Friday, January 27, 2006
Alexander Varty, Terry Riley, and Me
Damn that Alex Varty! I haven't gotten around to sorting out my feelings about the Terry Riley/Michael McClure show last week, and I certainly haven't had time to write a piece about it, and now here he is in the Straight giving it a review that pretty much makes most of what I was going to say redundant and forces me, since I foolishly went ahead and read the thing, to grapple with his perceptions of the show as well as my own. Out of my head, Varty! Where the hell is that notebook...
The audience for the show at the Chan Centre was mostly moneyed boomer types of a kind I find singularly disagreeable to be around. They're the type that turn up in droves for high profile avant garde shows and then leave at midway, because they expect to be "entertained" and often reject things that are too difficult or noisy. I generally find the manners of such audiences lacking -- they rustle their programs, whisper to each other during performances, get up and go to the washroom midway through a piece, and generally act like their perceptions and enjoyment are more important than a) the art being made and b) the perceptions and enjoyment of their fellow audience members. None of this would probably annoy me so much if it weren't for the fact that these people have more money, better clothes, and more access to the arts than I do; lacking the sense of entitlement that their social status affords them, seeing people like Terry Riley perform fills me with a sense of respect and humility that requires I be on my best behaviour, and so I sit there resenting their more casual attitudes as they distract me from the show and force me to notice them. I was relieved to see a few kids with dreadlocks and shorts and such, current counterculture types, at the Chan, too, since, even tho' I don't feel one with them, either, I at least don't feel quite so alienated. Plus generally such kids behave better than the boomers. (It was fun to count the men in my row and see how many of them had less hair than I do, though. 6 out of 10. I have more hair than Alexander Varty, too. The nearly bald must console themselves with such things while they can.)
After a somewhat effusive introduction, Riley, whom I'd interviewed the previous month for Nerve Magazine, came onstage and bowed, with his hands pressed together. He was well-dressed in a dark suit cut in an Asian fashion I lack the vocabulary to describe, and sat at his Steinway to begin with an Indian raga he'd adapted. He seemed gentle and happy, a peaceful man who smiles easily, and introduced the piece in his rather soft, soothing voice. As Varty says, this was one of the high points of the night; I'd been worried a bit after Atlantis Nath, which I find a little simple at times, that Riley, now in his 70s, was losing some of his ability to play, but his opening raga had all the complexity and richness as any of the material of Harp of New Albion (my current favourite of his recordings). I didn't notice, contra Varty, that Riley's voice "creaked" at any point, when he accompanied himself with droning, Indian-inflected vocals; his voice, when he sings, has a foggy, diffuse, but open and embracing quality, that seems simultaneously colourless and ecstatic, carrying the sound of wind over water -- a marked counterpoint to the voice of McClure, which is silver, liquid, smooth, calm, languid, and simultaneously controlled and relaxed. McClure took the stage after Riley's opening piece and also gave a Buddhistic bow and began to recite as Riley played. Occasionally Riley picked up themes from McClure and sang them himself. Not all of what either men did worked, but the overall effect, for me, was positive.
Here's where I need to simply play off Varty. He writes of McClure:
"This contemporary of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti looks extremely youthful for his 73 years but appeared distracted nonetheless, losing his place more than once and eventually walking off in what appeared to be a bemused state. Even McClure’s selections from his Ghost Tantras—one of the sacred texts of sound poetry—failed to connect, with Riley adding cocktail-piano tinklings to the poet’s world-weary patter."
Well, hm. I didn't think McClure looked particularly distracted; reading Varty, you'd think the man was senile. Why he walked off, I don't know -- a trip to the washroom? A glass of water? It didn't seem out of keeping with things, though, and actually, I enjoyed Riley's playing while he was away; he returned soon enough. McClure's readings weren't particularly intrusive -- his voice managed to slide easily into the overall texture of Riley's playing and provide a sort of anchor for the spirals Riley traced. His readings weren't particularly interesting, either, mind you -- and I didn't notice any of the "beast language poetry" Riley had promised, setting me up to expect something along the lines of Phil Minton or Paul Dutton -- but they didn't really negatively impact the evening. Perhaps I was better prepared for the off-the-cuff qualities of the night, since Riley had described both the recording (I Like Your Eyes Liberty) and the concert in such terms: "We just did it very spontaneously. It was done together in real time but I didn’t want to be following any kind of script with it so I told him, don’t tell me what you’re going to do, I’ll just play. Every time we get together I’m sure it’s going to be different, though he’ll probably read some of the same poems we have on the album. I really don’t even know what he’s going to do. We haven’t talked about it yet. "
All the same, it seemed to me that -- though McClure did repeat certain motifs several times -- speaking of "illusions like ice cream or sleeping bags," for instance -- he gave exactly the performance he intended to, offhanded as some of it may have been. I never had a sense that there was a "place" for him to lose... Perhaps because I was worried from the outset that he'd ruin everything -- I'm far more interested in Riley's music than McClure's poetry -- I ended up feeling that the first half of the night came off rather well. I must agree, though, about the "cocktail tinklings." Riley has moments which do not work in his recent playing, where he approaches on the one end a sort of lounge act -- there were a few too many "Beatniks go to Vegas" moments during the night -- and at the other end an entirely inapporpriate sort of boogie-woogie that jars one out of the rather contemplative state his playing usually inspires. These were the weaker moments of the night, as were (I agree, Alex) the "Uncle Jare" piece that Riley opened the second set with (silly lyrics, Terry) and the rather embarrassing beats that Riley tried to interject into the Dante piece. (Riley actually seems more at home on a piano than on an electronic keyboard these days; odd, since he's considered a pioneer of electronic music). The Dante piece was McClure's strongest moment, and though the Kerouac material (about the "wheel of the quivering meat conception" and all that California Buddhist mishegas) does seem dated, it didn't seem inappropriate, given who the men onstage were.
Here's where my notes run out -- or, more accurately, where the drugs kicked in and my notes stop being particularly useful or legible (though I like my comparison of the microphone stands bending into the piano to birds feeding from a stream under a rock overhang). Would, as Varty suggests, a more formal presentation of the material been more pleasing? Undoubtedly. Even though I think I enjoyed myself a bit more than Mr. Varty did, the night had its weak points that perhaps would have been ironed out of a more rehearsed performance. All the same, given that I was worried that I wouldn't much enjoy the show at all, I'm prepared to be forgiving on this point: it's fair enough for both Riley and McClure to feel they've paid their dues and relax a bit. At the end of the evening, both men seemed pleased, and smiled and bowed and hugged each other; they were clearly satisfied with what they'd done, and a few people stood up to applaud them (though not everyone). For much of the audience in the front rows, too, the evening seemed to work fairly well; after the break many of them were rustling with the plastic on their CDs and whispering about how impressed they were, as I tried to concentrate on the music...
My main disappointment with the night was that the artists didn't take me up on my standing offer to share a pot cookie with them. If you guys are ever back in town...