All images of Marina Abramović’s Goldberg at the Park Avenue Armory, New York, December 2015. Photo by James Ewing.
At the time of her 2010 MoMA retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” Marina Abramović spoke in an interview about the challenge of documenting and transmitting (that is, re-performing) her art. Perhaps, she mused, the best documentation would be a story about the event told by a performer or viewer. Both parties, of course, must be “present” for a work of performance art to exist; and in its imperative to shock viewers into such presence, she went on, performance art was superior to painting, sculpture, and all other forms—all except music, which she ranked highest among the arts.
Abramović did not necessarily have in mind improvisational music, as one might expect of an artist uniquely dedicated to the here and now. Instead, she continued by speculating that if it were at all possible to transmit her works to the future it might be by treating them as scores—to be played “like Bach.” It is the performance of scripted music that she holds so highly; or, at any rate, she is attempting to map its permanence, its re-performability, onto performance art’s urgent, transient flare of engagement, and not the other way around.
The Park Avenue Armory, the most spectacular art space I know of, recently gave Abramović the chance to test, on a massive scale, her ideas about bringing music and performance art together—indeed, J.S. Bach’s immortal music and her own not-exactly-reticent art. Abramović collaborated there with a great young pianist, Igor Levit. He (re-)performed Bach’s Goldberg Variations in an experimental staging according to Abramović’s “method,” which can be boiled down to this: interrupting the normal in order to allow for the extraordinary. I attended the December 9th performance, and, in Abramović’s spirit of storytelling as documentation, I will try to describe my experience.
While holding music performance in high esteem, Abramović clearly did not have in mind the kind of classical concert that I, as a child of New York liberal upper-middle-class privilege, attended from an early age: among lawyers, architects, and cardiologists and their boring husbands; the claustrophobic smell of fine woolens and perfume; the shuffling programs and snoring; the perfunctory bravos and bravas—in short, the utter lack of presence one has to endure in order to hear, say, Alfred Brendel playing the Beethoven sonata cycle at Carnegie Hall, as I tried in my stoned twenties with all possible focus to do. Those five concerts were fine, but with the distractions, the triviality, the encroachments on my spirit, I was a hundred times more present when listening with headphones to Brendel’s impeccable recordings.
I bought tickets last year as soon as I heard about the Armory event, without much thought to Abramović’s participation. I had just come across Igor Levit’s celebrated debut recording of Bach’s 6 Partitas for keyboard, among the composer’s greatest works. Levit’s fingers—assured, exquisite in judgment, forceful—draw perfectly weighted shadows around Bach’s soaring, unfolding edifices. Like a fine draftsman rendering a cathedral, Levit seems to reveal the true structure. Would this amazing new artist be able to clarify, in the same way, the far knottier, more experimental, sometimes impossible textures of the Goldberg Variations?
I at first resented the idea that Abramović would be intruding on the music, even visualizing her sitting on Levit’s piano like Lucy on Schroeder’s in an old Peanuts strip. But as the date for the performance approached I reacquainted myself with the radicality of her art, and I began to relish how she might use her powers in service to composer, performer, and audience. As it turned out, Abramović never appeared in the flesh at all, intervening instead by means of innovative staging and “instructions” for the audience. Upon arrival at the Gilded Age fortress on the night of the performance, my wife and I were directed to walk up a staircase wide enough for a platoon. I’d heard about Abramović’s chief intervention, which couldn’t be simpler: upstairs, audience members are required to place their watches and phones in lockers. It is a dizzy feeling to untether, to rid one’s pocket of the ever-present threat of a sudden ring or throb. What if the babysitter needed us in an emergency? But—she could manage! Thus unchained, cast adrift, my wife and I repaired to the Edward Gorey-esque regimental bar for a drink. Unsure of the time, we didn’t linger. (Did Abramović have all the clocks removed?)
Nervous with anticipation, we passed into the dark, vast, iron-vaulted marvel of the Armory’s drill hall. In the near distance were concentric arcs of perhaps 500 folding wood-and-canvas lawn chairs, and in the center, a clearing. (No piano in sight.) It felt like we’d arrived at the hotel pool—we might have had towels in hand—and we began choosing seats. At last I spotted the dim shine of the instrument at the far end of the hall, tiny at that distance, a cavalry charge away.
As we entered we had been handed “noise cancelling” headphones, which I don’t think were actually electronic devices, but passive dampeners, as well as a card with clear instructions: we were to await the sounding of a gong before putting them on. A second gong strike would signal us to remove the headphones, after which, in the coy manner of Yoko Ono, we were instructed further: “Listen.” (No duh.) We settled into our chairs, which enforced relaxation by their soft pelvic tilt, and I remembered how I normally tense my shoulders at concerts, setting my elbows and leaning away from neighbors toward the music. Here when I leaned back—my only ergonomic option—there was a spacious sense of seclusion.
While awaiting the first gong, most people seemed to be following the preliminary instructions to “find stillness and silence.” It’s likely that many were also calmly speculating, as I was, on how the piano would be traveling toward the empty circle at the center: before or during the concert, and at what speed? Probably slowly; very slowly. A restless young couple in front of us were reprimanded for brandishing a cell phone, which was confiscated—good, the staff was on the ball. The gong sounded. As everyone emplaced their headphones, a few house lights high up on the vault dimmed and four pristine, Kubrickian rectangles of solid light appeared in lieu of the pairs of doors symmetrically midpoint the four walls, including where we’d entered. I felt antiseptically contained, like the astronaut at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey as he ages and is reborn in his acrylic Louis XVI bedroom.
Levit now was at his instrument—had he been sitting there all along? I used my fist to make a tiny pinhole that I could over-focus with, and I examined his face, round and arrogant in strong light coming from the keyboard. I closed my eyes for a spell. When I looked again minutes later, I noticed some slight change of the piano’s position as charted against the red glow of a distant exit sign.
Oliver Sacks, in Musicophilia (or is it Hallucinations?) explains that Beethoven’s deafness was not the impediment it might seem to laymen, since highly trained musicians can quite literally hear music in their heads. As Levit got closer by imperceptible degrees I noticed that his face was moving through a chain of emotions. Surely he was “pre-auralizing” his performance, playing the music in his mind’s ear. The geologically slow progress of the piano reminded me of the recent lunar eclipse; how the familiar sun-struck disk of the full moon, as the earth’s shadow crept across it, was transformed into a ghostly spheroid, gently shaded by stars. Something similar was happening to my uncalibrated sense of time, which ballooned in the darkness. Had five minutes passed or half an hour?
In the inevitability of the piano’s journey even the restless couple found patience. At last Levit came to a stop in the center of the circle. His face was now stilled, his million-dollar hands at rest in his lap, when the second gong cut through the cancelling muffle of the headphones—which I removed instantly so as to savor the end of the reverberation. Music! And what music yet to come! I rested the bulky headphones easily on the floor, like a drink on the verandah; and again, I was made aware, by contrast, of the fussiness of personal space in normal concert seating.
As I sank back in expectation I noticed a massive whirring sound like the jet engine coming in for a landing that begins the Beatles’ parodic prelude to the White Album, “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Perhaps Abramović had not scripted the mechanical noise per se—it must have been the ventilation system winding down—but the sound with its punning arena-rock connotations became an awkward aspect of the performance. Meanwhile, the lighting changed. The four bright doors were turned off, and a pure horizontal band of white light, as if projected from a laser level about twenty feet up, now drew a continuous contour around the immense hall. If Robert Wilson’s influence must be seen in the exquisitely slow, single-minded stage machinery (and Abramović has worked with him directly, most recently in 2012 at the Armory), here I inevitably thought of Robert Irwin’s eye-level horizontal scrims. (As I later discovered inside the program booklet, the lighting designer Urs Schoenbaum was given considerable autonomy—though not enough, it seems, to merit the front-page status of a collaborator.)
Distilled by (mostly) silence, darkness, and calm, a ready attention far superior to that of a conventional concert, an almost palpable collective focus, encircled the pianist. But when Levit struck the first gently walking notes of the Aria I was shocked at the faraway sound, as if the piano were not thirty feet from me but 300. He was starting in with a pianissimo whisper, of course, and the hinged open instrument had come to rest with its narrow end pointed toward me, where only a small portion of the sound projects. But the far-awayness of the notes felt drastic, crazy, like opium distortions I’ve read about. Perhaps it was partly the expectations that the headphones had encouraged, of being bathed in sound; yet I had heard soloists more distinctly in concert halls from the top back row.
As Bach’s treatment of the theme began to fragment into almost Cubistic ornamentation (in the Goldbergs a melodic theme is never plainly stated, contrary to the paradigm for sets of variations) my ears adjusted to the sound level. Okay, let’s settle in here, I said to myself, it’s only the beginning of a long journey. And with the first variation, which was as boisterous, glittering, and concise as any dance movement of the Partitas, I was hooked. Even so, the sense of clarity I had hoped for was not there: the sound was mushy. Notes got lost in the air.
Soon I noticed that Levit’s face was turned in quarter profile: the platform was imperceptibly rotating clockwise, and the back of the piano was headed my way. No matter, the variations had by now quieted down into more modest meditations, with weaving lyrical lines still familiar from the Glenn Gould LP I associate with my father’s heavyweight Koss headphones and his leather chair. I could sink into that feeling. So I let go of the desire for structural visions. Whatever Levit was illuminating in the music, I wasn’t hearing it clearly enough to see it.
The fifth variation shifted into gear, and it was probably Gould (or Walter Gieseking before him?) who first played it at the speed of a spinning top, with critical notes no one had noticed before sticking out sharply from the blur. Gould’s shocking breakneck tempos have got nothing on Levit, though, who can make them sound not eccentric, but inevitable; the musicianship of his speed may be unprecedented. It includes a buttery sense of touch that can also account, somehow, for the vivid plucking and multiple registers of a harpsichord—percussive effects ranging from throaty drum taps to the strum of a lute that Bach made typically thorough use of.
Alas, as Levit now took up Bach’s gauntlet, the notes he hurled at micro-speeds drifted upward to a 100-foot high barrel-vaulted ceiling and scattered like fog. It stuck to the far walls like wet oatmeal. Suffice it to say that as Bach layered texture upon texture in what feels like a Faustian push against the gates of heaven, or the limits of human comprehension—perhaps at the cost of leaving behind mere aural ecstasy—Levit’s heroic efforts were somewhat wasted on me. Ernst Gombrich in his great book on ornament described how the superimposition of increasingly complex moirés could result in an effect “like criss-crossing wave patterns on the surface of a pool.” Levit sometimes gets to this meta-level of pattern detection in his recordings, but in the drill hall the acoustical waters were far too choppy, too dank, and too distant.
As I drifted in and out of attention my level of insight was no higher, I suppose, than the stockbroker’s husband sitting across the aisle from me. (The white and prosperous crowd was decidedly uptown, if not quite Lincoln Center.) I began to wonder at the grandiosity of programming the Goldbergs in the first place—and I remembered how in college I’d associated Glenn Gould’s second recording of the Variations with Kafka and the Bartok Quartets, and with Neil Young’s nightmare of Cortez the Killer “dancing across the water.” How I had associated them with impossibility, failure, doom, absurdity. With (the sophomoric version of) the cult of difficulty. Most in the audience probably wouldn’t know a fugue from a gavotte (and to be clear, I can neither play a note nor read a score), but thanks to the well-marketed gravitas of Gould’s bookend recordings—his first and last—the mighty Goldberg Variations have become a familiar tourist monument. Must Abramović and Levit have decided on this particular work to perform? Isn’t the choice too Barnes & Noble, even a bit kitsch?
As for the sound quality, here’s a suggestion from a Monday-morning acoustician: hang an umbrella-like reflector from the ceiling low over the piano; it might even unfurl dramatically as part of the stagecraft. These were my complaints then and now, but I want to emphasize a hundred times more how truly extraordinary the experience was. Abramović’s “method,” one can hope, has crowbarred open the door to more experiments with music (re-)performance, which desperately needs to make its aliveness matter.
When the pianist paused dramatically before concluding with the restatement of the Aria, the work having cycled home, I noticed that the piano, too, had completed a revolution (during which the fully thrown sound of the open top had washed my ears luxuriously for a while). The return of those carefully striding notes after their prodigal journey, world-weary but uplifting, sad, noble, enduring—well, they’d never left, not since I’d first heard them as a child. Now they were being engraved afresh on that same once-stainless mental template, incarnated as I listened by a superbly fit young master in the home stretch of a marathon all but won—here and now in this fantastic extravagance of space, in this singular indoor battlefield, in this suspended moment of repose stolen from the city that never sleeps. Without a doubt, I was completely present.