Absinthe and Old Lace: Mason Bates’ ‘KC Jukebox’ premieres
WASHINGTON, November 11, 2015 – And now for something completely different… That old Monty Python tagline gained some new life Monday evening, when the premiere event of “KC Jukebox” took center stage at the Kennedy Center, more or less.
Let me explain. “KC (for “Kennedy Center”) Jukebox” is described by the Center as “a new contemporary music series curated by new Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence Mason Bates.” Monday’s event and succeeding events in the series are further defined as an “immersive musical experience.”
When it comes to the notion of “crossover music,” thirty-something composer and musical jack-of-all trades Mason Bates seems to be busying himself lately by stretching the meaning of that term in all directions, as was exemplified by his first musical evening earlier this week.
Entitled “Lounge Regime: 100 Years of Ambient Music,” this well attended event-show-demonstration-happening focused on the kind of “background sounds” and music one doesn’t often associate with a concert, opera or film production.
What’s an “ambient sound’?
The general, somewhat technical term “ambient sound” encompasses pretty much anything we hear in the background, not only in daily life but in social or entertainment settings as well.
As I type this review into my computer, I have the window open and can hear the wind; some distant shouts of encouragement and an occasional whistle blowing as a youth soccer game takes place a block or two away; the rushing of cars, and the occasional disrespectful blat of a motorcycle.
None of these sounds has anything directly to do with what I’m writing now. But they’re all there in background, doing whatever they do, perhaps subtly influencing how I’m feeling or what I’m doing. But most of all, they create a subtle but not focal context for what’s going on in life.
What’s “ambient music”?
Whether in a home, office, a musical or entertainment environment sounds like the one I’ve just mentioned are always there. But often, to create or enhance the mood, splashes of music can be added as background to an event to help create a specific feeling or atmosphere, or even conjure up times past or times yet to come.
They can be obtrusive, as in the obnoxious, ceaseless beat of pop music in the teen clothing sections of a department store, a background noise meant to stimulate a sense of urgency driving toward a purchase point. Or they can be relatively subtle, as in the occasional “elevator music” you still here in some posh stores or hotels as you ascend to an upper floor.
About “Lounge Regime”
“Lounge Regime” mainly focused on this specific subset of ambient sound—namely, ambient music as it was experienced in three very different time periods. In descending order, the audience first experienced the ambient music of today, followed by atmospheric music commonly encountered in the early 1970s, and concluding with early modernist salon-style music one might have encountered in Paris, circa 1920-1940.
In addition to experiencing the sounds and music of each period, the unusual venue for this event, the Kennedy Center Atrium—the massive, configurable top-floor space between the Center’s dining areas to the south and the Terrace Theater and foyer to the north—was divided into three distinctly themed spaces.
Minimal seating was available, a minor situation amply remedied by several well-attended cash bars available throughout the entire event. Most interestingly, ticket prices for the event included one chit per ticketholder, redeemable for an absinthe cocktail.
Absinthe? Isn’t that illegal?
The artistry of absinthe: Decline, fall, resurrection and musical connection
Absinthe was a popular adult beverage, particularly in 19th century European saloons. The somewhat bitter, anise-heavy bite of this highly alcoholic concoction was regarded as something of a creative elixer by many a poet and artist.
Another of its distinctive flavorings was contributed by wormwood, an oddly named herb that led to the beverage’s eventual downfall. Wormwood contains trace amounts of a chemical compound known as “thujone,” which some scientists came to blame for the alleged side-effects of excess absinthe consumption, namely drunkenness, hallucinations, erratic or violent behavior and the like.
Such fears led to an eventual ban on absinthe in the U.S. and many other countries, beginning around 1915. Since then, modern science (and modern mores) have led to an understanding that most if not all the bad outcomes attributed to absinthe were most likely due to habitual drunkenness and not the beverage itself. As a result, absinthe has gradually became available again around the turn of the current century.
Why the digression? Because, at least for those who took advantage of the complimentary cocktail—absinthe mixed with champagne—we’re sure that in some ways, this unusual spirit added its own subtle background noise to the proceedings.
Room No. 1: Circa 2015
As I can readily attest, the stuff is surprisingly potent, offering an almost immediate if minor buzz. Perhaps that’s why it was initially on offer at the bar in Room No. 1, which was brightly lit and starkly decorated in a spare, postmodern style devoted to the ambient music of 2015 most of which emanated from a centrally arranged electronic console complete with keyboards, sliders and turntables suitable for virgin vinyl.
Here, Mr. Bates (aka “DJ Masonic”), assisted by DJ Justin Reed, demonstrated his skills as a disk jockey and musical mixmaster with skills perhaps developed during pop music’s early iPod-Podcast craze in the early 2000s.
Keyed to the currently rising generation, the music on offer here by Aphex Twin, Brian Eno and others, while unfamiliar to me, was clearly familiar to those Gen-X and millennial attendees who formed a significant part of Monday’s audience. On the other hand, at least some older concertgoers might have been wondering when Beethoven was going to show up, although their preferences would be addressed in time.
Yet a little absinthe buzz helped break whatever musical ice-jam was may have been occurring. In a gradual and interestingly odd way, the blend of electronic music and wavering tonal noise and pulsing percussion began to transform itself into an aura, leading to…
Room No. 2: Back to the Future, circa the 1970s
Perhaps by design, this ambient carryover prepared audience members for Room No. 2. Here, in this dimly lit space, they were greeted by a disciplined team of physical (non-electronic) drum players and, across the room, a singer and a few acoustic musicians dressed to resemble a cross of gypsies, hippies and at least one jazz hep-cat. It felt a little bit like Jefferson Airplane/Starship at times. Boomer ambient music nostalgia, here we come.
The ambient music in this second room consisted of stream-of-consciousness snatches of tunes and percussive sounds derived from a variety of pop and avant-garde composers and musicians—music many college-age Boomers would have experienced in a controlled substance-induced haze. Indeed, such music was best consumed in a nebulous physical darkness enhanced in less fastidious days with rolling clouds of cigarette smoke, seasoned with the unmistakable piquancy of Acapulco Gold.
The drummers for their part kept up a steady but steadily evolving background beat, noisily adding at least one flavor of early 1970s classical minimalism as represented by composers like Steve Reich. Reich and his fellow minimalist represented the decade’s growing rebellion against the 20th century’s hegemonic serialist fixation.
As ‘70s heads drifted off into uncharted universes, this was the kind of droning, oddly soothing background music that cushioned participants for the occasional shock of the unknown.
With another healthy assist from that handy absinthe cocktail, it was easy to climb on the Wayback Machine once again and back to Paris of the 1920s…
Room No. 3: Furniture music in a 1920s Parisian salon
At which point the audience was encouraged to migrate to Room #3, a dimly-lit Parisian salon whose focal point was a small stage, flanked by a constantly active movie screen to the audience’s left, and, opposite the stage, a limited number of lounge couches, all evocatively lit by a (seemingly) ancient chandelier.
The movie screen featured constantly-changing black and white films along with brief title pages, presumably authored by Mr. Bates, describing these clips, among which was a photo and film montage of early electronic music by French composer Pierre Schaeffer.
The scene in this third room evoked memories of Debussy—though he was gone by the 1920s—but also of Ravel, Satie and “Les Six,” the loose association of eclectic French composers who having chosen to break with Debussy’s Impressionism, largely dominated the Parisian musical scene in the Roaring 20’s and the Depressing 30s.
On stage, a pianist, clad in a black, flapper-style outfit topped off with a feather tiara, busied herself with a leisurely tour of French composer Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédies,” a trio of very similar piano interludes he began to compose circa 1888.
Each of these compositions in ¾ time shares a similar, vaguely wandering, melancholy little theme, each varying slightly from the other. They can be categorized as “incidental music,” music composed not necessarily as the focal point of a concert, but music meant to provide background atmospherics.
By the 20th century, a popular label for such compositions was “furniture music,” a term later pushed by American avant-garde composer John Cage among others. Yet such a concept wasn’t exactly new.
We often forget that important composers, just like composers today, needed to make a living. For that reason, many would happily take good-paying commissions to create music that wouldn’t necessarily enhance their reputations.
We can look back in time to Telemann’s “Tafelmusik” (“Banquet Music”), Handel’s “Royal Fireworks,” and Mozart’s little-known series of “Cassations” (essentially “dinner” or “dining music”) to see how far back in time the tradition of creating “ambient music” actually goes.
The French “furniture music” known collectively as “Gymnopédies” constituted an early attempt by Satie to gradually effect a break with the regularity and predictability of 19th century Romantic forms. Without looking ahead to serialism, Satie nonetheless began to blur the lines of structure and tonality in these short compositions as well as the structural formalism usually associated with a concert or recital format.
His work in some ways made him a godfather for the members of Les Six, although at least two of the latter composers were also strongly influenced by the multifaceted French writer, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.
Hence Satie’s link to the music of Francis Poulenc, the one member of Les Six whose hard-to-categorize but highly interesting music is still frequently performed today. A selection of music from Poulenc’s “Wind Sextet,” arranged by Mr. Bates and including occasional visits from the piano topped off this concluding tableau.
It’s hard to categorize an evening like this one, so we’ll refrain from deploying our usual one-to-four stars rating system. However, if the aim of the still-developing KC Jukebox series is to scramble up the repertoire, connect classical, pop, and modern music back with its roots and attract a more diverse demographic to the Kennedy Center’s wide range of musical offerings, this initial musical, educational, time-traveling evening can be judged quite a success.
Addendum: Since this article was written, we’ve all become aware of the tragic events that unfolded in Paris on November 13. Our hearts go out to our Parisian and French allies in their time of need. In this live video, taken in the “Parisian” Room No. 3 on Monday evening, November 9, we hear the sad, melancholy strains of Eric Satie’s music as we view scenes from Paris in the 1920s. The City of Light, historically a welcoming home away from home for artists and political refugees, will always live and will always persevere. Vive la France!
(Live video recorded Monday, November 9 at the Kennedy Center Atrium by Frances S. Ponick)