Something remarkable happened a little just over a month ago: For one day in August, and likely for a day or two before and afterward, Petr Kotik had a hit record. That unlikely state hadn’t come entirely from out of the blue. In 2016, the Helsinki-based record label Frozen Reeds caused a stir when it released a recording of Femenine, a 73-minute composition by Julius Eastman, played live by Kotik and his S.E.M. Ensemble on Nov. 6, 1974 in Albany, NY. That archival set contributed to a welcome resurgence of interest in Eastman that has yet to subside.
In July 2017, President Donald J. Trump signaled in a series of rash tweets his intention to bar transgender individuals from serving in the military. In response, Bandcamp, the influential and increasingly civic-minded music sales web platform, announced that on Aug. 4 it would donate its share of all sales for 24 hours to the Transgender Law Center. As had been the case in a similar fund-raiser for the ACLU in February, many artists and labels responded that they, too, would donate all profits for a day, or more.
Among the first of many new releases rushed online to bolster the August sale was another Frozen Reeds offering: Eastman’s Joy Boy, a nine-minute work recorded during the same 1974 concert that had yielded Femenine. A generously low price and favorable media buzz resulted in something unforeseen and noteworthy: For at least a day and maybe more, the best-selling “experimental” record on Bandcamp had a young Kotik peering out intently on its front cover.
I’ve been thinking about Kotik a lot lately, especially since I returned from the Ojai Music Festival in June. While there, absorbing a vitalizing mix of music by composers representing varying generations, stylistic practices, and ethnicities that music director Vijay Iyer had assembled, I asked myself whether any other classical-music institution had pursued a programming directive so open, bold, and inclusive.
The answer, of course, is yes. Groups like the American Composers Orchestra and the International Contemporary Ensemble have made tremendous strides, welcoming and serving a broader range of creators and creations than do most larger institutions with bigger budgets. But the example that came to mind most readily was the S.E.M. Ensemble, for which broad-minded programming has been a persistent condition since Kotik, a flutist and a largely self-taught composer and conductor, formed the group a year after moving from Prague to Buffalo in 1969.
That Kotik came to mind so readily in Ojai, where I witnessed superb accounts of works by Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and George Lewis — representatives of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the revolutionary collective that arose from the Chicago avant-garde jazz scene during the late ’60s — was no fluke. In April, at the Bohemian National Hall in New York, I’d seen Kotik’s ensemble present works by exactly those composers, in what was one of the most exhilarating concerts I will attend this year.
The same program included world premieres by Christian Wolff, an esteemed protégé of John Cage and now an éminence grise at 83, and Petr Bakla, a fascinating Czech composer not yet 40. A Jackson Mac Low rarity, a handsome, uncharacteristically succinct 1964 trio by Kotik, and a group improvisation completed the bill.
The performances were vivacious and committed; the experience was humbling and inspiring. I wondered why these same works weren’t being championed elsewhere. Why couldn’t Trio Things, a substantial quasi-improvised piano trio by Abrams, fit neatly into a Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center bill? Why wouldn’t Wolff’s noble Five Songs suit the New York Philharmonic? The answer resides in Kotik’s courage of his convictions, as well as his faith in the audience he has built steadfastly, which here filled a sizable hall on a rainy night.
There was a momentary breakdown during the Wolff premiere, when the baritone Thomas Buckner — another heroic champion of modern music — found that the pages of his score were out of order. Somehow, that minor blemish pointed toward the human dimension of Kotik’s quixotic venture: presenting rigorous modern music at a furious clip with presumably limited resources, striving to break down boundaries, celebrating elder artists alongside emerging talent, never coasting.
A similar snafu occurred in June during a concert at Le Poisson Rouge marking Kotik’s 75th birthday, when coordination slipped noticeably during an account of Two Pages, an intensely concentrated early work by Philip Glass. Yet even if the music faltered in its cool, even surge, its presence on this program signified Kotik’s enduring alliance with and advocacy for fellow innovators — a point acknowledged by Glass’s presence and participation in a series of freewheeling onstage conversations with Kotik, George Lewis, and Alex Mincek, moderated by the violinist Pauline Kim Harris, an S.E.M. Ensemble member.
That concert, which overshot its allotted time considerably yet still felt brief, also included a nimble improvisation by Lewis and Mincek, with a piano activated by Lewis’s interactive programming. Harris contributed and conducted the evening’s encore: a Cage-inspired full-ensemble roil incorporating strains of “Happy Birthday.”
Here, the evening’s highlights were Kotik’s compositions. Ensemble renditions of two Gertrude Stein settings, There Is Singularly Nothing and extracts from the sprawling opera Many Many Women, demonstrated the style for which Kotik is known best: a spare, stark minimalism redolent of plainchant. Older and newer pieces showed fascinating contrasts: The oboist Jacqueline Leclair offered a joyous rendition of Etude 7, a buoyant, leaping work from 1962, and the Momenta Quartet gave an electrifying account of Torso (2011-13), an alternately serene and frantic string quartet that showed Kotik breaking new stylistic ground even now.
A festive (and, again, well-attended) evening swung between poles of rigorous music-making and playful, at times playfully awkward repartee. The same held true in Untamable Kotik, an admirable 50-minute Czech Television documentary that preceded the concert. A mix of plainspoken explanation, intimations of struggle and sacrifice, and instances of whimsy (sometimes unintentional), the film provided a generous portrait of an invaluable artist. Wider circulation would be a gift to its subject, its participants, and its would-be viewers alike.
I can’t claim to have found absolutely everything that Kotik has done persuasive. I suspect one reason I never got around to writing about the S.E.M. Ensemble performance I attended at Paula Cooper Gallery last October, which featured a mix of works by Kotik and Alvin Lucier, was that I couldn’t make peace with assessing on a deadline William William, Kotik’s 2016 dance opera choreographed by Matilda Sakamoto, based on one fleeting encounter. The performance sounded solid enough, but I couldn’t parse to my satisfaction a relationship, or intentional lack of one, between the music and motion.
The remainder of that program, though, was as visionary and satisfying as anything Kotik has produced, both in its inclusion of recent and new works by yet another elder statesman of the experimental tradition, Alvin Lucier, and in its intent to resonate meaningfully with Sol Le Witt’s Wall Drawing #368 (1982), on view behind the performers.
The connection was in one sense utilitarian: Le Witt had supported S.E.M. and worked with Lucier. But it also was implicit in the way disparate idioms cohered meaningfully: how, for instance, Lucier’s muzzy harmonic distortions in Navigations for Strings (1991), the handwritten score of which Lucier had presented to Le Witt as a gift, were echoed in the illusory ripples of Le Witt’s brightly painted diagonal stripes.
Those same lines then visually reinforced the long strand of wire that conjoined the violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris in Love Song (2016), an obsessively throbbing duo Lucier conceived after witnessing Robert Wilson’s stark, distanced staging of the love duet in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.
Watching these excellent violinists — who are married, and perform together as String Noise — circle each other slowly, concentration intense and focus rapt despite the taut, resonant filament that that kept them apart, was a mesmerizing experience unlike any I could recall. Once again, I had been a beneficiary of Kotik’s unswerving belief in the creative potency and expressive power of rigorous contemporary art.
As I write this, Kotik is in the Czech Republic overseeing yet another of his quixotic tiltings: Ostrava Days, the biennial workshop and festival for contemporary music he established in 2000, for which he founded the chamber group Ostravská banda while also molding the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra into a potent new-music ensemble.
Quite possibly it’s because of Ostrava Days business that we’ve yet to learn what Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble have in store for their 2017-18 New York season. In one sense, though, the details hardly matter: Kotik has spent a lifetime showing us exactly what he stands for, and what we all have to gain by paying attention.
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