|roland dahinden | composer – performer|
The Storm Before the Calm: Strange Sounds Emerge From ‘Monotone-Silence Symphony’
I thought I heard bagpipes. I thought I heard snippets of Philip Glass’s “1000 Airplanes on the Roof.” Toward the end, I could have sworn I heard someone near me crying. But I didn’t really hear any of those things, because the only music filling the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church was a D major chord, sustained with great effort for precisely 20 minutes by a group of almost 70 singers and instrumentalists.
The performance, of the French artist Yves Klein’s “Monotone-Silence Symphony,” a work he conceived in the late 1940s consisting of 20 minutes of unchanging sound followed by 20 minutes of motionless silence, drew a rapt and mostly reverent crowd on Wednesday night. The symphony, organized as part of the inaugural exhibition, “Audible Presence: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Cy Twombly,” at the new Dominique Lévy Gallery on Madison Avenue and 73rd Street, has been realized several times around the world since Klein died in 1962 but this was the first time it had ever been heard (and not heard) in New York.
The audience leaned more toward the visual-art world than the music world − the Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles; RoseLee Goldberg, the founder of Performa; Alice M. Tisch, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art. At 8:11, by my watch, the Swiss composer and conductor Roland Dahinden, who has conducted the symphony four times in Europe, took the podium in front of the tightly assembled, black-clad group of musicians. When he raised his hands, the chord began cleanly, as if someone had turned on a radio. It sounded softer than I had imagined, like the gentle final note of a song that decided not to end. It seemed fragile at first, as if the voices and hands might not be able to keep it aloft.
But about a dozen minutes in, it began to sound strangely electronic (hence Philip Glass), like something that humans could not possibly be producing. Mr. Dahinden moved his body and hands sinuously, striving to keep the chord unbroken and consistent, listening intently for flagging energy and attention until, at 8:31 on the dot, he brought his hands up and together and ended the sound as abruptly as it had begun.
In the audience some people closed their eyes, as if meditating or praying. Others read their programs or held phones and iPads aloft to record the moment. Five minutes into the chord the man to my immediate right, who looked a little like the actor John Slattery, except with a beard, fell asleep and snored softly until the silence began and he woke up.
The silence was about as absolute (and enjoyable) as any I’ve ever experienced in a crowded place in New York City, punctuated only by occasional, distant car horns, a handful of coughs and softly gurgling predinner stomachs. David H. Heiss, a cellist with the Metropolitan Opera who heard about the performance and asked to be a part of it, told me later that the sound half of the symphony felt surprisingly short. “When he stopped it, it seemed to me like we had only been going for 9 or 10 minutes,” said Mr. Heiss, a longtime Klein fan. “But the silence felt like half an hour. It was harder than I thought it would be. We were told not to move a muscle.”
After the performance Mr. Dahinden was beaming. I asked him where he kept his stopwatch. “On the music stand in front of me,” he said. “But it’s not just one. I always have two stopwatches, just to be sure, in case one breaks. It’s very difficult to count to 20 minutes in your head.”
Randy Kennedy, Arts Beat − The New York Times, September 2013
The sound, a D major chord produced by an orchestra and a chorus, begins abruptly, full force, and fills the air for 20 minutes, like a sonorous foghorn with a stuck switch. It ends as suddenly as it begins, but there is no applause because the orchestra is only half finished − its members sit without playing or even moving, “performing” silence for just as long.
This highly eccentric symphony, receiving its first New York performance on Wednesday, was created by the artist Yves Klein, who is best known for his monochrome paintings. He harbored no small ambitions when he began thinking in the late 1940s about a kind of musical complement to his visual ideas: a symphony of monotony and silence, a much harder thing to do well than he or anyone imagined.
“You can’t really do a full rehearsal of something like this,” said Roland Dahinden, a Swiss composer and performer who has conducted the piece four times in Europe and will take the baton (and stopwatch) in New York. “It’s too hard. Everyone would just die.” Klein was one of the leading heirs of Marcel Duchamp’s Modernist wit, but he was not joking around. “The Monotone-Silence” Symphony, he wrote, expressed no less than “what I wished my life to be.” But Klein, who died of a heart attack at the age of 34 in 1962, never had the chance to hear his symphony realized as he imagined it. For the only documented performance during his lifetime, in 1960, at an art gallery in Paris, with Klein himself in white tie as conductor, only 10 musicians participated.
On Wednesday evening, the fulsome orchestra he dreamed of − 70 musicians and singers − will gather to perform the work at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, at East 73rd Street. The hope among those involved is that the sold-out performance, the product of months of intense planning, will hew closer to Klein’s ethereal intentions than many other versions attempted since his death.
With that goal in mind, the performers and Mr. Dahinden have been preparing themselves mentally over the last few weeks for an unusual test of stamina, patience and repose: to play one note in an “intense and continuous” way, as Klein instructed, for an unreasonable amount of time and then to remain quiet and motionless for longer than most people ever do.
Mr. Dahinden, who is being flown in for the one-night event by the Dominique Lévy Gallery, which is producing it, added: “When it’s right, you have this huge block of sound. There is such a beauty within the piece. You sit in the audience and you start to hear some melodies and some fragments of melodies, and yet nobody is playing them.” Klein said he saw the work as “having neither a beginning nor an end,” a creation “freed from the phenomenology of time.”
To pull off the first half of the symphony, the singers and musicians − 10 cellists, 10 violinists, 3 bassists, 3 flutists, 3 oboists and 3 French horn players − need to produce the chord with no vibrato or variation, breathing and bowing in such a way as to create a sound with no audible breaks. (Early on, Klein compared the sound to a human scream and played recordings of screams − one quite harrowing example was the voice of the French playwright Antonin Artaud − to demonstrate.)
Sahra Motalebi, a New York singer and performance artist who has helped to assemble the musicians and the choir − which will be made up of both professional singers and experimental musicians − said: “The reality is that it’s like a kind of bizarre primordial universe chorus. It’s not like a note you’ve ever heard.”
Klein conceived of the idea for the symphony around 1947-48, the same years that John Cage, in New York, was formulating “4’33”,” a landmark work that involves a pianist not playing the piano but instead attuning an audience to the complexities of silence. Though there seems to be no evidence that Cage and Klein were aware of each other at the time or influenced each other later, Klein also came to view silence as the most important part of the musical work.
“This is really my symphony,” he wrote, “and not the sounds during its performance.”
Daniel Moquay, who oversees the Klein archive and estate in Paris, said the silence is sometimes more difficult than the sound for audiences to take in. “You get into the deepness of a silence and you realize that silence is not a nothing,” he said. “Silence is something that is very, very powerful.”
The work anticipated some of the interests that Fluxus artists would soon begin exploring in New York and Europe in the 1960s, and it feels very much in tune with works by young contemporary artists like Ragnar Kjartansson, who in 2011 staged a critically acclaimed 12-hour performance of the denouement of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” by opera singers.
Klein’s symphony has been performed both with the permission of the estate, and without, over the last four decades − once by a chorus of as many as a hundred singers, and at least once by a single musician with a laptop.
During the original 1960 performance, Klein included a companion piece in which three naked women − he called them “living brushes” − covered themselves in his signature deep blue paint and pressed their bodies on paper during the sound half of the symphony, freezing during the silence; that part will not be recreated in New York.
Dominique Lévy, who is opening her new gallery at 909 Madison Avenue, next door to the church, became determined to produce the symphony to accompany her inaugural exhibition, “Audible Presence: Lucio Fontana, Yves Klein, Cy Twombly,” an examination of ideas about time and music in works by those three artists. (Tickets for the free performance were all claimed almost immediately after it was announced.)
Ms. Lévy first heard the symphony in 2007 and said that after the abrupt cut between the sound and the silence, “I had all these conflicting feelings of wanting to laugh and then confusion and then finally deep emotion.”
Early this year, she secured permission from the Klein archive to produce the work and dispatched Jennifer G. Buonocore, the gallery’s associate director, to Paris to delve into the archive, to try to ensure that the work would be realized with the best understanding of what Klein wanted.
But even with the best efforts and intentions, Mr. Moquay said, the symphony doesn’t always work. Of four performances held in a Paris church during a Klein exhibition at the Pompidou Center in 2007, he said he felt that only one was wholly successful. But it worked so well, he added, that a lovely kind of St. Francis moment occurred.
“The door of the church was open, and a pigeon came in and sat where everyone could see him,” he said. “During the 20-minute silence, he did not move at all. It was kind of incredible. And then when the silence was over, he left.”
Randy Kennedy, The New York Times, September 2013