Sounds on the water with Otte work at Bargemusic

Sat Oct 12, 2019 at 2:43 pm
Pianist Ivan Ilić performed Hans Otte’s Book of Sounds Friday night at Bargemusic.

Bargemusic’s Here and Now concerts of modern and contemporary music are often a grab-bag of musicians and composers, full of variety but at times of uneven quality. 

Here and Now is back at Bargemusic this weekend, but with a major difference—pianist Ivan Ilić is the sole performer for all three concerts.

That alone guarantees greater focus, and nothing could surpass the concentration of Friday night’s concert, when Ilić played only one work, Hans Otte’s Book of Sounds.

This was an uncommon opportunity to hear a unique work from an artist who had a long career and was at the center of some of the most important movements in 20th century music. Ilić mentioned that in Otte’s single year studying with Hindemith at Yale, the composer met John Cage and David Tudor, and brought the latter to Darmstadt.

Book of Sounds doesn’t sound like music from Darmstadt. Otte’s best-known work, at least in terms of his discography, is minimalism, and of a particular kind. The music is repetitive, but only in short segments, as compared to someone like Philip Glass. And the form is made up of twelve discrete sections, there’s no room for extended repetition. Instead, Otte used minimal materials; two or three chords, a couple arpeggios, one phrase; the style is somewhere equidistant between Michael Nyman and Morton Feldman.

Hans Otte

In another way, though, the music does sound like it comes from the Stockhausen strain of Darmstadt, combining avant-garde techniques with an ecumenical mysticism. Ilić prepared the small group of listeners by paraphrasing Otte: “Listen deeply, explore your relationship to yourself through sound.”

That relationship is, of course, personal and individual, and a public performance is impossible (and unfair) to judge through Otte’s terms. But there is more than one way to listen, and the combination of Ilić’s commanding playing and the setting made for a soundscape that integrated the music and the environment.

One could listen deeply to this music, which has a gentle amiability and a sonic loveliness held together by an exacting structure, and hear it fill the surrounding space and accompany what was happening outside the barge. There were high tide warnings and choppy waters on the East River Friday night, and—along with the parade of ferries, tugs, and other ships outside—the venue pitched and yawed far more than usual, often grinding against the dock.

This would normally be distracting, but Ilić’s subtly charismatic performance, and the music itself, wiped away the usual separation of music and noise, of desired and unwanted sounds. Book of Sounds rings, there are major and minor chords, but no established keys, only at the very end of the music is there a perfect cadence. The sequences of triads and arpeggios are meant to hang in the air and create a musical atmosphere that is a natural part of the air one breaths.

The pianist made the music ring. The physical and mental challenge of music like this is that the repeated figures may cause the hand or wrist to lock up, the mind to choke and hesitate over a passage. Ilić was smooth as flowing water, with a great evenness of tone and rhythm—his playing rang, and it also shined with a warm, penetrating light.

He projected a sense of pleasure, not only in playing the music but in listening to it as it rose out of the piano. His attention was on the sheet music and the instrument, so he likely didn’t notice the lights of lower Manhattan behind him, the ferry making a spinning turn off the dock, the darkening skies. But like a pianist in an old silent movie theater, he (and Otte) made a soundtrack for the world around the barge and for a magical time made art out of life.

Ivan Ilić plays music by Debussy, Satie, Keeril Makan, Scott Wollschleger, and Melaine Dalibert, 6 p.m. Saturday. This Here and Now series concludes 4 p.m. Sunday.

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