Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Concert Review: Wolfgang Voigt, "Gas"

Last Friday, I had the incredible opportunity go see Wolfgang Voigt performing for the first time ever in the U.S. some of the work he composed as Gas (finally re-released as a box set last year), at Columbia University's Miller Theater (where I saw Xenakis' Oresteia last year), with Toronto's 7-piece Contact Ensemble performing Brian Eno's Discreet Music beforehand. The work the Ensemble did was wonderful, from a technical viewpoint, and I marvelled at their ability to know exactly what to do, when. It was something I should have unconditionally enjoyed. However, it turns out, Discreet Music really works best when you're at home by yourself, just lying around listening to music, or when it's on your headphones while you're working. In a relatively spacious live setting, it is beautiful, and I recognized it as such from an intellectual standpoint, but it just didn't hit me at the emotional level it usually does, and that I would have liked. And this was absolutely not the fault of the Ensemble - as I said, technically, what they did was amazing. I think the shortcomings are really more based on my preferences and tastes, and that's fine.

After an intermission, Voigt began to perform. Now, there isn't much exciting about watching a guy stand at a laptop for an hour and 40 minutes, so this could have been horrible. Fortunately, his music was accompanied by video artist Petra Hollenbach's manipulation of images of trees Voigt himself had taken (many resembling the art from the Nah und Fern box set). Voigt played selections from the four discs of Gas (Gas, Konigsforst, Zauberberg, and Pop), while numerous colors, patterns, and manipulations of the images floated across the screen. It sounds like something that could only work if you'd dropped acid, but even without acid, it was still amazing, and the hypnotic images went along with the songs perfectly. It should have been one of the best shows I'd seen in a long time.

Unfortunately (and this may seem a strange complaint for a show like this)....it never got loud enough. I don't know if it was the acoustics of the theater, or fear that the lower end of the songs would destroy the speakers, but a show like that really should have bass that rattles your chest for an hour and a half, and all the registers just surround you. Otherwise, the music can't envelope you they way it should, and music like that absolutely has to hit you that way to really be successful. Yet only at the very end of the final song of the 10 or 11 songs (I lost count) that he performed did it ever even begin to reach those levels, in what was definitely the highlight of the show, a swirling, panicked, increasingly violent yet beatless ambience that crescendoed to its climax. While I had enjoyed hearing the music in a live and collective setting, it was really only in the last 5 minutes or so that the show reached the levels I had expected for the full 100 minutes, and that was a major disappointment.

Again, it may not have been Voigt's fault, and it may have been - I have no real way of knowing. And to be clear, the show was still really, really good, especially being able to see something like that, and Hollenbach's visual component was visually stunning. Still, I left thinking all it could have been, if it only had just been a little louder.