Marina Abramović’s career as a performance artist has focused around pushing the limits of the body and mind. In one of her well-known early performances, Rhythm 0 (1974), the audience left her bloody and abused after she gave them permission to use a set of available objects on her body in any way they chose. Her fascination with the relationship between the artist and the audience eventually led her to The Artist is Present (2010) in which she sat at the Museum of Modern Art for three months, making silent eye contact with curious participants. This experience made her realize the importance of immaterial art. Music, she claims, is the most immaterial of all the arts. Abramović thus developed a method for listening to music which she applied publicly for the first time at the Park Avenue Armory last Monday night with pianist Igor Levit’s majestic performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

The audience at Park Avenue Armory © James Ewing
The audience at Park Avenue Armory
© James Ewing

It is important to give a quick overview of the multistep Abramović Method for Music. First, the listener deposits all belongings in a locker, and then takes a set of noise-cancelling headphones. Next, the listener sits in a lounge chair and finds stillness and silence. When the gong sounds, all listeners put on noise-cancelling headphones and sit in silence for about 30 minutes, until a second gong signals the headphones to be removed. After the cleansing process is finished, the performance begins.

The process seems simple enough; however, its inception was in no way tidy for this New York audience. The first step went according to plan; lockers were scattered throughout the lobby, and no cell phone or jacket went unstored. But, finding a white lounge chair inside the space was noticeably stressful for inseparable couples, and even sitting down to find stillness proved impossible for most New Yorkers who instead chose to stand around to chat casually before being forced into position by the sounding gong.

<i>Goldbergs</i> © James Ewing
Goldbergs
© James Ewing

During a period of silence lasting somewhere around a half an hour, the piano, on a platform with Levit on board, slowly progressed from the far end of the space to the center. Nevertheless, once the second gong sounded, the New Yorkers unleashed an onslaught of coughing in such abundance to make one wonder if the first note would be audible. However, the moment Levit began the Aria, the audience froze in hypnotic wonderment.

Levit’s interpretation of the Goldberg Variations is the best I have heard in my lifetime and will undoubtedly be one of the most definitive of this generation. His control of Bach's polyphonic lines is beyond superb, and this emphasized the important balance critical to each contrapuntal line. Abramović aside, Levit’s performance alone of Bach’s masterpiece would have been enough to transport any audience into a state of transcendent bliss.

Igor Levit © James Ewing
Igor Levit
© James Ewing

Levit performed the work on a large Steinway grand with a neon strip installed along the top of the keyboard. The piano slowly made a 360-degree rotation throughout the duration of the concert, which gave the audience an ever-changing perspective performance. In fact, circular shapes and rotation were an important part of overall staging. From the mind of lighting designer Urs Schönebaum, the circumference of the space was lit by a single LED strip that slowly dimmed through the duration of the performance. In addition, the white lounge chairs – the long canvas kind used for sunbathing – encircled the performance space to provide a unanimous listening position for each participant.

While Abramović’s Method for Music is such a straightforward idea, the audience has several years of practice before mastering the technique. Music concerts are seen not only as a chance to hear great performances, but also as a social activity and a form of entertainment. I strongly advocate for the continuation of her method at future concerts and would like to see audiences become more comfortable with the process. However, at the present moment, American society has a long way to go before a few hundred individuals can successfully achieve a unified silence, especially in a metropolis like New York City. 

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