I have been away from New York for a while and this was my first chance to go to the new Stone, housed at The New School. It’s a bit weird going to New York’s premiere artist-friendly venue for experimental music—where every show every night is $20 and all the money goes right to the artists—and having to walk through a security entrance with ID swipes. “I’m here for The Stone,” the person ahead of me told the guard, seemingly not a first-timer like me. “Me, too,” I mumbled. The guard didn’t look up.
The old Stone was really nothing more than a low-ceiling underground room in Alphabet City. The new Stone has large glass windows that look out onto 13th street, which invite passers-by to put their face close up against the glass and gaze at the strange silent sight of musicians in performance. For years now, the structure of the programming has been to make The Stone a single artist’s stomping grounds for one week at a time, all year round. Artists plan for months in advance for their Stone “residencies”. They often try to represent as much of their various musical activities as possible. Others sometimes make the week into a kind of huge jam session for themselves. Still others use the week as a chance to test out new ideas, materials, and formations. Matt Mitchell seems to be electing more for the latter option, this week.
The concert I went to Wednesday night was called “Chamber Music”. As in a poem called “Poem,” Mitchell was telling us that he’s stepping very self-consciously into what is a cordoned-off space. The music that we heard shared numerous elements with Mitchell’s other more well-known projects: hyper rhythmic complexity and play, particularly rapid changes in the perception of tempo and pulse with similar material, an angular melodic profile, and a harmony filled with small intervals of seconds, often arising out of complex counterpoint. But other elements were not present: the music was scored for standard classical instruments instead of with bass, drums, and horns; there was no improvisation throughout the whole evening; and the music was not nearly as loud and chaotic as much of Mitchell’s other work.
But the most significant difference from his band-based work that I felt had to do with rhythmic synchronicity. A track like Dadaist Flu from the album Fiction is exciting in part because of the Mitchell and the drummer Ches Smith are able to improvise following the elaborate rhythmic form of the written material and remain in sync the whole time. The seeming freedom of their improvised lines repeatedly lock together in rhythmic unison. But the other night, rhythmic asynchronicity was on full display. The music, when at its best, made me wonder how it is possible to achieve a feeling of being “locked in” while never actually being in rhythmic unison.
The piece that did this most effectively was the opening duo for violin and piano. Similar material was often shared between the two instruments. When occurring simultaneously but out of sync, it caused just the right amount of melodic overload. Just slightly more information hit the ears than could be processed moment to moment, creating a pleasant “rub” up against our own perceptive faculties. This was the most attractive aspect of the piece.
The form was fractured: sectional, but all cut from the same larger cloth. This had the effect of focusing the listening attention on the moment. An alternate ordering of the events would have produced a different piece, but we didn’t necessarily have to be aware of the narrative being told.
One way that Mitchell created another kind of variety was through his use of the pedal. His sound on the piano is somewhat monochromatic. A variety of color by means of his touch on the keyboard is not what draws one in to his playing, particularly. But his pedaling contributed a surprising degree of textural diversity. Often the hands made similar motions on the keys and it was only with relatively quick changes by the foot that the sound world shifted.
Next was a work for solo percussion that left me a little bit puzzled. I did not really sense what was holding the piece together. I couldn’t tell if bits of it were ironic or not. Last on the program was a piece for cello and piano that was similar in its aims as the opening duo. It was not as strong as the violin duo overall due mostly to sonic and textural reasons. The thin sound of the violin against Mitchell’s piano writing worked very well; but the adjustments made to the piano writing for the cello, here, produced a less transparent texture overall. Still, the piece presented many exciting moments.
I’m not entirely sure how new these developments are for Mitchell. I overheard him say afterwards, “I was only worried about myself, really,” with regards to nerves and how he had felt. He taped and turned his pages in a way that only someone who has been to jazz camp as a teenager and not the European classical music festival circuit would: groups of four single-sided pages taped together, which he threw on the floor to his left amusingly quickly. I hope to hear more of this from Mitchell soon.