February 2nd, 2019
How many contemporary music ensembles would program an entire evening of works by Yoko Ono? I imagine very few, and while the premise sounds intriguing, I’m not sure I would expect such an event to be attractive to many people. Yet that is precisely what Ensemble 4-33 presented on Saturday, February 2nd 2019, and sure enough, many people were present and eager to witness the events that unfolded. While the performance works of Yoko Ono do not necessarily involve a lot of music making in the traditional sense, Ensemble 4-33 is clearly interested in presenting compositions by artists who challenge the conventional concert format.
The concert began with a performance of Sky Piece to Jesus Christ, which featured a conducted wind octet playing a Mozart Serenade. The ensemble was tight and well-balanced, and the first movement ended nicely. As the second movement began, two members of the ensemble began wrapping the octet and the conductor in toilet paper. By the third movement, each performer’s legs were wrapped and their torsos and arms were being tied to their instruments, restricting their range of motion and ability to play. During the fourth movement, the faces of most performers were wrapped leaving them without the ability to see, and finally the fifth movement brought a halt to the conductor’s arm and the music ceased, signaling the end of the piece. There was some laughter from the audience when the mouths and eyes were being wrapped in toilet paper, but in general the audience allowed this performance to unfold with a patient interest, slowly observing a process. The second piece on the program was titled, The Pulse. Each member of the ensemble was charged with the task of completing a series of math problems. At the completion of each problem, the performer would make a sound on their instrument of choice. The sounds chosen included a bell, a wood block, a strummed ukulele, and the sound of a Beatles song being played for a few seconds at a time. By this point in the concert, members of the ensemble and the audience were periodically performing three pieces at random intervals: Sweep Piece (a person sweeps the floor with a broom), Hide Piece (a person hides), and Whisper Piece (people play whisper down the lane). The soundscape was fascinating when juxtaposed with the seemingly mundane actions occurring around the room. It was also fun to witness the audience observing the activities in different ways: laughter, confusion, participation, indifference.
As the concert continued, a series of three pieces, Questionnaire parts 1,2, and 3, were interspersed throughout the program requiring audience members to answer interesting questions. The ensemble also performed several indeterminate compositions such as Clock Piece (a timer is set; the piece is over when the timer goes off), Touch Poem for Group of People (all performers touch each other in different ways), and Audience Piece to La Monte (the performers observe the audience; content is dictated by all who are present).
While all of these pieces were executed with conviction, I couldn’t help but feel as though I was growing tired with the performances. Any one of these pieces might have been an interesting addition to a program of greater diversity, but a concert 100 minutes in length comprised entirely of aleatoric or indeterminate elements (and without an intermission), can be exhausting. It also didn’t help that the concert took place in a lecture hall within a physics building on the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Not only was this venue difficult to find, it created a situation that felt more like a classroom and less like an environment for experimental performance art. Ensemble 4-33 should be commended for their commitment to works that challenge the typical concert experience, and I would certainly go see this group again in hopes of hearing a more varied program. Even if this concert felt tiring, I can say that I have rarely experienced such a unique event.
Jeremy Lyons is a guitarist, composer, and writer living in Baltimore City. He is an artistic director of the contemporary music ensemble, Pique Collective, a performing member of the music cooperative, Mind on Fire, and he collaborates with artists of all kinds working in a variety of mediums. If you want to get in touch with him or suggest an event for him to experience, use his contact page.