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“Pulse” at New World Symphony

Mercury Soul
Spacial Poetics

By Ben Griswold

While in Miami for a project, I took the opportunity to attend a performance at the New World Center this past Friday night, and I was impressed by what I saw.

I had read about the New World Symphony and its Frank Gehry-designed home in South Beach, Miami in a recent New Yorker article, so I was somewhat primed for the experience. I knew the building was, if not radical, then at least up to the task of allowing for an ambitious and experimental program in regards to how classical music is performed and received. And I knew that the design had incorporated new media technologies in various ways. In this current moment it can be difficult to anticipate how sophisticated such inclusions may be, and often it is better to be somewhat cynical.

Miami has a strong nightclub culture, and it also has the kind of money that readily supports art that courts or crosses boundaries. In “Pulse,” the New World Symphony managed to keep both constituent groups happy. The audience moved freely around the concert hall, and, in places, freely around the musicians as well. Bars were set up in the lobby and on the orchestra floor, to add to the nightclub vibe.

What I found significant about the experience was how well the architecture, music and social construct integrated with each other. The concert hall allows for the audience to move entirely around the space, even behind the orchestra, and also up and down from the floor to steep stadium-style seating and walkways above. Both the performance and the freedom of movement extended beyond the hall, where a sound system carried the performance out into into the lobby area where people drank and socialized, phoned and texted. Everywhere in the building were light shows, video and projections, so that every surface was moving. Far from being disorienting, the effect was enhancing, and it was a good instance of how architecture can work in tandem with digital media.

The musical program was rigorous and fun—orchestral works were interspersed with electronica and techno by a DJ (Mason Bates, who turned out to be one of the composers whose work was performed that evening). A work by Bartok started the evening, followed by a piece by Steve Reich.

The third work was a piece by a young Brazilian composer whose name I didn’t catch, but the piece was based on a famous World Cup soccer game. At two points in the piece, an errant trombone bleated out an off-key warble, and the conductor (dressed in a striped referee’s jersey) blew a whistle stopping the orchestra and flashed first a yellow card, and then a red card, ejecting the trombonist from the stage. The crowd roared.

The last work performed was by composer-DJ Mason Bates, an amalgam of electronica and orchestra, where turntables and beats were treated as solo instruments in the ensemble. It was a great finale to the evening.