A strange thing happened recently. On Sunday June 5th, after writing Zero Point (a post, in part, about avant-garde art and the challenges audiences may face in “getting it”), I attended a concert at the Royce Gallery, a small venue in the Mission District. It was an evening dedicated to the much-neglected viola—or, perhaps, to the much-maligned violist—curated and produced by experimental composer/performer Pamela Z. This particular installment of Z’s “ROOM: Avant-Chamber” series was called “Longer Burning.”
In case you didn’t get it, the title of the event comes from the punchline to a joke that starts, “Why is the viola better than the violin?” Yeah. . . because the viola burns longer. Get it? The Facebook page advertising the event used a photo of a viola sitting on top of some burning logs in a fireplace, though Pamela Z assured us in a comment on the event page’s wall that “No violas will be harmed in the making of this concert!”
This, for better or worse, was not to be the case.
Starting the program was Charlton Lee, violist and founder of Del Sol String Quartet. He performed three solo pieces, the first of which—Edmond Campion’s “Melt Me So”—was written for solo cello, violin, or viola with a live interactive computer accompanist. The computer takes input, in this case from Lee’s viola, and analyzes it to enhance “temporal, spectral and gestural details of the performance.” (Program Notes) It was fascinating to watch this novel interaction between musician and computer.
Lee’s second piece, the charming “Calligraphy “by Iranian composer Reza Vali, Lee explained, explored Persian tuning, rhythm, and form. His third, local composer Matthew Cmiel’s “Insistence,” was a thoroughly modern piece, though nothing that ventured too far “out” there. In the program notes for this last piece, Cmiel (presumably) writes: “It is really fun to ask someone to go insane for you on stage in front of an audience. This piece comes from Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony portrait of Stalin, from Mozart’s Queen of the Night Aria in The Magic Flute, Berg’s title character throughout Wozzeck, and Stravinsky’s elders in The Rite of Spring.”
It would not be the only time Stravinsky’s Rite would be referred to that evening.
The second solo violist to perform that evening was JHNO (pronounced juh-no) AKA John Eichenseer, who describes himself as “a nomadic musician, recording artist, and music technologist.” He has written music software for Bjork, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, and Thomas Dolby and has performed with Todd Sickafoose, Scott Amendola and Nels Cline, amongst others.
I had never heard of him before this event. Charlton Lee of Del Sol and Kronos Quartet’s violist Hank Dutt, who was performing in the second half, were the main attractions for me that evening. The program did not give much information about JHNO’s piece, other than it was “Untitled” for viola and electronics.
When the performance began, a viola sat on the floor while Eichenseer, a tall, long-haired young man, fiddled around on a computer. It’s difficult to remember much, given what unfolded afterwards, but there was some kind of amplified feedback system between computer and viola and the effect that was generated was more soundscape than music per se. (I say this recognizing, of course, that what counts as “music” is a complex question, especially when the avant-garde is concerned.)
While it seems to be unpopular to say this now, I was not especially enjoying Eichenseer’s performance. I worried a little about my friends, one of whom had just arrived the day before from Thailand. I had dragged them to this concert, so I felt some responsibility for their enjoyment and I guessed that they were most likely not enjoying this piece much either.
Not long into the performance, an elderly couple in the front row (I was sitting behind them in the third) started to become visibly agitated. Eichenseer had picked up the viola by this point, but he was still not “playing” it, in any traditional sense of the word. Its movement in space and Eichenseer’s occasional plucking seemed to affect the noise that the computer was generating. The old woman in the front row fussed with her purse and the couple looked like they were about to walk out. But they didn’t.
Instead, the old man began to applaude loudly, shouting, “Bravo! Bravo!” It was clear he was trying to stop the performance, perhaps hoping that others in the audience would follow his daring lead. But nobody did. The protest eventually stopped and the performance continued.
A member of staff approached the couple, whispering something to the old woman. Audience members looked around at one another with vaguely amused faces. While many of the performances I attend—both dance and music, it seems—involve at least one person in the audience walking out, I had never been to a concert where someone had actually tried to stop the performance because he didn’t like what he was hearing. It was bizarre, to say the least. I wondered again what my friends must be thinking of it all.
Now Eichenseer had the viola tucked under his chin and was playing it with a bow. After a short time, the old man raised his hands for the second time and began to applaud, repeating his shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” Eichenseer seemed to increase the intensity of the sounds he was making in response to the heckling. Tension in the room mounted. My sense was that people wanted this old dude to shut up, but nobody knew what to do.
As the old man’s heckling continued, Eichenseer suddenly stopped playing and, like a petulant teenager, threw his viola to the ground and attempted to storm off the stage, though he got tangled in the black curtains that covered the side door. After a few seconds negotiating the curtains, he disappeared. A loud slamming was heard and we all sat there completely stunned by what we had just witnessed.
Meanwhile, the amplified feedback from the viola continued. I and others had to cover our ears, such were the noise levels. Eventually a member of the audience—a local musician and friend of Eichenseer—walked on stage, knelt down and slowly turned over the mangled viola, finally ending the feedback. That image is indelibly etched in my memory. The broken viola, the mess of strings, the horrible sound, the palpable tension in the room. I had never seen a musician destroy his own instrument and I never expected it would be a viola at a chamber concert. It was a very sad moment, indeed.
Another member of the audience, a young man, got up from his seat, announced that he was also a violist, and called for a “real round of applause for the performance” we had just heard. In solidarity with the artist whose performance had been so rudely and abruptly brought to and end by this old geezer in the front, the audience clapped and clapped. Pamela Z announced that this was the end of the first half and requested we return after an intermission.
A chorus from the audience then started to confront the old couple, telling them they ought to leave, that they had destroyed everyone’s else enjoyment, that if they didn’t like something they could just go. The elderly man defended himself, saying, “I am a violist and this was not music. It was a desecration!” One man in the audience responded to this, repeatedly telling the old man that he was nothing more than “an asshole.” Again, the old man defended himself, restating that he was, in fact, a violist, to which one woman, possibly Joan Jeanrenaud, rebutted, “Violists can be assholes too!”
The couple was not moved in the slightest by any of this and stayed, unapologetic, for the second part of the performance. I exited to the lobby to drink some wine and calm my nerves a bit. Discussion with the couple apparently continued inside.
Outside, others had the same idea as me. We were definitely grateful for the wine that was being served liberally. People tried to make light of the situation and joked around with one another to relieve the stress we all felt. My Thai friend, who was feeling quite upset by what she had just seen, was assured that this was not normal for performances in San Francisco.
Already by this point references were being made to the 1913 opening night of the Ballets Russes’ The Rite of Spring, where a riot broke out in the theater in response to Stravinsky’s score and (what these music folks never seem to remember) Nijinsky’s groundbreaking choreography. Let me make it clear: what we had just witnessed was nothing compared to that, either in terms of the artistic innovation of the performance or the violance (pardon the spelling!) of the reactions, but it was as close as any of us had ever gotten to it and probably ever would.
We returned to the house for the second half, which featured Hank Dutt playing three pieces, the first a solo piece by Nils Bultmann inspired by Bach’s cello suites, the second a classical Hindustani composition by Ram Narayan, and the third, “Waiting” by Jeanrenaud, a multi-layered solo composition, originally written for cello, created using live looping. Eichenseer, to his credit, reappeared onstage to accompany Dutt in the Narayan piece, this time playing a droning tambura with Z on shruti box (something akin to a harmonium).
Z then did a mesmerizing solo performance using voice, samples, and MIDI processing. The finale was a group improvisation for voice, electronics, and violas with everyone except Eichenseer, who could not participate for obvious reasons.
The next day, everywhere I went friends were talking about the “Viola Riot.” The story got told and retold and I heard many versions from people who had not actually been there themselves. I started to record exclusively second-hand versions of the so-called “riot,” including, most notably, Brian Rosen’s account. Rosen, a composer himself, is responsible for coining the term “ViolaGate” in his blog piece about the incident he also calls a “mini-riot.”
A few days after Rosen’s post, which got a lot of attention in the music community, the New York Times picked up the story, calling it “an artistic melee more appropriate for a Metallica show.” In the Times’ story, Pamela Z is quoted making the comparison with The Rite of Spring premiere.
So, what is it about this minor kerfuffle that has ignited passions and sparked such controversy? And why is it that the incident, dramatic and upsetting as it was at the time, is so often described in hyperbolic terms? Some of these overwrought descriptions are clearly intended to be facetious, but some seem like they are meant to be taken seriously.
No doubt, part of what has attracted so much attention to the story is the identity of the old geezer, who, as it turns out, happens to be a well-known and respected eighty-five year-old violist, Bernard Zaslav. To get his side of the story, see the considerable comments section of Rosen’s post, where Zaslav alleges the “desecration” was to his sensitive hearing, and not to his aesthetic sensibility, which, by all accounts, is surprisingly forward-looking. For what it’s worth, I don’t buy it, and neither did a number of others who were also in attendance and witnessed the events first-hand.
Certainly, the high drama, the unexpectedness and (it must be said) childishness of Eichenseer’s response to Zaslav’s equally childish heckling makes for a great story. Even before the heckler’s identity was revealed, people were already talking and tweeting voluminously about the episode.
In one second-hand version of the story I recorded, the storyteller, a local composer, is interrupted at the point when Eichenseer has thrown his viola to the ground, breaking it “into a million pieces,” and is storming off stage.
“That sounds awesome!” another local musician/composer interjects.
“Yeah,” our storyteller continues, “It sounds fucking awesome!” They both wished they had been there to witness the drama for themselves.
In another version, the storyteller, also a local musician, has little sympathy for either party:
And then the viola motherfucker apparently, like, who doesn’t even—I heard he doesn’t even play viola, so that fact that he gets away with “out” music when he doesn’t even necessarily know how to play “in” music anymore is pretentious as fuck anyway. And so, because his artistic integrity was insulted so much by some old fucking beyotch, he broke his viola instead of giving it to somebody who would actually play it. Yeah, they can all kiss my fucking ass. That’s the version I heard.
It is curious to behold mythologies in the making.
With all the additions and exaggerations that inevitably come with subsequent retellings, combined with the many allusions to The Rite of Spring, I began to wonder how we distinguish myth from history, even after only a short amount of time has elapsed since the episode.
Then I began to wonder about the events of Paris, 1913. What in the accounts now familiar to us was fact and what was fiction? And how, almost 100 years later, might we ever pull those two apart?
According to music scholar, Richard Taruskin, author of “A Myth of the Twentieth Century: The Rite of Spring, the Tradition of the New, and ‘The Music Itself'”:
As early as the 1920s (the time, as I say, of the real “breaks”), Stravinsky was busily revising the history of The Rite and erasing its past. It was in 1920 that he first told an interviewer that the first inspiration for the ballet had been not a vision of its final dance (as he had previously stated) but a musical theme, and that consequently he had written “une oeuvre architectonique et non anecdotique” (an architectonic and not an anecdotal work).
Taruskin’s point is that this revisionist history, which many music scholars seem to follow without question, mistakenly relegates Nijinsky’s choreography, as well as the interdisciplinary conditions under which Stravinsky’s score was composed, to history’s backseat. We now know very little of Nijinsky’s original choreography for The Rite—it was lost, some say deliberately suppressed, after its last performance in 1914—though it was, disputably, “reconstructed” by Millicent Hodson in 1987 for the Joffrey Ballet.
Stravinsky’s score, on the other hand—”the music itself”—was, of course, preserved, though interestingly, the score was not published till 1921. Both extant score and lost choreography now have reputations of mythic proportions, due, in large part, to the ballet’s infamous opening night. But, according to Taruskin:
It took a long while for the score to achieve the awesome reputation we now assume it possessed from the beginning. In 1913 it was not the primary object of attention. The most cursory perusal of the Paris reviews of the original production, conveniently collected in Truman C. Bullard’s dissertation, reveals that it was the now-forgotten Nijinsky choreography, far more than Stravinsky’s music, that fomented the famous “riot” at the premiere. Many if not most reviews fail to deal with Stravinsky’s contribution at all beyond naming him as composer.
Indeed, the noise levels were so high in the Paris theater, the music was mostly inaudible. It is said that Nijinsky had to shout musical counts to his dancers from the wings, such was the racket in the theater.
It is ironic that Zaslav now claims it was not “the music itself” but the decibel level in the small theater in San Francisco that compelled him to so rudely disrupt Eichenseer’s performance. While I don’t doubt, as some apparently do, that noise levels contributed to his irascibility, it was obvious to all present that there was more to the story than this.
For Eichenseer, an unknown young composer catapulted from obscurity into the limelight, the results couldn’t be better. Like Stravinsky, the fact that his composition ultimately went unheard on its debut has not prevented him from receiving ample attention for it. On the contrary, it is precisely because his music ultimately went unheard that it has gained such notoriety. History, or mythology, whatever the difference is, will eventually reveal whether or not he will be known for anything more than this, his smashing debut.