How can music evolve from its present state? Try to imagine a new genre, something that hasn’t been done before, and you will invariably be stumped (unless you are some sort of hyper-talented genius). Just think of the music scene today: it abounds in revivals, neo-soul and neo-garage rock and neo-Beatles. Read almost any album review and it will reference derivatives of the reviewed artist as well as the influences they copped ideas from. Yet musicians somehow continue to astound with music that sounds entirely new. Sometimes this drive to be unique succeeds magnificently, and sometimes it fails miserably, though you can’t fault the purveyor for trying. There’s a lot of music in the world, and crafting a new style is a near-impossible task.
The second concert in Millennium Park’s “Loops and Variations” free concert series illustrated both successful and fruitless experimentation. It began with contemporary pieces, Franco Donatoni’s “Hot” and Fausto Romitelli’s “Professor Bad Trip,” Lessons II-III, played with admirable gusto and virtuosity by Ensemble Dal Niente. Both composers belong to an avant-garde wing of classical that utilizes impenetrable polyphony augmented by extended techniques (“Professor Bad Trip” contained a wah-wah cello solo). By pushing instruments to the edge of what they are capable and throwing unrelated lines of music together into an incoherent mass, the composers attempt to create a new, singular type of music. But if anyone can follow and enjoy a piece like this, they are deluding themselves. With no discernible form, consistent texture, distinct lines, unifying idea, or memorable moments of beauty or profundity, they are incomprehensible and unpleasant. This is the kind of music that incites riots.
The second half of the concert, however, was a satisfying reassurance that new music can be fun and doesn’t have to be impenetrable. The noise-pop band Deerhoof combines sugar-sweet, girlish vocals with barrages of lacerating guitar and drums. Moods, harmonies, time signatures and textures shift constantly, revealing a darkness in their contrast. Many of the songs in the performance were punctuated by bursts of distortion, drum fusillades and searing guitar lines combining in a polyphony reminiscent of the Donatoni and Romitelli pieces. Yet while those pieces were flat and confusing, Deerhoof managed to be utterly engaging. A large part of the success was their boundless enthusiasm and endearing quirkiness. Satomi Matsuzaki, on bass and vocals, bounced up and down in aerobic dances and jumping jacks. Greg Saunier broke or lost control of numerous drumsticks as he threw his whole body into smacking his drum set into submission, at one point running over to Matsuzaki’s mike to yelp into it, then sprinting back to his kit. Guitarists John Dieterich and Ed Rodriguez head-banged, twitched, muttered, all while in a power stance. Each member had their own unique tics, providing an entertaining and sometimes hilarious show. More importantly though, Deerhoof’s noise experiments succeeded because they are a rock band. Rock is a visceral music: you can feel the drums, bask in the distortion and, even with a band as weird as Deerhoof, occasionally sing along. Donatoni and Romitelli’s music, on the other hand, is intellectual and grating, without the energy and physicality of a rock band. Each individual line in their pieces asks to be followed and understood (an impossible feat), while the distortion in rock just wants to be felt and enjoyed. Perhaps experiments with new genres involving noise and overwhelming commotion should be left to rock bands, rather than classical composers. I personally would much rather hear a wah-wah guitar than a wah-wah cello.