Attendees of Bach and Beyond were treated to an unusual selection of traditional piano compositions written by J.S. Bach and modern, experimental pieces performed by Professor of New Media and Music Michael Century in Studio 2 of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on Thursday, November 6 at 7:30 pm. This performance was part of a series of annual performances by Century. The back of the program explained the theme through quotes from Giorgio Agamben’s What is Contemporary? and T.S. Eliot; an alternative title for the performance is Bach, our Contemporary. Bach is contemporary with all composers and performers due to the timelessness of his pieces; through his masterful compositions, he exists outside the era in which he lived.
The first half of the performance began with the Bach suite Overture (Partita) in the French Style, written in 1735, one of the longest keyboard pieces ever composed by Bach. It consisted of eight movements of varying temperaments, from calm and composed to frenzied. In his masterful performance of this and other songs throughout the night, Century exhibited great passion in his physical movements. He performed with his eyes closed in intense concentration, his head shaking vigorously in ardor, his face contorting in expression, and his head reeling backward or leaning forward in intensity. Brows furrowed behind his wire frame glasses, frowning and occasional tensing his cheek muscles, Century’s rendering of the music was quite a moving performance. The audience laid completely motionless, with only the rhythmic rising and falling of chests to indicate life. Many closed their eyes, assumedly to focus on sound by eliminating the sense of sight, seeming to meditate over the music. A diverse audience in attendance, including the middle-aged, young couples, the elderly, and students, numbering approximately 60, were all united for the couple hours in admiration and consumption of Century’s work and that of the composers.
Overture was followed by Three Preludes and Fugues from the Well Tempered Keyboard, a collection of Bach’s three works from 1722 and 1742. This piece “highlights the contrapuntal intricacy, virtuosity, and expressiveness of this set, which commonly is considered only for its didactic purpose.” Early on, the piece was very fluttery in character, including many trills and rapid runs of keys. At other times, the piece took on a poignant character, full of staccatos. One section interestingly began with a one fingered, then one handed, very loud and staccato introductory passage.
The pre-intermission portion of the performance concluded with a shift in stage location and instrument to the accordion. From behind darkly shaded, mirrored glasses, Century gave his depiction of Keyboard Study 2, an improvisational piece written in 1963 by Terry Riley. The piece consisted of numerous variations on a four note theme of A flat, G, B flat, and F, which had a rather ominous mood, especially given the instrument used. Century repeated this theme numerous times, slowly mutating every so often, resulting in an evolution over the duration of the song. The other hand acted more creatively, performing more widely varied passages. Every so often, Century returned to the original theme. From the perspective of this reviewer, the song was reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s On The Run; in On The Run, a clamped cymbal repeats a short riff throughout the song while a synthesizer makes variations on that theme, interspersed with random elements.
The post-intermission portion opened with Century strolling into the room with his accordion in a somber state. Dream, written in 1948 by John Cage, had an entranced mood to it, a generally flat sound landscape, a legato articulation, as one would imagine a dream during restful sleep to be. Perambulating through the audience seating, pausing every few strides for a long while such that he walked around the audience once, Century seemed to temporarily give his attention to each audience member as he passed. As he reappeared at the front of the stage, the song died out and Century was joined by graduate student Ryan Ross Smith.
Smith and Century then performed the piano duet Interval, from For Times to Come, an experimental Karlheinz Stockhausen piece from his short involvement with the thought school of intuitive music, in which compositions are scored with text instructions, rather than with musical notation. Some instructions include “play single notes at irregular time-intervals, durations, and intensities.” “Each time one of your attacks coincides with an attack of the other player, transpose it somewhat in the direction of the hands of the other until your hands are superimposed.” The two performed blind in a seemingly random call and response. The set of instructions dictates that when some unlikely events occur, the song is to change and at some point an instruction to end the song is given. Century and Smith then began to hum the note of the other player and eventually ceased using the piano, only humming. The two, both still blind, at separate times, left the piano bench and wandered into disparate corners of the room, still humming the interval they had ended using. This portion of the concert presented a dramatic contrast to the Bach pieces of the first half; Bach’s pieces had much precision and order to them, all technically perfect musical ideas performed now exactly as they were almost 300 years ago, the opposite of the extreme randomness of Stockhausen’s piece.
The post-intermission section neared completion with Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari of 1986, which consisted of very short one to three note bursts of sound at random intervals, then stretched using pedaling to echo and ring through the hall, ranging from a quarter second to a few seconds in between key strikes, for the duration of approximately 25 minutes. Written less than a year before Feldman’s death, the piece was declared by Feldman to be one of “mourning.” Feldman and Cage were both pioneers of the indeterminacy movement in music, which created pieces that allowed for large variation in interpretation between performances through random elements specified in the composition, such as the written word directions of Cage’s Interval. Century concluded the evening by abruptly changing the mood, returning to the highly structured music of Bach with Adagio from Organ Toccata BWV 564, a lively piece of approximately 90 seconds in duration.
Despite the sometimes abrupt changes in mood, flavor, and character of music between songs, and as ridiculous as it may appear to one who didn’t attend the performance, Bach seemed to fit decently within the rather absurd collection containing modern, experimental pieces that challenged commonly accepted definitions of music. The assertion that Bach is everyone’s contemporary was at least evidenced, though not incontrovertibly vindicated. This performance was certainly a great trial of that seemingly self-contradictory statement. To his credit, such a trial demanded great mental stamina and versatility in the musical style of Century. The concept of defending a thesis through a musical performance is befitting of a tenured professor of music, one that added another level of depth to the performance.