Music

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Bach but Were Afraid to Ask Marina Abramović

'Goldberg' by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory (all photos by James Ewing and courtesy the Park Avenue Armory, unless indicated otherwise)
‘Goldberg’ by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory (all photos by James Ewing and courtesy the Park Avenue Armory, unless indicated otherwise)

We are too distracted, too stressed out to listen to music properly. That’s the idea behind Goldberg, the music concert/installation/participatory performance art piece currently at the Park Avenue Armory. Conceived by Marina Abramović and performed by Igor Levit, Goldberg seeks to get the audience better attuned to listen to classical music.

'Goldberg' by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory
Leaving belongings in the lockers before ‘Goldberg’ by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory. (click to enlarge)

Upon arrival, audience members deposit their belongings in lockers that line the Armory hallways. As we enter the drill hall we are each given a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. We take seats in lounge chairs that are arranged in a giant circle and resemble deck or lawn chairs with a piece of white fabric strung between two supports. At the sound of a gong audience members put on the noise-cancelling headphones. For approximately 20 minutes we sit in near silence. Levit takes a seat at the piano, which travels slowly down a runway to the center of the space. The gong sounds again, cuing us to remove the headphones. Levit plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations — very well — while his piano turns one complete rotation. A light above the piano’s keyboard and running its entire length illuminates Levit’s hands and upper body.

When he has finished playing, Levit stands up and takes a bow. The audience applauds and exits the space. Ushers collect the noise-cancelling headphones at the exit, in the way ushers at a movie theater collect 3D glasses after a blockbuster. Programs are handed out in the hallway. I asked an usher why they distribute them after the performance. He told me it would be “too crazy” to pass them out before and elaborated that the outflow from the concert is more manageable.

The preliminary sequence — lockers, lounge chair, gong, headphones, gong, performance — is the “Abramović Method for Music,” as the program calls it, in a nutshell. The artist created and began spreading her method as a means of helping performers prepare themselves for durational works. The Abramović Method treads in John Cage territory. Cage wrote about presence, being in the moment, and listening as they affect the performer and define the performance.

Levit is a virtuoso and the Goldberg Variations is a signature piece in his repertoire. He is technically brilliant in the allegro variations and emotionally sensitive in the slower ones, but I wonder if his eyes started to burn from the light on the piano. The lighting design, by Urs Schönebaum, manages to be both ultra-minimalist and distracting. A light bar running along the upper periphery of the Armory’s drill hall sits too low — where the wall meets the curvature of the ceiling. Instead of acting as a frame for it the line is cut inelegantly by the piano, an altogether more beautiful object — Levit plays a Steinway D Grand Piano lent to him by the trustees of the Independent Opera at Sadler’s Wells.

Igor Levit performing in 'Goldberg' at the Park Avenue Armory (photo by Marco Anelli, courtesy Park Avenue Armory)
Igor Levit performing in ‘Goldberg’ at the Park Avenue Armory (photo by Marco Anelli, courtesy Park Avenue Armory)

Nevertheless, Goldberg the experience is quite pleasant. It’s nice to be forced to listen to quiet and sit in a lounge chair in that cavernous space. (Curiously, the noises the headphones do not cancel include coughing and snoring.) But if the point is to change our way of listening to music, there are other ways to do this. We could be brought into small rooms and led through a series of listening exercises, for example. I would ask Levit if playing for an audience prepared via the Abramović Method for Music is different from playing for an unprepared one. Does he get the sense we are listening more acutely? If so, maybe that’s the point. (It would be for Cage.)

If the preparation aspect of Goldberg is unusual, the performance itself is not. Levit, gliding entrance notwithstanding, gives a traditional recital. While the Abramović Method for Music is an interesting idea, in Goldberg the Method does not have a worthy aim. Because it appropriates and almost vulgarizes traditional aspects of the recital concert — Levit, thanks to the lighting and runway gliding, becomes a heroic figure, and the concert hall certainly does not need additional airs of self-importance — Goldberg comes across as a champion of the cultural-elitist status quo, and that undermines its proposal.

'Goldberg' by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory
‘Goldberg’ by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory

The rich can, and do, buy peace and quiet for themselves. Likewise, being “prepared” to listen to classical music is a luxury. Who is Abramović kidding? We aren’t listening to the Goldberg Variations like music composition students or professional pianists, even after we’ve been prepared. The preparation is about getting us comfortable and relaxed. The headphones are the equivalent of the day spa’s bathrobe and slippers. You take them off and get your massage, then go home refreshed and recharged for the next day.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Reclining in near total darkness is a great way to experience a concert. It is easy, sitting in that big hall with a few hundred other people in headphones, to imagine oneself at, say, Bryant Park. (Or to picture Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor who sought to bring great classical music to the people of New York City, plunked down in a lounge chair, puffing a cigar and listening to his favorite Sousa march.) The chairs are not expensive and they are portable. Which city department do we need to lobby in order to make the lounge chair a part of all outdoor concerts?

'Goldberg' by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory
‘Goldberg’ by Igor Levitt and Marina Abramović at the Park Avenue Armory

Additionally, what a service the noise cancelling headphones could provide, not just in the concert hall, but in the public spaces of all urban centers. We all labor through a daily assault on our aural senses. Today’s iPhone videos and music and games and phone calls played out loud were preceded by the transistor radio, the Walkman, and the boombox. Each carved a private slice of public space for whoever was playing the device. Playing, not listening. What happened when these sounds — in retail stores, restaurants, gyms, trains, elevator lobbies — became ubiquitous? People stopped listening.

Yes, Abramović is right that we can benefit from being prepared to listen to music. And music can benefit too. If the Abramović Method for Music can do this for society at large, I’m all for it. Otherwise, it makes for a very precious night out.

Goldberg continues at the Park Avenue Armory (643 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through December 19.

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