I will be in no rush to spend another 70 minutes “actively listening” to another bassoon ensemble, at least not one that spans over 60 minutes in length. To be fair, before attending Michael Gordon’s Rushes on Saturday, September 15 at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, I had never had the misfortune to experience bassoons unaccompanied by any other classical instrument. My complaints are not directed at the musicians themselves, who seemed masterful artists in their own right and who certainly possessed extreme focus for the duration of the piece. On the other hand, the composer of the piece failed to engage and excite the audience for the duration of this piece, which one could succinctly label “long-winded.” The next phrase that comes to mind would be “cacophonous hypnosis.”
The key element of Rushes was the cannon (for those unfamiliar with the musical term, a repeated phrase staggered across the individual musicians), which was effective in both providing a highly logical and highly dull listening experience. For a piece making its world premiere in an “experimental” performing arts center, I found nothing highly unique or innovative about this commonly used musical device, other than the fact that it was specifically utilized by bassoons, an instrument that is not commonly showcased individually in classical music.
The monotony of the instrumental cannon was occasionally broken up by the synchronized wailing of the entire ensemble. One listener I spoke to at the conclusion of the performance likened these random interludes to the sounds of dying animals. Another compared the whole of the piece, which was supposedly modeled to liken the swaying of grass reeds, to have similar entertainment value to “watching grass grow.” Several others could not offer their opinion: they fell asleep 15 minutes into the piece. In short, I found the performance boring, so boring that I frequently checked my watch and took count as various audience members excused themselves mid-show. If I had wanted to behave less professionally, I would have challenged the woman sitting in front of me to a match of timed Sudoku. She passed the time playing it on her phone less than 20 minutes into the piece.
Was Rushes the worst performance that I have ever heard? No. Did I find it to have anything even remotely creative to offer to the realm of performing arts? No. From my point of view, it is performances such as this so-called “experimental” (can a concept so tired still be labeled “experimental”?) undertaking that downgrade the value of modern art in general. After all, an excellent piece should inspire a listener to contemplate on what they have heard for hours after experiencing a performance. It should not inspire a listener to check her watch every five minutes from the time the performers sound their first notes.
The first few notes of Michael Gordon’s Rushes washed over the audience like a magical wind through the reeds of wind-swept plain. Unfortunately, much like the spring breeze it resembled, the wave came and went, the magical moment as transient as a spell.
Indeed, the performance was rather spell-like, as every so often, I was pulled into the piece only to realize that it was once again a repetition of the previous musical phrase. Gordon had aimed to paint a landscape to allow the audience to relax and to enjoy. Why then, did he only focus on a single patch of land? The performance lacked any sort of dynamic or variety that could have showcased the piece’s talents.
As you may have noticed, this leaves out the abilities of the performers. To them, I simply say, “Bravo!” If nothing else, the piece showcased the fortitude of the musicians to maintain their pacing for an hour and their dedication to the instrument.
The composer is onto something, a sort of magic that can only be wielded by the bassoon. However, in the remaining 50 minutes, that magic is lost as it flows through the reeds. The piece quickly devolves from watching the wind ripple to watching grass grow. However, I do not regret having seen this performance, for it is the case of bland music that we come to understand and appreciate the intricate and complex in all its various forms.