For those who like to neatly divide their musical listening into "abstract" and "programmatic" categories, the world premiere of a Rogelio Maxwell composition at the Washington Project for the Arts last night would pose something of a problem. It is neither.
Enigmatically called "A New Electronic," Maxwell's 57-minute ramble could equally well be titled "The Dinner Party," "The Ballet Lesson," "The Shopping Spree" or "The Catatonic Clay Sculpture." All names fit yet fail to describe it.
On one level -- the only level that makes any sense -- Maxwell's piece depicts a series of dreary little experiences. A couple eats dinner, a man tries on some clothes (the Emperor's New Ones?), one dancer teaches another dancer some elementary steps, and Maxwell scratches diligently at his cello with massive electronic reverberation and pre-taped choral accompaniment. The only prop that throws any light on Maxwell's interest in "super-realist sculpture" is the presence throughout the non-drama of a man clad in only a thin sheen of rapidly drying clay.
With the absence of comic, dramatic or musical contour, "A New Electronic" is stillborn. The simultaneity of events might remind one of Bruegel's painting "The Fall of Icarus," where humankind continues on its own way unmindful of an unfolding drama -- but there is no drama. One might equally think of paring one's nails.
Ultimately one was concerned about just about anything but the intrinsic merit of the work. And that's a shame. Maxwell -- quite possibly a talented composer -- tried something different and failed: not because he lacked ideas, but because he did nothing with them. If "nothingness" was the message, we might all have stayed at home.