Spring Awakes and Shakes as Boundaries Break Down

The first concert, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on April 30, brought together the virtuoso contemporary ensemble Real Quiet (cellist Felix Fan, pianist Andrew Russo and percussionist David Cossin) with the lovable audio-collage artists the Books (guitarist-vocalist Nick Zammuto and cellist Paul de Jong), and the contrasts between the two groups were delightfully clear.

The Books hardly lack talent, though their links to classical music don’t extend beyond John Cage, with his dogma, simultaneously rigid and relaxed, that anything can be music if you say it is; for them, the sainted past is Nick Drake, whose “Cello Song” they atmospherically covered. “Classy Penguin” was a series of chord progressions by Mr. Zammuto’s brother, accompanied, as most of the pieces were, by tightly coordinated visuals: in this case, home movies of the performers as kids. Other songs were backed up by snippets from industrial films, tourist shots of the Grand Canyon, images of highway traffic—the visual flotsam of American life.

It’s all very amiable in its (deceptively) slackeresque way. But classical music is different, and not just because the people who write it have academic letters after their names: It’s basically about developing small amounts of musical material into larger structures, and of the journeys you take while getting there. The examples from this concert, dispatched with steely expertise by the men of Real Quiet, were all “downtown” in their stylistic parameters, but they all aimed for something higher, more intense than pop.

The industrial-noise aesthetic heard in Annie Gosfield’s “Wild Pitch” may be the furthest thing from lyrical, but the situation—each performer locked in his own mechanized world—had a poignancy all its own. Phil Kline’s “The Last Buffalo” was more conservative, two movements about harmony and melody (nodding to Philip Glass and Messiaen, respectively) surrounding a powerfully rhythmic core. Marc Mellits’ “Selections from ‘Tight Sweater,’” despite its cheeky title, was a disappointment, its three movements sounding like a selection of Steve Reich outtakes.

 

I GO TO A BROADWAY MUSICAL ABOUT ONCE every three years, not being terribly interested in the latest crop of Sondheim imitators or in the recycling of dusty pop songbooks. But Duncan Sheik’s new musical Spring Awakening, made in collaboration with the writer Steven Sater, has broken new ground. As a member of Gen X, Mr. Sheik is approaching the middle of life, giving him just enough time to reflect back on the carnal terrors of adolescence exposed in Frank Wedekind’s play of 1891, upon which the musical is based. The largely teenage cast—praised by many before me—takes on these themes with the same self-possession that they bring to Mr. Sheik’s suave alt-rock score.

As a music critic, my job is to remind everyone that Duncan Sheik’s simple but sophisticated music is just as beguiling as it was in his self-titled pop album of 1996, but with more refinement and with a new level of dramatic insight. And that’s reason enough to go.

Russell Platt is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker.

Spring Awakes and Shakes as Boundaries Break Down