Doing yoga in France can be frustrating. In order to sustain my nearly twenty-five years of practice I try to find good studios when I travel abroad. I know of a few in Paris and visit them when I’m there. I love so much about France – I admire their beautiful language and fully endorse their adoration of butter – but I never really warmed to the French view of yoga. It’s not the language barrier. My French is serviceable – and anyway chien-tête-en-bas isn’t so hard to understand when everyone around you is doing downward-facing dog. No, my problem is that French yoga instructors seem to confuse the precision that is central to yoga with rigidity of form, which is not.
So on a recent trip to Paris when I made a modification to a pose to protect a sore knee, I heard, right on cue, “Steven” (here imagine the accent on the second syllable, just as my mother would have said it when I was in trouble): “On ne fait pas comme ça!” I had just formulated a clever response along the lines of: “Yes, but if I do that you’ll hear a pop like a bottle of champagne opening on Bastille Day.”
But, alas, we had moved on and I never got to deploy my line. Later that very evening I met James Dillon for dinner. We ate cassoulet on the Ile Saint-Louis under a noisy awning as a mid-summer storm roiled around us. A few minutes of James’s healthy disregard for authority and I felt back in balance again. One of the many reasons for our long friendship has been the fact that James never mistakes structure for stricture. In fact an inventive and fruitful subterfuge has been a consistent basis for his art.
Take his new work New York Triptych, for example. By its very nature a triptych embraces an organizational principle by which identity and focus emanate from the center. In the visual domain this idea is normally presented in a set of three panels, the center of which is often (but not always) bigger and more important than the ones that flank it.
The three-ness of it seems so stable with the true authorial voice right San Francisco Contemporary Music Players there in the middle where it belongs. But pulling in the other direction with all of those “threes” is inherent instability. Beyond the unavoidable association with the Trinity, the internal groupings are by nature uneven, always one against two. There can be no tie vote in a triptych.
In New York Triptych, James exploits the tension inherent in a triptych – between a strong center-based organizational scheme and its corollary potential for instability – in New York Triptych. The work is his latest – the third, in fact – in a series of three-part pieces named after cities, following works titled for Leuven and Oslo. New York Triptych is not only in three main parts, totaling some forty minutes of music, but the arrangement of the instruments on the staff is likewise divided into threes. Three string players balance three wind players with a percussionist, pianist and shortwave/CD operator (playing processed music of the previous Triptychs) in between.
The organizational scheme seems perfectly reasonable and balanced. But in today’s cultural climate, balance, especially the kind of balance that necessarily orbits a central authority, is suspect. We prefer ecstasy – a word that comes to us from the Greek exstasis meaning literally “unbalanced.” So, a contemporary triptych like Dillon’s generates a certain kind of friction between the lure of a perfectly ordered artistic statement and the electric appeal of a world that is spinning feverishly towards ecstasy. Unlike the world of French yoga, organizational precision and eccentric (even ecstatic) applications of that organization happily co-exist in art. In fact we crave both. I know that more than one of us has lovingly quoted William Blake’s famous adage, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” while secretly hoping that the road won’t be too bumpy.
As a result, what has made learning New York Triptych an utterly fascinating process is the challenge to accommodate all the classical archetypes of the triptych while also embracing typically Dillon-esque ways of subverting them. In the arena of sound, the maverick timbres of piano, percussion and CD/shortwave player are radicalizing elements in an otherwise stable and conventionally orchestrated equilibrium between a group of winds and an equivalent group of strings. The unbalancing act of the central trio catalyzes the forces of the other instruments so that every orchestrational construction threatens to teeter and every harmonic point of arrival is buffeted by the winds of onward momentum. Each moment of organizational repose is answered by the itch of its opposite. The resulting “crippled symmetry,” to use Feldman’s poetic phrase, makes Dillon’s among the most compelling music I know.
In tonight’s concert, which we also call “Triptych,” we will present, as you might imagine, two other works. We’ll start with Georg Friedrich Haas’s AUS WEG. The title is appropriately ambiguous for this gauzy and provocative exposé of sonic possibility. It could mean anything from “the way out” to “go away.” And indeed labyrinthine constructions lead us along a pathway of sonic and harmonic points of arrival. As a result the piece seems constantly both within and just out of our grasp.
The third element in our concert is the world premiere of a new work from well-known Bay Area composer Luciano Chessa, Set and Setting. In the composer’s words, it is a Misterio da Camera scored for a quintet of musicians. But as elsewhere this evening nothing is singular. And in Luciano’s piece, naturally, there are other panels. The gathering energies of this fluid and evocative score are accompanied by actors bearing baskets of scented flowers – jasmine and lavender – a synchronized lighting plot, and an appearance by the composer himself for a brief shofar solo. As with any triptych, multiple images vie for the singular attention of the spectator.
This is our first concert of the New Year, so I hope you will allow a personal message from my spouse, Brenda, and me. May 2014 be a dazzling, wondrous, rewarding and healthy year for us all! To our adventurous players, to the ever-inventive Rozie and her team, and to you, our intrepid listeners, I offer sincere thanks, warm wishes, and whatever the word in French is for Namaste. – Steven Schick