in the middle. It revealed Jessye Norman, posed in her regal manner, looking like Ariadne washed up on the wrong shore (and she was sublime as Ariadne back in the day, you must admit). She sang, and she sounded gorgeous. This is a great piece for her in the current state of her voice, because it gives her the freedom to sing whatever she wants.
One of the high points of the performance, one of the most beautiful, captivating bits of music, was the slow quiet whrrrr of the shades in those huts when they went up or down. I imagine that John Cage would be thrilled that I was captivated by that, that would be right up his alley.
Meredith Monk came on, wearing a darling little odd white coatdress, her signature long braids hanging down her back. She is the cutest woman on earth. She sings beautifully and makes darling use of movement. Norman came out of her hut and sat at a table in the front, singing, looking languid (for the record, she was wearing a slim white gown with a stunning muted blue linen cape). Later she moved to a table on the side, watching four men play cards, uninterested, but unperturbed.
One of the high points of the piece: La Barbara (who wore a japonisme grey print gown) put a transparency of the Carnegie Hall orchestra level seating chart on an overhead projector (remember those things?) and a transparency over that with two intersecting lines. The image was projected onto one of the huts. She moved the top transparency around and stopped on an aisle seat. She then took a present (a box smartly wrapped in red striped paper, with a red ribbon - - I wonder if that’s specified in the score) and brought it to the guy in that seat. Much chuckling from the audience, and it must be said that La Barbara gave it to him with a winning sweetness.
And then, the moment we’d all be waiting for - - Jessye Norman playing the typewriter! It was a manual typewriter, and of course her typing was being filmed and projected onto one of the huts. It would have been nice if it had been a tight close-up, and we could have seen what she was actually typing. Michael Tilson Thomas was onstage by this time, and stood at the table where Norman was typing and made a smoothie! Yes. There was a blender and some fruits, maybe some yogurt, and he made a smoothie. More chuckling from the audience. He tasted it, and seemed to like it. I’m sure it was fruity and delicious.