N.J.E. Heads to Washington and Exits the Comfort Zone


The New Juilliard Ensemble continued its long history of performances outside the walls of Juilliard with its December performance in Washington, D.C.


Led by founder and director Joel Sachs, the ensemble collaborated with the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery’s Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series. Currently in its seventh year, the series strives to expand the themes of the galleries’ collections and exhibitions. The concert, “Divination and Beyond: The Indeterminate Sound,” linked the musical offerings of the ensemble with a new exhibit at the museum, titled “Falnama: The Book of Omens.” The exhibit, which ran through January 24, focused on the illustrated texts known as the Falnama (Book of Omens), which are described on the Freer and Sackler Web site as being “the most splendid tools ever devised to foretell the future.” By consulting the position of the planets, casting horoscopes, or interpreting dreams, the art of divination was widely practiced throughout the ancient Islamic world.

The idea of “divining,” explored beautifully in the exhibit, illustrated the fortune-telling practice that effectively takes destiny out of the hands of humans, and this is where the programming for the concert took its cue. Performing works by John Cage, Henry Cowell, Toshi Ichiyanagi, Francis Schwartz, and James Tenney, Dr. Sachs illustrated the connections between an exhibit of 16th- and 17th-century artwork and 20th-century music by presenting a wide rage of works that incorporate chance principles. The majority of the pieces performed will never sound the same twice due to their “indeterminacy.” 

The program notes explore this idea of indeterminacy thoroughly, perhaps to prep audience members for what they were about to hear, or not hear. One section states: “Indeterminacy can mean using aleatory procedures in composing, such as throwing dice … or using computers to create a composition randomly. It can mean writing out the composition completely but leaving it to the performer to decide the order of events, or it can mean giving verbal instructions by which the performer makes decisions about the composition.” The ensemble took a step even further outside the norm by performing works that require musicians to do things such as read a new page of never-before-seen music on stage during the concert, trade music with other performers when searching for a particular sound, play a piece without a clear idea of when it would end, and offer dramatic interpretations beyond the music itself. In Francis Schwartz’s Cannibal-Caliban, the musicians are prompted to stare, wink, and even scream at the audience.

On December 10, after a week of rehearsals that included seminars on how to silent scream at an audience and how to walk across a stage and “steal” another performer’s music, the 12-member ensemble traveled by train to Washington for what would be an incredibly exciting and eventful day. The morning was spent in a dress rehearsal warming up and getting used to the space. We were given a private tour of the exhibit and then prepped for the evening concert. The performance was nothing short of exhilarating, since the musicians, like the audience, had no idea what the pieces would sound like. With only a few guidelines and even less actual music, we walked on stage with little more than our instruments and entered into a new world of performance, a world that we entered, and created, with the audience by our side.


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