Making Music with Helium Tanks and Suspension Coils

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“There’ve been many unexpected challenges this week,” admitted Alan Gilbert before the second half of Thursday night’s New York Philharmonic performance of Magnus Lindberg's Kraft. “Getting to the podium has been one of them.”

It wasn’t too hard to see why. The front stage of Avery Fisher Hall was near overflowing with percussion units: sawed-off helium tanks, bamboo chimes, amorphous ceramic objects, the eviscerated remains of Staten Island automobiles, coils, sheets, blocks and gongs.

If you still felt underwhelmed, there were nine instrumental stations spread out on two levels in the hall itself, one of which was in the center of the audience and included a medium-sized gong suspended from the ceiling. Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention the bright red, car hood in front of the conductor’s podium, emblazoned with the words “Rapid Sewer Cleaner” in gold lettering.  

Kraft has finally come to New York, carrying with it the local, found-object flavor that Lindberg requires when installing this twenty-five-year-old (but already legacy-defining) piece. It would have been easy to worry about how such hyper complexity would be received on a program that also featured Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun and Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. But any weight of solemn seriousness was lifted as Gilbert walked on stage with Lindberg, an audio engineer and five Philharmonic soloists, all clad in brightly colored polo shirts, black jeans and sneakers.

Suddenly, smiles were sneaking across the faces of many in the audience. Maybe they had the same impression as I -- one of glimpsing these seasoned musicians in their post-graduate school, experimental craftsmen days, tinkering away with single-minded concentration on matters purely sonic.

The relaxed presentation was cemented when, after Gilbert gave a demonstration of the painstakingly collected found objects and traditional instruments, he asked Lindberg if he had anything to add. The composer said with a collegial shrug, “Let’s go for it.” 

A piece like Kraft eludes easy classification, though you can hear its influence in the expanded vocabulary of contemporary, noise-rock and percussion ensembles. There’s a bravery in its quest for new orchestral sounds, its attempt to send destructive, resonant shocks into the confines of a traditional orchestral format. And yet for all its kaleidoscopic color and dizzying counterpoint, a powerful structure that unites this complex mass of sound. It’s no surprise that Lindberg spent a full year designing the computer program that aided in crafting its intricate, interlocking rhythms.

You can also hear and see an ambivalent relationship to tradition in Kraft. There’s no doubting the intense concentration of the ensemble, even during moments when a trio of musicians nod to coordinate their entrances of blowing through rubber tubes into large plastic water jugs. The sound produced is almost incidental in importance to the rapt attention and focused anticipation for what the sound could be. In moments such as these and as when the percussionists sprint down the aisles, with what seems like a rhythmic intentionality to their footfalls, you can’t help smiling at the impressive theatricality of Kraft’s presentation.  

“Sound” was the word Gilbert used to describe what united the entire program, and the flexibility of the term comes into full focus in Kraft. First of all, the piece explores gradual modulations from one sonority to another, such as the scraping of piano strings with metallic objects transforming into sustained tremolos in the violins.

Secondly, the sound in Kraft has an enhanced spatial element to it. Music emanates from all corners of the hall, sometimes swirling dizzyingly in immersive surround-sound, sometimes moving in methodical clockwise motion from one corner to another. It’s an experience of expansion and convergence and, as evidenced by the many listeners smiling and looking all around the hall, people abandoned themselves happily to the maelstrom.

Kraft stands out as a powerfully communal experience. I’d never caught so many smiles and expectant expressions of wonder at a Philharmonic concert before. The overall impression of charm and inspiration far outlasted the fade-out of even the most resonant of found objects.