Wordless Music Orchestra
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Sunday, September 11
Better than: An hour-long recreation of Look Sharp!
In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell with Roxette’s “Listen to Your Heart” playing in the background. That might not be entirely true, but surely the song—which from November 4 to November 10 occupied the number one spot the Billboard Hot 100—was playing somewhere. But with Marie Fredriksson’s voice dominating global airwaves, the Berlin Wall wasn’t the only thing to fall; as former Voice staff writer Josmhua Clover notes in his seminal 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, Roxette’s hit happened to be the first ever chart-topper not to be released on vinyl.
Twelve years later, the ongoing transition from analog to digital again coincided with geopolitical turmoil, thanks to avant-garde composer William Basinski converting recordings dating back to the end of the Brezhnev Era from cassette to MP3. However, this conversion, intended to better preserve the tapes, in fact ended up destroying them, slowly scraping away the iron oxide particles that held the horns, drums and piano of Basinski’s composition. The coincidence—one that has since become legend—is that Basinski finished the conversion, captured on his four volumes of Disintegration Loops LPs, on the morning of September 11, 2001; he listened to them for the first time as he watched the smoke rise from the site where the World Trade Center (or as he puts it in the program for yesterday’s show, “our beacon, our compass—that which towered so far above every other skyscraper in NYC, my nightlight”) once stood.
For Sunday’s free-with-admission “Remembering 9/11” benefit concert, New York’s Wordless Music Orchestra (conducted by Ryan McAdams) performed three shorter pieces (in order: Osvaldo Golijov’s “Tenebrae,” Ingram Marshall’s “Fog Tropes II,” and Alfred Schnittke’s “Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief”) before premiering Maxim Moston’s orchestration of the Basinski’s final product. Despite the fact the Loops consists only of the repetition (and of course, disintegration) of a fairly simple phrase, such orchestration presents an obvious conceptual challenge: How exactly does one recreate not just the sound but the pathos and the theoretical purity of the original project? The most dangerous trap, it seems, lay in the Platonist privileging of the real-life over the recorded to which live performance so easily lends itself.
Moston and McAdams ingenuously sidestepped this dilemma by emphasizing the piece’s inherent teleology, quickly introducing the snare that would eventually fill the void left by its disappearing companions, almost as an acknowledgement of the absence to come. For this reason, the opening minutes, during which the piece sounds most full and most vibrant, also sounded most (gulp) haunted, its future disintegration weighing on the present. But soon, the band entered into a comforting rhythm but one prone to the occasional unsettling twists when an element, whether a horn flourish or a few notes from the glockenspiel, would disappear, and the piece would continue on regardless. Eventually, not long after fading from the music, the notes would fade also from memory, time disintegrating everything the conversion to digital could not.
Critical bias: Can’t decide if free booze is enough of a reason to rank St. Vincent’s Sackler Wing performance over this one.
Overheard: “Think about it: That piece would not have been written if it hadn’t been for me.”—The presumably rich dude sitting behind me, referring to one of the earlier compositions.