Monday, January 19, 2009

You look like what I hear

On Saturday evening I made my annual trip to hear the Boston Modern Orchestra Project's "Boston ConNECtions" concert, which celebrates their long relationship with New England conservatory, and features primarily Boston composers' work. The concert featured several premieres, including of Michael Gandolfi's shimmery, fun new bass trombone concerto, Peter Maxwell Davies' striking bass (!) concerto, and a new piece by William Thomas McKinley celebrating some of Boston's notable musical citizens. (The George Russell movement, of course, ended on the #4) They also debuted a student commission, an annual event, this year Matti Kovler's "Jew Among the Indians (Cokboy)", a dramatic setting of a Depression-era poem about a Jew living on a Navajo reservation.

I honestly don't know what I thought of the piece one way or the other, because I couldn't get past seeing Mr. Kovler performing as the narrator in his own piece. He looked like he had just fallen out of bed- he wore a sweater with the collar rumpled up haphazardly, blue jeans and sneakers. His hair looked unkempt, his face like he hadn't shaved for three days. He looked so bizzarly out of place in front of the (generally very stylish, I might add) all black-clad orchestra. My date for the concert had the same reaction.

I wouldn't mention this, and I know maybe it's not fair to single Mr. Kovler out, but I've thought about it several times over the past year. I've gone to a show jazz, classical and otherwise, when paying sometimes substantial money to see a performance, and the performer dressing and acting on stage in a way that never acknowledges it. While I've never said anything, I've definitely noticed, and it's always I think subconsciously biased me against whoever I'm seeing. We're paying to see a performance, dammit, not just a string of notes, and I'd appreciate at least a modicum of effort to acknowledge that. Rock acts from The Clash to Coldplay to whoever certainly are very aware of that, no matter what they look like, and lots has been made over the years about how jazz musicians from Miles to Mingus to Duke to the Art Ensemble present a performance.

I'm not saying we should all go Young Lion again and wear suits to a $10 gig again- I would certainly hate it- but when I perform I think about what I wear for either fashion, or theatricality or both. If I'm soloing with an orchestra (which, of course, hasn't happened) I take that into account in how I dress. (If I'm going to or playing at Lily Pad or the Sidewalk in New York, obviously, I care a lot less) If he'd dressed in a way that acknowledged the material but wasn't "dressy", I know I'd have a different reaction, and might have heard the piece better.

While I'm grateful that the mores of concert performance have gotten a lot less stuffed shirt, have we gone too far the other way in the way we present music. In jazz and improvised music, has this been a detriment, a boon, or something else? Or am I getting too cranky in my old age? Thoughts/rants/feedback appreciated.

UPDATE: See the comments section- clearly my reaction was not universally shared, and there was much more to it than I saw.  Had I been able to go to the pre-concert talk, or seen Mr. Kovler afterwards, I might have responded differently.  He was going for something that I didn't get.  As I said, I am more interested in larger issues of performance presentation that this one case, and maybe this was the wrong example to use.  More tomorrow.  


rkirzinger said...

This obviously wasn't clear to you, but the hope (evident to me, but I knew the piece well) with Mr. Kovler's nebbish costume was to evoke the poet Rotherberg's wandering (among the American Indians) Jew, just as the yiddishisms and so forth in the poem place the narrator in a context. Too bad! Mr. Kovler doesn't dress like this every day. Perhaps it should have been even more exaggerated.


pat said...


I appreciate your clarifying this- as I said, I know it's a little unfair to single out Mr. Kovler. I could've seen this at a jazz show a week from now and written a similar post. It crossed my mind afterwards, especially given the "fish out of water" tone that dominated the piece, that that might have been his aim. The problem was, I suppose, that I've seen it done seemingly without thought so often that in this case the impact he was going for was blunted. I think

I should've also mentioned that his narration was NOT casual at all, but urgent and tremendously vivid. Again, for me furthering the disconnect.

My hope here is to start a conversation about current "performance practice", and how to straddle the line between not alienating audiences by being too unapproachable, OR by almost being too casual or blase about performing. I could have been clearer as well. I know for me, in this case if it were more exaggerated, I may have gotten it. (Maybe I was just slow)

rkirzinger said...

Yeah, I completely know what you mean. Ironic that your post was triggered by this, but your point's well taken.
And forgive me, it looks like I mistyped "Rothenberg."

jrobbins said...

Kovler's symbolism jarred with the realism of the entire setting. The work is clearly influenced by Artaud's Theater of Cruelty (see Kovler's bio online). Thus the "half-realistic" costume of a "misplaced" "fish-out-of-water". Or a"jew-among-the-indians" if you wish.

I was genuinely moved.

By the way, he was wearing an elegant black suit during the pre-concert talk and reception.


NN said...

FYI, I too was at the reception and Matti was telling people that he'd chosen his apparel based on what Rothenberg wears in real life.

Laura said...

He surely had the guts to appear the way he did in JH. I saw MK performing a chamber version of this in Jordan Hall last year, that was quite an experience; also because of the lighting & staging. The whole thing btw is on youtube. check it out might change your attitude. p.s. I also heard him talk about the costume during reception and he mentioned he never met Rothenberg-the costume idea was just his take on the poem (which I am still digesting)

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis said...

I can see that you first immediate reaction to Matti Kovler's outfit prevented you from actually understanding the piece - and getting a real feel about what it is. This type of epidermic reaction can affect just anybody. I hope that since then, you have been to listen to the piece again and hear the words of Jerome Rothenberg's poem.