Christina Kubisch: Electrical Walks

Monday, August 12, 2019
Christina Kubisch, Electrical Walks
DiMenna Center for Classical Music

Penn Station is a place I try to spend as little time in as possible. I say this having trudged there every Monday at 6am for several years to catch the Amtrak Northeast Regional Train 190 to Boston. So it speaks volumes that sound-artist Christina Kubisch made me sad to leave Penn’s subterranean burrows as she led me and three other participants on an hour-long walking tour of Midtown. Add to that it was 3pm on a muggy Monday in August, and this accomplishment was nothing short of miraculous. Kubisch has done Electrical Walks in cities worldwide since 2003; this was number 76, and the first in New York since 2006.

Using custom-made headphones featuring copper coils that transduce and amplify electromagnetic waves, Kubisch invites us to listen to the hidden voice of the city: its electrical grid, anti-theft systems, LED displays, TV screens, ATMs, RFID parking-garage scanners, vintage bodega-window neon Miller Lite signs, cell-phone signal-booster towers, subways, trains, and on and on. What is omnipresent, but usually silent, suddenly becomes roaringly audible.

The walk was full of surprises. A patron at Bank of America informing us that the ATM we approached to listen to was out of service, but that there was another branch around the corner. And in The Shops & Restaurants at Hudson Yard New York (full name given for maximum eye-roll inducement), the sales clerks at Coach and Kenzo looking mildly alarmed as we bobbed in and out of the potent electromagnetic fields generated by their anti-theft systems. Clearly, this was behavior they hadn’t yet encountered from the largely tourist clientele. (Or, perhaps, from the new tenants of nearby Abington House—one of Hudson Yards’ residences—where alcove studios rent for $4,500 a month.) Kubisch, kindly, informing the suited security guards here and at Penn’s time-warp of a Kmart what we were up to, and that they might consider standing outside the system’s “line of fire,” so as to avoid any potential long-term exposure effects. Turns out, Kmart’s antiquated anti-theft system sounded vastly superior to Kenzo’s new, and nearly invisible, system. In general, I found this to be true: my favorite screen in all of Penn was not the wall-length LED display at the end of the newly-renovated waiting area on the 8th Ave side, but the old-school Amtrak/NJTransit Departures TVs housed behind thick, shatter-resistant glass. They remind me of the TV I grew up playing Nintendo on, and generated a rich, warm drone.

Kubisch’s work reorients our bodies in relation to the built environment, playfully impelling us to—and I use these words precisely—dance and cuddle with the city. The urge to twist one’s head, to hunch low and jump up high while passing a large LED display, to caress the screen of an ATM with one’s cheek in order to access a faint layer of a dense sound-texture, is irresistible. There is a strange kind of tenderness and intimacy between human and non-human this work generates. My physical relation to an ATM is typically highly prescribed: I stand motionless in front of it and touch it with my finger in habitual ways—it’s functional, not an object of play. With the Electrical Walks, however, suddenly the entire city becomes one giant instrument, and we, as both audience and performers, are invited to play it. We see differently; we move differently. The familiar—even the despised—become sites of possibility. I had, hardened Manhattanite that I am, dismissed Midtown as pure drudgery; I came away having loved being there.

Klaus Lang: bright darkness

Saturday, August 10, 2019
Klaus Lang, bright darkness
Ensemble Nikel
Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, 7pm

An exceptionally beautiful August night in Manhattan: low humidity, sunny, the temperature only just reaching 80° earlier in the day, then falling; on the street, everyone seemingly enjoying themselves. I rode a CitiBike west and south from Greenwich Village down the Hudson River Greenway to Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park in Battery Park City, arriving shortly after the performance began.

A small, low temporary stage in the middle of a square lawn enclosed by wide wooden benches. Four players: mallet percussion, electric guitar, keyboards, and saxophones. To the west, the esplanade and the Upper Bay of New York Harbor, with Jersey City in the distance. To the east, Gigino, a white-tablecloth Italian restaurant full of tourists drinking wine and gazing out at the Statue of Liberty, the waiters raising the open patio’s sunshades with their long awning wrenches as the sun set. To the north, the Museum of Jewish Heritage and picnickers on its lawn, with the World Trade Center, towering above, in the distance. And to the south, Pier A with its Harbor House, a bar full of well-heeled, young, and almost exclusively white people (finance types?) and some more formal, smaller party on the second-floor balcony—a corporate event, a rehearsal dinner?—with Governor’s Island in the distance. Out on the water, the usual menagerie of yachts, ferries, sail boats, schooners, jet skis, the Circle Line, the Classic Harbor Line, the Liberty Island cruises, and some delightful tugs and barges running close to the Battery, perhaps headed down to Red Hook.

The piece, which lasts approximately an hour, is to be performed at sunset, which occurred at 8:01pm. The golden hour: long shadows. (I should be outside in open spaces more often.)

Music that is gracious toward its surroundings; that doesn’t compete for primacy/attention (Cage).
More than just the conceptualist’s “window” or “frame” (4’33’’)—profound though that is—a piece of fairly traditional music, with clear structure, fully notated score, tight coordination between players, etc.

Music that’s content to be submerged or engulfed.
Unlike Inuksuit (John Luther Adams), which, despite being an acoustic work and having a much larger sonic/spatial footprint, still seems to suggest an auditive orientation in which the listener prioritize/seek out performative sound against a background of environmental sound. Blending and heightening of environmental and performative sound occurs there, too, but simply because there are sometimes very loud sounds in Inuksuit—drums, sirens, etc.—the music has a more oppositional, or foregrounded relationship to its surroundings.

Music that approaches complacency/lull, then shifts, causing an attentional jolt (Feldman).

Music as ambience, noise, stasis; a place you inhabit, operating on a slower, natural time-scale (Pisaro).

Many lovely coincidences/synchronies:
A party boat approaching in the Harbor, its deep dance bass dropping at just the right moment, the dark rumble of Lang’s quartet effecting a kind of storm-cloud-over-blazing-sun sonic combination.

The Pier A clock tower chiming on the half hour between 7 and 8pm, complicating the polyrhythm of a just-begun pulsed section. (The clock, a ship’s clock donated by the founder of U.S. Steel, was installed in the pier’s tower in 1919 as a memorial to those who died during World War I.)

A little boy walking a puppy that couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old in circles around the stage, the puppy bounding toward each reclining audience member it passed. Families speaking various languages; kids running laps on the wooden bench, their approaching and receding footfalls vibrating the bench in a slow, spatialized loop. Many people chancing upon the performance, briefly filming it, and continuing on.

A tall, fit man wearing a Brigham Young shirt taking a breather from his run down the Greenway, listening for several minutes while scrolling on his phone, then getting up, turning to us, and saying, “Am I missing something?” As Lang says in his program note: “What we perceive is very often not what our senses are suggesting; in fact it is our notion of something shaped by concepts. We are impeded in realizing our sensory perception by a learned mechanism of our mind.” (A reminder to just take it in, without expectation.) This man clearly brought his concepts about how concerts should be to the experience, and this concert wasn’t gelling with them. It’s far too easy—and ungracious—to disdain the uninitiated; this man simply needed some context—the low volume is intentional, the music is designed to blend with its environment.

The dramatic reveal of a large sightseeing ship emerging from behind the pier—seen, not heard. Lang’s music providing a kind of acoustic mask—like a fountain in a walled garden—surprisingly blocking out most ambient noise (traffic on the West Side Highway, boat engines, water splashing against the Battery, etc.). The feeling of a soundtrack, or watching a movie. (I saw things I thought I should be able to hear, but couldn’t. And heard things I didn’t think I’d able to.)

The speaker array (four outward-facing speakers at the stage’s corners, four inward-facing speakers at the lawn’s corners) created an acoustic “cocoon.” Walking outside the electroacoustic perimeter, one was much more aware of ambient sound.

Intriguing spatial disjuncture: often, I could hear only amplified sound, not live sound. Even though I was close to the performers and could see the percussionist’s mallets striking the bars, I could only hear the sound as reproduced and amplified by a nearby speaker (separated, spatially, from its source). A kind of double audition: simultaneously close and distanced.

The music itself lovely: mainly two sections—a rumbling dense texture, full of many notes/runs and occasional saxophone multiphonics (of the quiet, Weiss/Netti category), and a still, descending scalar section, with pleasantly strident microtonal quasi-unisons between guitar, marimba, and keyboards.

Afterward, I wear my bike helmet while walking out of the park; a young man asks me where my bike is. I tell him I’m headed to the CitiBike docking station. He complains they don’t have the electric bikes anymore; I tell him the electric bikes were malfunctioning—the breaks were engaging spontaneously, mid-ride, throwing riders over the handlebars. (This happened to someone in my family, who now has metal throughout their elbows and arms.) I pass several white “ghost bikes” along the Greenway—reminders of the danger of cycling in this city. A friend’s partner was killed in an accident while cycling just a few weeks ago.

Parting advice: don’t eat too much of that quart of Trader Joe’s ice cream you purchased after your invigorating bike ride home right before you go to bed, or your stomach will hurt.