This past Sunday I had the exceptional opportunity to spend my day listening to live, world class and local music for a mere $20. Those who read this blog might not realize but this is something that, in my mind, is only possible in our great city of Philadelphia.
My day started with the last installment of Bowerbird’s American Sublime, a festival celebrating the late works of American composer Morton Feldman. I regrettably was too busy this past week to attend any of the other shows offered as part of the festival but was happy to attend this last concert even for the simple fact that it was completely free. This concert featured the FLUX quartet performing Feldman’s String Quartet No. 2, a powerful six hour-long piece. For the performance, attendees were invited to come and go as they please, sign-in and sign-out of the concert and bring their own pillow if they liked.
I admittedly know little of Feldman’s music other than listening to and analyzing his piece Rothko Chapel for a 20th century music history course in college. Despite my lack of knowledge on the subject, I knew attending at least one event from the American Sublime festival was an important effort for me to make. I decided to attend the first several hours of the performance, signing in just before the first notes were struck at 1:58pm and signing out around 4:45pm. Walking into the sanctuary at Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral I expected pews only to be surprised by a wide open room with the quartet set up in the middle, chairs spiraling out from their center. Soft lighting gave the impressions of candlelight.
Reading through the program notes gave a great guide for listening to such a patient, exploratory and beautiful piece. My favorite moments came when my attention would wrap around a motif, outlined in the program notes, and heard maybe an hour or so before. Staggered entrances by the four members of the quartet building into chords both strange and recognizable. The division of the quartet into three against one in many instances, sometimes in high, harmonic textures or in pizzicato answers to bowed clusters. The loudest moment I heard in the piece would be a normal metzoforte or average speaking voice for any average moment. Truly mesmerizing and within a beautiful space, made even more impressive. After dismissing myself around 4:45pm for a very necessary dinner break, I was struck by how harsh and loud the world outside the church sounded after listening to two-and-a-half hours of the string quartet.
After meeting up with my friend Lee for a dinner break, we headed to the Settlement Music School’s Queen Street branch to hear Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble, part of Ars Nova Workshop’s AACM festival. Having recently read George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself, I was thrilled to hear Mitchell perform in person. The concert began with a sparse, seemingly through-composed piece for the quintet of guitar, bass, drums, trumpet and winds. Listening, I was struck by my recollection that as much as the AACM, AEC or Roscoe Mitchell are associated with improvisation, the group as a whole is entirely invested in the art of composition. The piece was beautifully orchestrated with great moments coming from each member of the group. A drum roll with soft mallets on the floor tom fills out the space at one particularly perfect moment. After this long first piece, the concert moved through an improvisation with a guest vocalist, several shorter pieces and a surprise swinger with chord changes to close out. A specifically powerful moment came when Mitchell soared over a fast tempo set up by the rhythm section, circular-breathing his way through long, fierce phrases on his alto saxophone. An encore featured a short improvisation followed by a straight-faced, authentic soul tune called “the Bad Guys,” one more surprise to close out the evening.
After the concert, Lee and I quickly ran over to Little Bar to catch the tail end of a great art rock bill featuring local band Son Step and Brooklyn based In One Wind. We caught In One Wind’s set which featured interesting metric modulations, vocal harmonies and one more surprise, a Mariah Carey cover. My fear that listening to too much music in one day can push out the good and hold onto the bad did not come to fruition on this evening. Good, diverse music in one long day prevailed.
All three performances, including world class concert music, a living legend of modern music and creative, artful rock music for $20! For one, the price seems impossible, but when you dig deeper, it is apparent that only in Philadelphia could such an event happen. We are blessed in this city to have presenters such as Bowerbird and Ars Nova Workshop. Other cities would not have the space, money, public interest or institutional support to pull off such events. In larger cities there simply isn’t enough space for so much to coexist and in smaller cities there isn’t enough to offer support. Visit their websites, sign up for their email lists and give them money if you can. Greg Matthews, Mike Boone and Mike Mahoney along with the owners of Little Bar deserve a mention too (although they need to update their website), offering a smaller, intimate space for local music that respects the creative process.
I even missed a great performance Sunday afternoon at the Christ Church Neighborhood House Theater by Bobby Zankel with a cast of visual and dance artists! Amazing! Kudos to those that attended any two of these events. It was great seeing people I knew at both the Morton Feldman and Roscoe Mitchell concert but it was an even greater thrill to see people I didn’t know, but recognized attending both events.