Last night's installment of the Urban Alchemy Concert Series at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts had a unifying theme: minimalism. This emerged in the selections by John Cage and Steve Reich; the installment of deconstructed art by Gordon Matta-Clark; composer/vocalist Meredith Monk's deliberately braided hair; the concrete stairwell repurposed as a concert hall; the silver-lined translucent folding chairs for the audience and the blue and black painting titled "Blue Black" looming behind the performers.
If simplicity was the star of the show, then the award for "Best Supporting Actress" was unanimously awarded to Meredith Monk. She's in town for the highly publicized world debut of her newest work this Saturday at Powell Hall, but this concert provided her with an informal setting to perform her abstract voice-as-an-instrument compositions. The event began with four wordless pieces for solo voice, in which Monk's melodies leaped in schizophrenic intervals and pushed every boundary of tone and pitch. It was like Bjork and Mike Patton doing a Native American rain dance outside of Lion King: the Musical on Broadway - an analogy which barely encapsulates the uniqueness of her compositional and literal voice.
After another pair of Monk's pieces with a capella collaborators, SLSO violinist Lisa Chong entered the makeshift stage to respectful applause. Backed by a pair of speakers with cables running in a perfectly straight line between them - more minimalism! - Chong began the five note cadence of Steve Reich's "Violin Phase." Her rendition delivered upon every expectation, crafting hypnotic swirls which were simultaneously void of and drenched in melody and harmony. I found myself closing my eyes and becoming absorbed with the subtleties: the conversational rhythms between live Chong and pre-recorded Chong, the floating feeling in my stomach during phasing patterns, the glow of reverb in Pulitzer's stairwell. Had I never heard Steve Reich before, Chong's performance would have been a religious experience. As a predisposed fan, her "Violin Phase" reminded me of why I'm a believer in the first place.
John Cage, on the other hand, is a composer I have more difficulty subscribing to. While his pieces for prepared piano (which is a fancy way of saying "piano with a bunch of shit jammed in its strings") is fascinating, his work is often spotty and clinical. The Urban Alchemy program featured his 1980 composition for two unaccompanied voices, Litany for the Whale. Meredith Monk ensemble singers Katie Geissner and Allison Sniffin staged themselves in opposite ends of the stairs and bounced simple melodies off each other like the communicative songs of the piece's titular marine mammal. Whale was generally pleasant, recalling moments from Brian Eno's Music For Airports. While the performance contained unique details - from my seat, Sniffin's reflection on the glass between the hall and the decorative pool outside was chillingly appropriate - it dragged for a bit too long. Given its intimate nature and barren textures, the audience members became hyperaware of their incidental sounds. Any shuffling or sniffling seemed deafening. But coming from John Cage, an artist whose work set out to redefine the ideas of music and silence, maybe that was the whole point.
For her final piece, Monk furthered the spatial concepts of Whale. She stood at the far end of the venue's balcony/hallway for "Hocket" from 1990's Facing North while vocalist Theo Bleckmann stood at the other. The duo shared a polyrhythmic melody not unlike the mating calls of birds of paradise. The comparison was furthered as Monk and Bleckmann walked towards each other while singing, building intensity as the tempo hastened and the performers' increasing proximity gradually cut down the echo and focused their sounds. Flawlessly implemented and brilliantly developed, "Hocket" was the easy highlight of Monk's selections.
The evening;s final piece was both the most elaborate and the flattest. Ingram Marshall's Fog Tropes featured six horns and recordings of the bustling San Francisco Bay. Trombones emulated foghorns, trumpets became seagulls, and the whole piece felt one-dimensional. Such is the double edged sword of conceptual music: Regardless of execution, the work can only succeed as well as its idea allows. Last evening's successful purveyors of minimalism - Monk, Reich, Chong, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts - showed fearless dedication to these ideas. The Urban Alchemy Concert transcended conceptuality; it was simply beautiful.