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I had the opportunity to hear Quartet for the End of Time over the weekend, Friday night. The show was put on by Los Angeles Nomadic Division, an interesting project that creates public art events and experiences, and it was quite an introduction to their seriousness. The bleakness of the music was enhanced by the overall aesthetic, probably in some reminiscence of Messiaen’s experience in writing the piece from a German prison camp for French POW’s like himself. He wrote it with his fellow inmates in mind for clarinet, piano, cello and violin. The musicians and dancers held a flat floor at the front of a long empty warehouse with twenty rows of chairs in a quarter circle before them. The music was intense, sometimes manic and at times plodding repetitively through slow slight variations as if counting off barely different days in a prison. Other sections wailed and howled with despair or useless rage. The movement comprised of only a long clarinet solo emoted alone and synced with a dancer sitting in a chair across from the musician slowly and painfully bobbing forward and back. Somewhere in this, Michiko Ogawa hit a low sustained note on her clarinet that popped open my ears, my left one to be specific. It made me feel that I had two distinct ears and that they were both reacting differently, with warmth generated between them.
The music was astounding but the show itself was frustrating but it seems that that was the point. It began by shocking us with a trick of lighting. The musicians were playing on and around an upright piano that, in the pitch black space behind the grand piano and chairs right in front of us in the audience, lurked in secret. The dancers were deceptively named such, and disturbingly used. They barely moved, plodding like zombies, slowly standing and sitting in sequences that would take more than a minute moving from seated to sort of standing and back down. The one section with movement and interaction happened far behind the quartet which was at that point right in front of the audience, so much of it was not that visible.
So it felt, watching it, like the performance aspect was more of a distraction than additive to the music. The quartet was by far sufficient, and beautifully played, to warrant the train ride downtown and a bleak walk down Alameda. But it was so frustratingly not giving, it felt like the dancers were being held back and that their talents were being wasted, that our time was being wasted by having to watch it not happen. The sense that something big or dramatic was maybe about to occur was so pervasive that it took away from the sounds, or seemed to at the time. As it gradually became clear that nothing would really happen, a certain hopelessness set in. But as a reaction to the world Messiaen knew and that we know now, maybe this is exactly the feeling to be left with. Why does art have to take care of our needs? I just saw a quote and it feels fitting. “Art expresses without formulating.”