Any holiday is a good excuse to make music, but that idea has been taken to the extreme by the Make Music New York festival. On the summer solstice, June 21, the longest day of the year becomes an excuse for a sonic street party thrown on a totally outsize scale.
While only in its fifth edition in New York, Make Music is a longstanding global affair. The original concept comes from France, where a June 21st Fête de la Musique was inaugurated in 1982. This year, musicians ushered in the solstice — summer or winter, depending — in more than 450 cities and towns around the world, from Paris to Montevideo to Jakarta to Istanbul.
I set out armed with an umbrella and sunscreen; it was that kind of weather day, complete with oppressive humidity. Between a good walking shoes and a fully loaded Metrocard, I planned to cover about 10 miles in Manhattan. (The concerts spread out all five boroughs of the city and all conceivable genres, from a summit of West African griots in the Bronx to local hip hop artists on Staten Island.)
Part of the New York celebrations is the temporary installation of 88 upright pianos scattered around the city, each souped up by visual artists and available for anyone to play, courtesy of a nonprofit called "Sing for Hope"', which will remain in place until July 2. I came upon the first one right away walking uptown at Greeley Square, just below Herald Square. On a gray, damp Tuesday morning, this upright was silent — even though it was hot pink with an enormous bow on top, as much a delectable consumable as any pretty dress at nearby Macy's. (As it turns out, this "pop-up piano" was designed by Isaac Mizrahi.) I drew close to take a better look at sheet music that had been tied to it: Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano." How perfect!
What was in order for my day was not a random sampling of the more than 1,000 acts on offer. Instead I wanted to focus on performances that really took the measure of what was spatially possible in the great outdoors. My first stop, then, was the heart of Wall Street, where the contemporary ensemble Yarn/Wire was leading a performance of Louis Andriessen's Hoketus.
The piece was written for two quintets physically separated from each other. In this case, musicians had been granted permission to play from the balconies of the impressively regal New York Stock Exchange, while their colleagues were lined up along the sidewalk. As tourists and financiers edged past, their reactions ranged from befuddled to stoic to annoyed to delighted and back again.
One corporate-looking guy in a suit and tie nudged his buddy and snapped his fingers sardonically. "Boy, you can really dance to this!" he sneered. Well, no, you can't quite pull that off, though I spied a couple of hipsters attempting to. Yet Andriessen's piece is quite amazing. The two groups of musicians alternate notes, never playing together, and the effect recalls not just the medieval technique of hocketing, but also antiphonal music by Giovanni Gabrieli. Standing on narrow Wall Street, with marble temples to finance soaring up overhead, I felt as if I were in a modern-day secular cathedral.
From there, I hopped on an uptown train toward Central Park. I had given myself enough time to be sure to score a rowboat for the next performance — yes, music to be performed on the lake — but I was pleasantly waylaid by Japanese pianist Taka Kigawa, whom I was told had prepared a program of Ravel and Debussy for his turn at one of the painted uprights. In itself, it wasn't a terrific performance, and certainly no means by which to judge Kigawa. The piano's sound was tinny and small, and he was for all intents and purposes drowned out by a nearby street dance crew. But as a bit of performance art, dropping turn-of-the-century French music into the midst of a lush allee was absolutely perfect.
Onward, then, to the rowing. Last year, the apex of Make Music New York was a performance of Iannis Xenakis' Persephassa. For this summer, there was the prophetically named Swelter; the grim humidity had broken and made way for a brilliantly sunny afternoon. Conceived by three Australian sound artists named Julian Day, Luke Jaaniste and Janet McKay, some three dozen brass players, assembled in small sub-groups, were stationed around the Central Park Lake. The audience gathered around the shoreline and in rowboats out in the water. The brass calls really resounded across the shining surface.
Just before the performance, I caught up with one of the French horn players, Nathan Koci, who plays with TILT Brass and is the operations manager for the MATA Festival. (These emphatically named organizations organized Swelter.) He told me that the composers had taken boats out yesterday to experience their new piece in its full effect.
"One of the very best aspects to Make Music," Koci told me, "is that we get to use the city as a canvas. I mean, if we tried to organize something like this on our own — get all the permits and what have you — well, we'd spend all our time doing only that. So this gives us an opportunity that we really wouldn't have otherwise."
A video preview of John Luther Adams' "Inuksuit" at Morningside Park.
That feeling was only underscored by the end of the day, when I turned in my rowboat and raced uptown to catch John Luther Adams' Inuksuit in Morningside Park. Written 2 years ago, it is scored for dozens of musicians and meant to be played outdoors. In this case, percussionist Doug Perkins, who organized Persephassa last June worked with the Miller Theatre to summon some 99 drummers from across the country to play Adams' work.
The piece, which begins with musicians huddled together and playing haunting skims of sound on conch shells and paper cones, gradually opens up both sonically and spatially. The musicians migrate to stations around the venue with gongs, glockenspiels, drums, cymbals, sirens and other instruments. The audience commingles with the musicians, circulating around the venue, and so each listener's experience is singular: Where you stand and where you walk determines what you hear.
My circumambulations led me higher and higher until finally I was perched high above most of the musicians at the very top of the park. Around me were shimmering gongs, triangles and a glockenspiel, while I could hear the echoes of other percussionists in the canyon-like hollow below. The effect was just magical, and a magnificent way to end the longest day of the year.