Last night I was able to attend what has been one of my favorite venues over the past few years: the annual S.E.M. Ensemble concert at Paula Cooper Gallery. Just being there in the spacious white gallery space with the beamed ceiling arched like a cathedral was an experience: white, indirect lighting, all-in-the-open simplicity; no curtains, no theatrics; nothing unnecessary; a transparency of performance; carefully placed instruments at the four corners of the space; sounds of woodwind, brass, percussion, strings and some unobtrusive voices. A limited sound palette, extremely well chosen; remarkable performers handling unpredictable interaction and formless textures with quiet elegance.

I was delighted by the rendition of Marcel Duchamp’s chance music from the beginning of the 20th century performed on three instruments: flute (Petr Kotik), percussion (Chris Nappi) and celesta (Joseph Kubera). How the music was obtained – as Marcel never wrote the actual “music” but a set of instructions on how to generate the series of pitches that would constitute a piece – is a long story: as I understand it from the program notes, Petr Kotik back in 1974 took the time to create the Duchamp music apparatus consisting of a toy train, a funnel and a set of numbered balls each representing a pitch; the balls fall through the funnel into the toy train cars as they pass underneath. (this ‘apparatus” is now in a museum in Germany). So what we have here is a chance music interpretation based on a playful system invented by Marcel Duchamp, but there is a lot of Kotik in the texture and choice of instruments as well as the pacing of the piece.

The Duchamp was followed by a performance of Cage’s Solos and Fontana Mix (1958) where the music surrounded the audience: Jay Rozen on tuba and Petr Kotik on flute at the back of the space, Chris Nappi on percussion and Tom Hutchinson on trombone at the front and Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim, violins, on either sides. The spatial dimension of the music really came through in an intruiguing and refreshing way in this clever arrangement of Cage material.

The second part of the concert consisted of two pieces: For 5 People by Christian Wolff (1962) for flute, tuba, trumpet and two violins. Even though the instrumentation was related to the previous pieces, the pacing and dynamic of the material was quite different. The music of Christian Wolff is a staple of S.E.M. It was followed by John Mary by Petr Kotik (1972) with flute, trumpet, trombone and percussion; in addition, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson and soprano Martha Cluver sang text by Gertrude Stein and the on-again, off-again discreet voices fit right into the elegant nonclimactic musical landscape. The piece also relies on the unexpected as the order of the pages is not predetermined.

Petr Kotik wrote in the program notes:”Music is about nothing. It’s an abstract art at its purest form. C sharp, G sharp or A cannot possibly convey a message unless we invent it. Music is about sound, and sound does not communicate a message. It tells us ambiguously something about its source. Ambiguity, unpredictability and chance are essential in keeping music alive.” I think this was a chance for Petr Kotik to present 20th century music that he feels is important to keep alive, and I couldn’t agree more.

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