The line between art and performance has blurred, more and more, over the past decades. And while the conventional wisdom, speaking in broad generalities, is that classical-music audiences don’t like contemporary music, art audiences are supposed to embrace the new. Certainly new music has historically found a home in museums and galleries: think John Cage, or Philip Glass. Glass, indeed, came to Washington on Sunday afternoon to speak and perform as part of an exhilarating, low-key series of performances celebrating the opening of the National Gallery of Art’s renovated East Building.
The afternoon concerts on Friday and Saturday in the East Building’s auditorium offered disparate meditations on process and product. Friday, Vicky Chow played “Surface Image,” a 2014 concert-length piece by a young composer named Tristan Perich, written for piano and electronic music that emanated from a bank of tiny round speakers, like little gongs, ranged across the stage. The piece started with the appearance of minimalism, offering repeating, slightly shifting, rapid patterns of notes in both piano and electronics; but it pushed that basic language to powerful and even conventionally expressive heights.
The piece is a tour de force for Chow, who has to sustain subtle rapid playing while gradually, with control, shifting into a wide range of different sound words, at one point crescendoing into arpeggiated figures up and down the keyboard that sounded downright Romantic. At the same time, the electronics probed the expressive possibilities and limitations of computer sound, now functioning as a duet partner with the piano, now pulling in extra-musical allusions to evoke, for instance, the quiet, unrelenting beeps of an alarm clock. After one particularly effusive passage from Chow, the electronics devolved into a hum of feedback-like static, as if suddenly speechless, offering sound stripped of content. The constant shifting of both voices — and the startling effect on the ear when one or the other of them was briefly removed — ended up delivering a powerful blast of engaging ideas, as well as something aurally beguiling.
“Surface Image” is a musical work, in the traditional sense, however much it is about the process of playing it. Yves Klein’s “Symphonie Monoton-Silence,” which was performed on Saturday afternoon, is a concept. Klein, the 20th-century French artist, was not a composer per se; his symphony, written in 1949, consists of a single chord played for 20 minutes, followed by 20 minutes of silence.
Simple enough, but it takes some doing to perform such a thing, and some doing to sit through it. Petr Kotik, the composer and conductor who founded the S.E.M Ensemble and collaborated extensively with John Cage, was perhaps the best-qualified conductor the museum could have found to bring it off. “It’s like Beethoven,” he explained to the audience before the piece started; “it just sounds different.” And he led the New Orchestra of Washington and the 18th Street Singers in a performance that was very much a performance, not merely an execution of a directive, down to the decision to present both versions of the piece sequentially: the shorter version, with five to seven minutes of sound followed by 44 seconds of silence, as a prologue, followed by the complete, 40-minute-long version.
On Friday, a few people left during the Perich piece; on Saturday, during the Klein piece, no one within my line of sight made a move. There was barely even any coughing. Was it a function of the art audience’s willingness to explore an unusual experience, especially the part that involved sitting together in a long silence punctuated by the heavy breathing of sleepers and the hum of the air conditioning, becoming acutely aware of the space and the people in it? Was it the authority with which Kotik led the performers, who sustained their notes with real conviction? The answer: both, and more. I may not make an effort to hear this piece again, but not because I didn’t like it; only because I have little hope of hearing it done as well.