At the performance of Goldberg at the Park Avenue Armory, starring Igor Levit with direction from Marina Abramovic and lighting by Urs Schonebaum, I was entranced by the commingling of artistic voices and how they translated into a pure expression of music for the audience to experience.
We were asked to lock up our belongings and we were then given a score and noise-canceling headphones. We found lounge chairs in which we were to sit, facing the center of the Drill Hall, which was illuminated by four screens of bright, white light (reminiscent of the productions of Robert Wilson).
The first gong rang and we obediently placed our headphones on as the instructions dictated. With my headphones on, I was immediately reminded of John Cage and his revelation that one could never be in complete silence because one always hears two sounds – the high pitch of the central nervous system and the low murmur of blood in circulation. Once I acknowledged this, I tried to focus on the experience of the Abramovic Method for Music and “embrace the unfamiliar sensation of doing nothing.”
But then, I saw Levit sitting at the piano on the platform, slowly making its way toward the center of the Drill Hall. I was captivated by his presence and his lack of stillness. He was clearly antsy, fidgety, maybe even nervous (in all fairness, it was the dress rehearsal). He had a long slow journey ahead of him and yet, he could not settle into the moment. I couldn’t tear my attention away. I had to keep watching as he continued toward the center, my own anxiety heightened by this spectacle. I wanted to stand up and yell, “Get it together!” But then again, who am I?
The second gong rang and we removed our headphones in order to listen, as the instructions stated. A horizontal line of white light appeared along the edges of the hall and above the piano keys, flooding Levit’s hands in light. “Framing the space using light, ” says Schonebaum, “gives a focus point for the audience and the freedom for the music to go beyond.”
Levit then began to play what Peter Laki describes as “nothing short of a complete encyclopedia of musical forms, styles, and keyboard techniques existing in Europe in Bach’s time.” Levit’s hands seemed disconnected to everything in the world as he played the 30 variations ranging from involved hand-crossing pieces to the “lavishly ornamented slow movements.” The platform on which Levit was seated slowly rotated in a circle, and as it did, the horizon line of light was reflected along the piano’s curves, creating an additional dynamic and subtly beautiful focal point.
The pianist finished by repeating the first variation and upon its completion, the audience broke into a thunderous applause. Finally free to do something other than listen. It was a transformative moment, like waking up from a nap in which everything in the world somehow becomes aligned and there is clarity where there wasn’t before.
After the performance, my friend and I were sharing our thoughts on the experience. I knew he had his eyes closed during the Abramovic Method part, and, not wanting to disturb his meditation, I didn’t nudge him to watch Levit’s journey to the center. He responded by saying, “Next time a musical prodigy is floating down the middle of a monumental art space in what appears to be an inexplicable moment of anxious freak out and tremendous build-up…And I have my eyes closed deep in nirvana…Wake me up!!!”
All in all, Goldberg is a masterwork in experiencing classical music, which Abramovic believes is the “most immaterial form of art.”