The past three weeks have been nonstop: I completed grad school and am now in Boston for the New England Opera Intensive. A lot has been happening in the interim, but one recent night on May 1 has tugged on my psyche for the past 19 days. I'm referring to the Resonant Grounds performance I experienced at a private residence in SoHo, which was reminiscent of a 1960's happening, involving the audience in a unique and unusual setting, and incorporating aspects of performance art and audience participation rarely witnessed in current classical music performances. Resonant Grounds is the two-piece ensemble borne of the collaboration between pianist and composer Robert Fleitz and bassoonist David A. Nagy. Their stated mission is to "build communities and foster new collaborative relationships among performers, composers, and audiences through the practice, performance, and proliferation of contemporary classical music." The SoHo show I attended that May evening included 8 original pieces, 3 instrumentalists, an actress, and a projector.
But let me tell you how I happened upon this most idiosyncratic event. Being a live performance enthusiast, I decided on a whim to attend a Juilliard Student Composer's concert back in November. It was there that I first encountered the marvelous intensity of Robert Fleitz's piano playing. I was drawn into that evening's new music by his concentrated focus, technical precision, and unaffected artistry, as well as by the sense of fun his personality radiated as he electrically performed in exceptional purple socks. At the end of the concert, I was delighted to make his acquaintance -- he who with quirky corkscrew curls and ingenuous responsiveness, reminded me of a young Tyrannosaurus Rex-era Marc Bolan.
I attended his This is not a piano recital - New Works for Toy Piano, Harpsichord, Celeste, and Harmonium on December 17, 2015, and was downright impressed with the complete creativity of the program, which was not only musically exhilarating, but also fun and daring, incorporating as it did, new contemporary works, a variety of performers, rare instruments, and pre-recorded technological components that carried the drama and comedy of the night forward. The quirky magic holding all these elements together was Mr. Fleitz's personality, which with its committed musical focus and genuine charm, carried what might have been a supercilious Juilliard recital into the realm of entertaining musical art. Because of the enjoyment I experienced that night, I resolved that I simply had to see this young artist perform again, for it's rare that one encounters someone who is serious about classical music and also endowed with a great sense of humor -- he ended the show playing the theme from Star Wars simultaneously on a toy piano and a melodica while tapping a foot-bound tambourine in honor of the premiere of The Force Awakens, which took place that same night.
The Resonant Grounds performance on May 1st was special for a variety of reasons. First, the venue was set in a private residence in SoHo that immediately lent an artistic charm to the night, filled as it was, with original works of art, high ceilings, and windows that overlooked a beautiful New York street. Listening to a concert while sitting in someone's living room made the entire affair feel extremely intimate. Apart from the sofa and a few sundry chairs, the floor was covered with inflatable cool-aid-blue floating chairs that lay just 3 inches off the wooden floor and was something one might expect to see either in a pool or in a psychedelic nursery. This was a particularly lighthearted touch to an evening of contemporary classical music, as it imbued the space with an immediate sense of humor and greeted each anxious guest with a delightful levity.
Adding to the evening’s quirky aesthetic were those little square-cornered paper fortune teller things we made when we were kids that we’d ask silly questions to and receive beguiling bespoke answers — they’re called cootie catchers, in case you didn’t know, and they were strewn about the apartment, inviting the curious guest to pick one up and play before the program started. If you are still unsure of what I’m referring to, see the picture below.
After enjoying refreshments and social chatter, I settled into a yellow smiley blow-up chair at the foot of the grand piano where Robert Fleitz sat, while David Nagy stood beside him holding the bassoon. The performance began with the actress Jasminn Johnson engagingly asking a nonspecific audience member to interact with the cootie catcher. The paper fortune teller responded to the question about which piece of music to start the program, with an enigmatic answer: “random.” And so the two musicians whimsically decided to begin with Sonata For Bassoon and Piano (2015) by Louis Cruz, a three-part Resonant Grounds commission. Throughout the course of the night, Ms. Johnson engaged the audience with questions involving the cootie catchers that wove a collaboration between them and the program by determining which piece would be performed next, so that even for the performers themselves, there existed an element of chance. The other Resonant Grounds commissions included in the program were Paul Frucht’s 2016 Fantasy, Máté Hollós’ As Bassoon As Possible (2015), Black and White (2015), by Molly Joyce, and Julie Zhu’s Hair Pieces (2016).
Julie Zhu is both a visual and musical artist based in Brooklyn. Hair Pieces is about her mother’s obsession over her daughter’s appearance, and is an extension of a performance Zhu did last fall about her mother’s hometown in southwest China in which the artist shaved her head while delivering a monologue. Zhu saved the hair and embedded it in clear resin, which on the evening of May 1, was superimposed onto musical staves by a projector in front of the audience. This superimposed image of hair on musical staves serves as the score for the piece, which is meant to be interpreted by a single performer who understands the language of music notation, and is compelled to interpret the score through the use of improvisation.
At the time of the performance, I was completely unaware that Robert Fleitz was improvising, as he played both the melodica and toy piano simultaneously — I readily thought he had memorized the piece. But there he sat with us on the floor, cross-legged, staring intently at the squiggles and dashes of black hair dispersed across musical staves on the wall in front of us, just underneath Marilyn Monroe — a painting I believe may have been an original Warhol. The music felt like a labyrinthine counterpoint composed of classical, aleatory, video game, and conversational elements — variegated things that come out of the mind of a daydreamer. I watched as his hands nimbly quivered, hinging on notes that sought to remain, but inevitably changed course. In some hypnotic, sensory way, this was my favorite piece of the night, because its music entwined me in a perceptual spell as I was seated where I could clearly see and hear the artist at work, garnering eloquent glimpses of the sensation of traveling through his musical brain with him as he wove the entanglements of line and space we saw projected into the wall into sound and thought.
Another piece that struck me was Robert's original, The Edge of What Can Be Loved, composed for the harmonium, bassoon, and harp (played by Emily Levin). Unlike the Indian harmonium, which is much smaller and played by pumping air manually into the instrument with the hands, this evening's harmonium looks like a keyboard, but one at which the player sits at a bench pumping air into the instrument with a foot pedal. While the two "breathing" instruments, i.e. the harmonium and bassoon, sang out a recurring motif reminiscent of Desdemona's haunting Willow Song (which she sings just before being murdered by her husband), the harp contributed a graceful veil of sonority that matched the harmonium's sustained notes. The harp's theme wove through the piece, evolving as it took on misshapen variations of itself, refracted and dispersed like light rays, into what Fleitz called "layers of chaos and recovery by the bassoon and harmonium." Each of the three voices continually experience points of euphoria, communion, estrangement and collapse. The piece depicts the complex boundaries people construct between one another in relationships, the title coming from the Anne Carson prose-poem Autobiography of Red, which reads:
‘How does distance look?’ It is a simple direct question. It extends from a spaceless within to the edge of what can be loved. It depends on light.'
It is rare that one experiences an evening of new music composed almost entirely for piano and bassoon. For me actually, this was a completely unique experience. The combination of David Nagy's resounding woodwind grounded in Robert Fleitz's pointallistic piano created an individualized aural environment akin to a subconscious surrealist landscape. I was excited to witness remarkable classical musicians bring contemporary music to the public in a disarming, imaginative way. To keep up with the duo, check out the Resonant Grounds website.