Oct. 29--All the boundaries we take for granted in musical life -- including those marking the beginning and end of a performance, or separating performers from an audience -- are casually obliterated in "Crissy Broadcast," composer Lisa Bielawa's magical and heartbreakingly beautiful exercise in public art. What's left is a heightened aesthetic sense of the world around us.
"Crissy Broadcast," which had three performances over the weekend at San Francisco's Crissy Field -- under sunny and gray skies alike -- is part of Bielawa's "Airfield Broadcasts" project. It's a series of massive "spatial symphonies" involving hundreds of professional and amateur performers, moving through a wide-open space while playing short musical figures in far-flung counterpoint.
For this installment -- the first was in May in Berlin's Tempelhof Park, also a former airfield -- Bielawa enlisted more than a dozen performing ensembles from around the Bay Area, including the San Francisco Girls Chorus (of which she is the new artistic director), San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, the Great Wall Youth Orchestra (an ensemble performing on traditional Chinese instruments) and a wealth of young musicians from local colleges, high schools and middle schools.
There was one other key participant -- the foghorns that come rolling off the bay. Those weighty, resonant sounds, with their two notes a minor third apart, formed the basis of the piece's musical material.
For all the elusive charm of its effect, the scheme of "Crissy Broadcast" is deceptively easy to describe. It began with the performers packed close together, having synchronized their watches beforehand like some musical Impossible Mission Force.
The importance of that preparatory move soon became clear, because within a few minutes the ensembles began to disperse -- slowly but inexorably, in a series of carefully choreographed moves whose angles described a giant pinwheel. After the first 10 minutes or so of the hour-long piece, the performers were too far apart to coordinate their playing except by reference to the passage of time.
Here was the quasi-punning import of the title. "Broadcast" refers not to radio or television, but to the gradual dispersal that is the work's central formal idea. The piece doesn't actually end; it simply dissolves into its surroundings.
Bielawa's music is cannily designed to work in this arena. The score is built from a small repertoire of thematic ideas, beginning with the minor thirds of the foghorns, then a long melodic elaboration, then some distinctive rhythmic figures and harmonies.
There are extended silences -- the texture of the music is spare, and gets sparer as the performers careen slowly away in a musical re-enactment of the Big Bang. But the thematic links tie everything together, even across vast spaces.
Mother Nature helps
Saturday morning's performance benefited from all sorts of help from Mother Nature. The piece began shrouded in fog, with musicians and listeners tromping across fields of dew-soaked grass; by the end, the morning was bright and fine.
And for a piece whose basic elements are simple, the range of experiences offered by "Crissy Broadcast" was remarkable.
There was, by design, no way for a single listener to take in the whole piece. Depending on where you stood at any given time, the music might be coming to you in any of a dozen different ways. One moment, a tight throng of instrumentalists might be chugging away at a funky rhythmic figure; the next might bring choral chirps wafting toward you on the wind from 100 yards away, like a concentrated burst of birdsong.
And as the morning progressed, other sources of sound began to take part -- the traffic from nearby Doyle Drive, the casual conversation of the joggers and strollers who had no idea what else was going on. Well before the hour was up, in fact, "Crissy Broadcast" was beginning to feel less like a performance than like an ordinary Saturday in the park, with an occasional musical backdrop.
Yet that transition was part of what made the event so heartbreaking. Among other things, "Crissy Broadcast" is a meditation on the passage of time and the losses that come with it.
For anyone who'd been there from the beginning, the little snatches of music that were being tossed around had the quality of Proustian memories. They were rueful nods back to the time when all of those themes were robust and communally alive.
As "Crissy Broadcast" faded into the ether -- its hundreds of musicians scattered around the edges of the field, its sounds reverberating ever so faintly -- one felt that familiar combination of emotions that often attend a great musical performance. It was so enchanting -- and over so soon!
Joshua Kosman is The San Francisco Chronicle's music critic. E-mail: email@example.com
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