The scene is southwestern rural England, August 2000, and I'm a student at the Dartington International Summer Courses. I'm studying with the pianist Joanna MacGregor during the festival, working on pieces by Bach and Harrison Birtwistle (whom I also work with that summer). It's a cool late summer night, one of the last nights of the festival, and there is a performance in a large shed in the middle of a field. No lights whatsoever, and one has to find one's way there literally by moonlight.
The show is the "final project" of one of the courses, a course in improvisation and collective composition. There's just one piece played, an hour-long set without a break, and the effect it has on me is hard to describe. I sit down with my friends on a crate-like seat on one side of the shed, and as a member of the audience I take in what this group has created, a long dreamlike collage piece in fits and starts. It's polystylistic: a section of rich classical string playing followed by a jazz section with fast drumming, then a hip-hop rap, and then a section I don't understand but get completely lost in. It is something like a slow, somewhat distracted university marching band anthem, complete with tooting low brass. A vocal group chimes in with Swingle Singers-like doo-wop asides. The piece is in 7/4 time and goes on a continuous loop through the same harmonies. I lose track of how long it goes on, but I gradually feel warm, enveloped by the sound and by the smiles of the performers.
Somehow, I believe this night was a turning point in my understanding of new music and its performance; the memory comes back to me often, and I thought of it again two weeks ago when I was up at EMPAC with ICE, doing a program, played continuously, of music from five centuries. Every kind of music informs every other, and one listens--really, to any kind of concert--simultaneously with old and new ears, ears of experience and ears which are only in the moment. In the blissful mix of styles that I heard that night at Dartington, I was inside and outside of myself all at once, and clearly, it was unforgettable.