Live: Ben Frost And Friends Bring The Quiet To Alice Tully Hall
Stephen J. Cardinale for Unsound Festival New York
Sinfonietta Cracovia, Daniel Bjarnason, and Ben Frost
Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center
Wednesday, April 7
Better than: Something a drummer would inevitably ruin.
What would you do if you had the Orchestra of the Capital Royal City of Krakow at your disposal? For Icelandic drone-metal minimalist Ben Frost, the answer was a proud, almost confrontational, "Well, not too much, actually." Frost's lingua franca is the harrowing, er, frosty drone, so for what was maybe a solid hour, he ground 28 string players down to a haunting hum, all murmurbuzzing on one note at a time, rubbing a pulseless whirrrrrrrrr like an army of grasshoppers rubbing their legs together.
The U.S. premiere of Frost's piece--"We don't need other worlds. We need mirrors"--Music For Solaris, cowritten with Daniel Bjarnason--kickstarted five remarkably diverse nights of the Polish-import experimental music festival Unsound. Frost teamed with the 20 members of the Sinfonietta Cracovia, 10 additional American players, prepared pianist Daniel Bjarnson and--big name coming up, wait for it--Brian Eno, who supplied "film manipulations," all of which the less said the better. (Seriously though, it was mostly a close-up of Bruegel's Hunters In The Snow that occasionalyl folded in on itself via archaic, proto-"Black Or White" morphing technology. It made his iPhone app look like Avatar.)
It was definitely pretty awesome (and kind of punk rock) that Frost had amassed some of the greatest musicians in Krakow to basically play one note at a time and float around like a fog or a whisper. The piece's true tension came from its having to fill Alice Tully Hull while being quiet and sparse and unearthly. As clouds go, Sinfonietta Cracovia were enveloping and cirrus; they'd already proven themselves as downright liquid on three Penderecki pieces, playing his dronier parts like nothing more impure than a sine-wave.
The last time Frost came to town he was supplying megalithic jet engine blast as an opening act for the mighty Swans, so the real star of this show was those rare occasions where he and the orchestra would break out the bombast and swell and swell and SWELL. The room would vibrate and you'd wonder just how loud you're allowed to get in Lincoln Center before someone in a tuxedo comes scurrying down from the balcony in horror. But Frost can create a similar feeling of unease with a quieter palette. Even before he played a note, the room filled with subtle, subterranean hum, like how Gasper Noé created extra nasty nailbiting ickyness in Irréversible. There were entire swaths of near-mute swirl where it was clear everyone had TACET written on their sheet music, and Frost and Bjarnson microscopically let loose with lowest-volume Kranky drones for just guitar and piano--all of which were, as someone sitting behind me clarified at an inappropriate volume, "very mysterious!"
That's another thing. This piece was often so dangerously, awkwardly, traumatically quiet that the audience couldn't help themselves but to fuck it up, since each fidget and throaty hack and shoe temporarily affixed to the floor sounded like a damn gunshot. Even turning the page in my notebook was a huge fucking ordeal. But at least I'm not responsible for the one out-and-out coughing fit that resulted in one poor tickly soul making a rapid egress from the room entirely. I counted 15 microphones on stage, and there's no way that dude will be edited out of the recording with any swiftness or ease.
Critical Bias: I live in a Polish neighborhood! How come none of these shows are in Greenpoint?
Overheard: "[unintelligible]"--same loud guy behind me.
Random Notebook Dump: How can you show a video of an ornament with lurid rounded edges when any idiot knows Steve Reich pieces are clearly squares?
Krystof Penderecki, Serenade For String Orchestra
Krystof Penderecki, Sinfonietta per Archi
Krystof Penderecki, Chaconne in memoria del Giovanni Paolo II
Steve Reich, Duet For Two Violins and String Ensemble
Steve Reich, Triple Quartet
Ben Frost and Daniel Bjarnason, "We don't need other worlds. We need mirrors"--Music For Solaris