There’s a valuable study to be done, if it’s not been done already, detailing the vital, lively interrelationship between New York City’s experimental-music scene and its visual-arts enterprises. Reading history, especially thumbing through reviews of so-called “downtown music” performances during the 1960s and ’70s, you easily could surmise that the linkage between music and art was crucial. Fluxus and early Minimalism took root in Yoko Ono’s loft-cum-performance gallery at 112 Chambers Street. Philip Glass developed his signature style primarily in galleries, and gave his first formal public performance in 1968 at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers Cinemathèque. Artists like Laurie Anderson, Walter De Maria, and Christian Marclay slipped easily among various sonic and visual practices.
That cooperative spirit seems less common today, but certainly there are exceptions. Areté, a relatively recent arrival in Williamsburg, functions as both venue and gallery. Look & Listen, a festival launched in 2002 expressly to present new music surrounded by new art, returns in May 2019. Paula Cooper Gallery, an enduring concert presenter, earlier this month hosted two luminous performances of Quartet for Sol, Laurie Anderson’s tribute to Sol LeWitt, her friend and mentor—performed not just with Anderson present, but also with LeWitt’s first wall drawing on view nearby. The S.E.M. Ensemble, a Paula Cooper mainstay, returns on Dec. 19.
Across town on Madison Avenue, Lévy Gorvy Gallery takes music seriously enough to retain the services of an astute cultural program curator, Brett Sroka, himself an accomplished composer and trombonist. On Sroka’s watch, the gallery has presented ambitious performances by Peter Evans, Burnt Sugar, Alicia Hall Moran, and Maria Chavez, each linked in some meaningful way to the art then on view. And on Nov. 28 Lévy Gorvy complemented its current show, Calder/Kelly, with a performance by TILT Brass, eight of whose members dispersed among the gallery’s three floors and stairwell for the premiere performances of Vertical Octet by the Brooklyn composer and improviser Lea Bertucci.
From conception to execution, this event was a thoroughgoing success. The show, a mix of mobiles and stabiles by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) and paintings by Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015), is meant to commemorate the friendship between these two artists, who exchanged letters and artworks, and who spent some formative portion of their careers in Paris. In real terms, it was a conversation between Calder’s three-dimensional forms, whether solid and grounded or spindly and suspended, and Kelly’s planes of solid tone, whether monochromatic or with contrasting hues in proximity.
Searching for a composer similarly preoccupied by shape, space, and planes of tone, one could hardly do better than to choose Bertucci, whose recent works have pursued a similar focus on tones and overtones, on flatness and mobility, and on sonic volume situated within spatial volume. Many of Bertucci’s scores themselves approach a quality of visual art, and in 2017, with author and artist Michael Anzuoni, she oversaw the editing of The Tonebook, a gorgeous collection of graphic scores published by Inpatient Press. Peeks at some of the parts on music stands here before the performance started revealed a combination of conventional notation and graphic gestures.
To prepare Vertical Octet, Bertucci several months ago was given access to Lévy Gorvy’s three spacious galleries and tall, narrow stairwells. According to a handout distributed at the performances, while there she “recorded an electronic tone sweeping the full audible spectrum. This allowed her to analyze the acoustic spaces of the gallery and determine the most resonant frequencies and tonalities. In essence, she has tuned our richly resonant building as an instrument in its own right.”
How to approach Bertucci’s 16-minute composition was to some extent a matter of guesswork and reaction. Prior to the performance, a capacity crowd circulated throughout the building, sipping wine and admiring the artworks. In private conversation, Sroka explained that TILT’s trumpeters would be stationed on the topmost floor, its trombonists one flight down, and the tuba players at or near street level. He also offered a bit of useful advice: the music would start with the trumpets, and gradually cascade downward. (To judge by the throng on the top floor when the players synchronized and started their smartphone timers, I wasn’t the only one so advised.)
The trumpeters – Jonathan Finlayson and Gareth Flowers close to one another at one end of the space; Tim Leopold across the room – opened with long, uninflected, sustained tones, some of which soon began to ooze and dip like Dali’s watches. Plain, bright concords and microtonal intervals produced overtones that shimmered and shifted as you moved around the space.
The program note offered one more piece of practical advice:
The building’s stairwells serve as an ideal sound mixer, and so we encourage you to move slowly between the floors and experience the exhibition with your most open ears. Each of you will hear the piece uniquely, observing silences, sudden swells, and subtle harmonic shadings in the sonic reflections of different corners and expanses.
True enough: on perceiving the trombones some two minutes into the piece, I headed to the stairwell – passing by Bertucci, tucked discreetly into a corner – as I made my way past fellow listeners down to the second floor, listening all the while to how the sounds from above and below echoed and contrasted. Footsteps and rustling clothes, too, formed a part of the aural soundscape; happily, nearly all present observed the gallery’s request to refrain from conversation.
The sensation of gravity increasing as the robust trombones grew more assertive was uncanny, especially as the players – Jen Baker, Will Lang, and ensemble leader Christopher McIntyre – slid from low pitches to high ones, and played tones that rose and fell like pulses from a beacon. Perfect fifths assumed a roseate glow. Overhead, scattered trumpet notes twinkled like stars—or perhaps the more appropriate metaphor would be to view the trombones as the solid base of a Calder stabile, the trumpets as the smaller figures suspended above it.
Headed down to the ground floor at around the six-minute mark, I heard the tuba player Dan Peck holding long notes at the extreme top and bottom of his range while tucked into an alcove in the lower stairwell. Stepping out into the street-level gallery, another tuba player, John Altieri, seemed to be holding the entirety of Bertucci’s sonic architecture upon his shoulders.
At the work’s halfway point, the players all fell silent for roughly 20 seconds; when they resumed, players nearby focused on hissing breath sounds. High overhead, a mix of muted tones produced a sound that suggested the entire building had indeed begun to sing.
That at least some of the players also were moving became evident when I returned to the stairwell and noticed McIntyre positioned on a landing above me. Tucking into a corner, I stayed put for the remaining duration, listening intently as a blend of near and far tones somehow began to resemble an electronic sweep tone, or, conversely, the subtly variegated drone of an Indian tanpura.
Just before the conclusion, the trombones again grew restless, their growls oozing upward to glowing bursts echoed at a greater distance by glinting trumpets. The end came without fanfare or flourish; at a certain point the tones simply ceased, their echoes fading fast in the presence of so many warm bodies. A brief silence ceded to robust applause—and the sound of a wine glass hitting a concrete floor.
As billed, the piece had lasted just 16 minutes; I’d happily have lingered in its aural embrace four times as long, or more. I thought about trying to stay for the second performance, but ultimately decided that even one body unplanned for might upset the sublime balance achieved by Bertucci, her collaborators, and this vivid, splendid setting.
Lea Bertucci performs solo during Winter Jazzfest on January 14 at SoHo Playhouse, and presents a premiere with the percussion trio Tigue on January 24 at The Kitchen. Calder/Kelly is on view at Lévy/Gorvy through January 9, 2019.