NORTH ADAMS — For music fans, the prospect of an eventual return to live performances has glittered on the horizon like a seductive mirage, one that vanishes every time you approach and start dates slide further back, first by weeks, then by months, then by seasons. Yet as traditional concert halls remain dark and summer festivals remain online, a few small and intrepid groups with flexibility and willing presenters have been testing the waters of live performance during the pandemic itself. Curious to see how such an exercise would fare, I ventured on Friday to one of the first such gatherings in the area, a live performance by the Bang on a Can collective at Mass MoCA.
Before arriving, we were duly forewarned about rules and regulations. The concert would be held outdoors in the museum’s Courtyard D. Crowd size would be limited to less than 100. Masks required. No seating provided. Instead we would each be given a 6-by-6-foot square of concrete to make our own. In its bizarre way it all sounded rational enough, no stranger than everyday life.
Upon arrival, however, the keen anticipation of finally hearing live music began to dim ever so slightly as the reality of the listening arrangements became clear. Our squares were each designated with stark white lines, and separated by wide corridors of space marked with arrows to direct the one-way flow of traffic as in a supermarket. To communicate with a friend in the adjacent square, I found myself resorting to text messaging. So much for the vaunted experience of gathering as an audience. Everyone appeared grateful to be there, and no one questioned the necessity of these safety measures. But there was also no escaping the irony that a gathering meant to restore a sense of the collective seemed at first to only underline our respective aloneness. As the crowd, such as it was, continued trickling into the vast courtyard space, solo listeners and small groups stood inside their painted squares, looking around in what seemed like a state of numb dissociation. Were we really here for a concert or was this perhaps all some kind of high-minded conceptual prank, a performance art piece about collective anomie?
When the music finally began, however, the mood in the courtyard instantly shifted. The musicians, each expressing intense gratitude to be there, appeared from inside a gallery in Building 5, performing near the edge of a loading dock that opens out onto the courtyard. And after the requisite welcomes, suddenly there it was, the opening work: Steve Reich’s “Electric Counterpoint,” in a performance by guitarist Taylor Levine. As the light slowly faded from the sky, the sound of the composer’s pulsing drones fanned out over our field of tiny squares. This is emotionally cool music yet here it arrived with an extra touch of warmth. I felt keenly aware of the directness of the sightlines connecting performer and audience: unmediated at last.
Violinist Todd Reynolds followed Levine with his own composition entitled “Outerborough,” an inventive work that builds from a simple pizzicato pulse to a wailing, densely layered climax. Bassist Gregg August’s genre-bending “Trio” came next, making resourceful use of layered Afro-Cuban rhythms. And pianist Vicky Chow somehow anchored the entire evening with three expansive solo piano etudes by Philip Glass, dispatching them with a technique sheathed in equal parts by poetry and steel. Cellist Zoë Keating’s set of her own eloquently live-looped compositions brought the evening to a close.
Aspects of the refined and the elemental commingled in much of this music, the latter boosted by the enormous speakers placed below the loading dock. It seemed obvious that only a modest proportion of the night’s music-making would have translated well online, where sound vibrates mostly between the ears and rarely in the body.
After the last work, as listeners packed up folding chairs and shuffled awkwardly into socially distanced exit lines, it also seemed obvious that the concert had been a welcome revisiting of live music but hardly a return. Performances under these conditions serve as a reminder of the real thing, a placeholder — and in their best moments, they underscore how much the place itself is worth holding.
As we were guided out of the courtyard by an usher in a face shield, I thought about the particular generosity of spirit, so easily taken for granted, in the unmediated connection between musician and audience. You may have paid handsomely for your ticket, but what you receive in the moment of a truly sincere live performance is a gift-offering pure and simple. The theologian Martin Buber famously wrote of the I-Thou relationship, one that reaffirms the inner dignity of each participant. Maybe it is precisely this dynamic, or even the potential for its existence, that is missing from virtual concerts, as musicians send out their art into the faceless void, and it is received in solitude through a glass screen. For now, I’ll take the painted white squares anytime — and with gratitude.