Patience is rewarded with Fluxus organ work in Brooklyn Heights
The only way to approach a “durational” work is to relinquish control, to be willfully unaware of its duration. If the composition is successful – as, say, an extended work by Morton Feldman or Petr Kotik – the perception of time will evaporate. Someone who says they can sense a difference between a 4- and a 6-hour performance of a single work was likely either playing it or watching the clock.
Thursday night’s performance of Henning Christiansen’s 1967 solo organ work Fluxorum Organum – presented by Issue Project Room at the First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn Heights – didn’t quite reach 90 minutes. But it was advertised as a “durational work” and indeed did demand (or perhaps, for some, resist) extreme levels of attention.
James Rushford took his seat at the organ, positioned in the balcony in the rear of the 1844 church, at 8:15 and set into a couple of chirpy notes that might have come off as tentative had they not repeated. Alternating with a single bass note, the short phrase proved to be one of two dominant themes of the piece. The fully-notated score called up a sequence of slow, discrete phrases connected harmonically and in mood but rarely seeming to build off one another for its first half. If there were other themes in the first of what seemed to be three sections, they passed so slowly that detecting their patterns was like trying to map the stars.
Detecting patterns, however, is the stuff of conventional listening. Christiansen was a member of the Fluxus movement, which valued being present and accepting the moment.
Simply receiving the musical experience – unjarring yet impenetrable – was the objective of the concert. The light that filled the back of the room (set off by the smartphone glow of one audience member who wasn’t about to have the focus of his attention dictated to him) made the nave feel like an off-kilter ship. The concert was about the music, but it was also about the musky smell of old wood, the uncomfortable pews, guaranteed to creak (more loudly, sometimes, than the organ) with any movement of one of the 75 people who filled the church about half to capacity. It was about the drifting of one’s own mind until brought to surface again by the realization that the same two notes have been repeating for longer than could be estimated.
The two notes were joined by a third then, restating the initial theme but with a different count and settling (some 40 minutes in) into another meditative (or maddening, depending on the listener’s mindset) repetition with slight variation in the bass. Eventually, a long phrase came forth, a half dozen notes each struck twice, ascending to a dense cluster. The sequence repeated several times was then truncated to five, four, three notes per line, collapsing into prolonged clusters before starting up again
At about the 45-minute mark things grew more musical still, sounding very nearly like a hymn before returning to the 12-note, 6-tone progression. It was then, too, that the first few audience members began to abandon ship, a couple and then, thusly emboldened, three more. Before the end about a dozen more left, perhaps not in anger but simply having endured their fill.
The final, shorter section began much more loudly, the organ blasting like a ship horn, a much newer ship than our creaky, wooden vessel. The church was filled to the rafters with the organ’s cry for a quarter hour before an abrupt end. The passing of the clock, thought, meant little. What had happened seemed slower than time, like a marathon which is taxing to run but ruminative if walked at a relaxed pace while enjoying the scenery. The retention or release of control was up to the individual listener.