New York Philharmonic

The Curious Power of Outdoor Music

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 06.19.14 in Features

[From a Room is a series from architecture and classical music critic Justin Davidson that examines how people and spaces work together to create great venues. Read parts one and two. — Ed.]

The cruelest thing you can do to a note is to play it outdoors. Inside, it bounces merrily around walls before it hits the ear, acquiring character, depth and resonance. Outside, it just floats away like a helium balloon, never to be heard again. And yet, wall-less, roofless, stageless spaces surely have shaped more musical traditions and provoked more ecstasies than any room or hall. Brass bands, field songs, Indonesian gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, Hungarian folk dances, outdoor rock concerts — whenever you hear a style that depends on sharp attack and biting timbre, but not on a long tail of dying sound, you know it was born under the open sky.

‘The modern concert world has had to conduct a much more delicate negotiation with nature.’

Those traditions evolved in a quieter, more rural world, where the distance from shack to street or church to home was small enough that there was hardly any difference between those who performed and those who merely listened. The modern concert world has had to conduct a much more delicate negotiation with nature. It’s a paradox of symphonic music that the greatest evocations of the outdoors need a big hall to achieve their full effect. I have stood on the lip of Utah’s Bryce Canyon and listened for the imaginary sounds of Des Canyons aux étoiles, Olivier Messiaen’s exuberant orchestral tribute to that forest of rose-colored hoodoos. No such luck. Strauss’s Alpensinfonie would get lost on an Alpine pass, Beethoven’s Pastoral couldn’t compete with a real summer storm, and of course no singer would dare perform Schubert’s Die Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) in the middle of a frost-rimed field. Pop music has partly solved the problem by just adding electricity, so that plucking a guitar string, a gesture that once produced only the most intimate vibrations, can now send a sustained note screaming across a football field.

In our noisy, urbanized existence, outdoor music serves two, apparently contradictory purposes: charm and revolution. Performances en plein air, like picnics and sidewalk restaurants, make up in atmosphere what they lack in concentration, and that is a powerful instrument of pleasure. My concertgoing memories are rich with vignettes in which the setting is clearer than the music I actually heard: some baroque concerto grosso (a Brandenburg, perhaps?) in a courtyard along the Via Giulia in Rome; various lute and viol ensembles that took up positions all over Urbino, Italy, during the town’s early music festival; a student string quartet in downtown Aspen, Colorado; a stealth virtuoso who commandeered one of the upright pianos that had been deliberately scattered around New York. These are cinematic scenes, in which the soundtrack appears for a moment, then fades away.

‘Whenever you hear a style that depends on sharp attack and biting timbre, but not on a long tail of dying sound, you know it was born under the open sky.’

But the outdoor concert can also pack political punch, even in classical music, and nobody was more astute at finding the right music for the right setting at exactly the right time as Leonard Bernstein. In 1948, as Israel’s war of independence raged, Bernstein and a corps of musicians showed up in the desert town of Beersheba to play a concert for embattled soldiers in an archeological dig. Egyptian planes noticed troops massing in the Negev and Egypt braced for an Israeli assault, never imagining that so many uniformed men were merely mobilizing for Mozart. Nearly 20 years later, at the tail end of the Six Day War, Bernstein returned to Israel, celebrating the capture of Jerusalem by conducting Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (with Isaac Stern) at the Mt. Scopus amphitheater. “I’m amazed the concert came off so well,” Bernstein later remarked. “Everything was against it: the wind, the sun. But somehow nothing seemed to matter.” Two more decades passed, the Berlin Wall fell and, in December, 1989, Bernstein conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in front of the now battered and ineffectual barrier that had once divided Europe. Instead of “Freude!” (“joy”), the chorus shouted “Freiheit!” (“freedom”). All three of these events could have taken place in a concert hall, or at the very least a shed — but then they would have meant immeasurably less. Stripped of their theatrical setting, their sense of thrilling improvisation, and their air of bravado, they would never have been able to suggest that music can change the world.

Composers, too, have harnessed the radical potential of open space. John Cage believed that the outdoor world, whether in nature or in the city, produced its own endlessly fascinating music that required no professional interference. “I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more,” he said. “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.”

The most reliable date for outdoor music in New York City rolls around every June 21, when Make Music New York floods the five boroughs with solstice sounds, ranging from mass sing-alongs and bhangra street parties to app-guided audio walking tours. It’s a way of rediscovering the city through the ears. I have two powerful memories of that day, spaced a year apart. In 2010, six groups of percussionists (including Steven Schick and Doug Perkins) occupied the lake in Central Park, lining the shores, perching on boulders, and bobbing on rafts, to perform Iannis Xenakis’s explosive Persephassa. While the audience drifted on rowboats, politely jostling for shade, the musicians unleashed a precisely-timed storm of percussion that, rather than assault the placid boaters and unsuspecting ducks, planed harmlessly into the trees. Xenakis’s fearsomely brilliant music mingled with the Manhattan soundtrack of children’s shouts and birds and wailing ambulances. For a little while, city and music had managed to soften each other.

The following year, an even larger flock of roving percussionists spread out along paths and under trees in Morningside Park, on a bluff below Columbia University, to perform John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit. The composition merged with the landscape. Audience members meandered among the widely spaced ensemble, so that no two listeners’ experience was quite the same, yet all those individually perceived slices of sound accumulated into an unmistakably shared event. It was only towards the end, when the musicians converged on an open lawn to play together, before gradually dropping off into silence, that we could all be sure we were hearing the same piece. The day was a triumph of music without walls.