I can’t claim to have found absolutely everything that Kotik has done persuasive. I suspect one reason I never got around to writing about the S.E.M. Ensemble performance I attended at Paula Cooper Gallery last October, which featured a mix of works by Kotik and Alvin Lucier, was that I couldn’t make peace with assessing on a deadline William William, Kotik’s 2016 dance opera choreographed by Matilda Sakamoto, based on one fleeting encounter. The performance sounded solid enough, but I couldn’t parse to my satisfaction a relationship, or intentional lack of one, between the music and motion.
The remainder of that program, though, was as visionary and satisfying as anything Kotik has produced, both in its inclusion of recent and new works by yet another elder statesman of the experimental tradition, Alvin Lucier, and in its intent to resonate meaningfully with Sol Le Witt’s Wall Drawing #368 (1982), on view behind the performers.
The connection was in one sense utilitarian: Le Witt had supported S.E.M. and worked with Lucier. But it also was implicit in the way disparate idioms cohered meaningfully: how, for instance, Lucier’s muzzy harmonic distortions in Navigations for Strings (1991), the handwritten score of which Lucier had presented to Le Witt as a gift, were echoed in the illusory ripples of Le Witt’s brightly painted diagonal stripes.
Those same lines then visually reinforced the long strand of wire that conjoined the violinists Conrad Harris and Pauline Kim Harris in Love Song (2016), an obsessively throbbing duo Lucier conceived after witnessing Robert Wilson’s stark, distanced staging of the love duet in Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera.
Watching these excellent violinists — who are married, and perform together as String Noise — circle each other slowly, concentration intense and focus rapt despite the taut, resonant filament that that kept them apart, was a mesmerizing experience unlike any I could recall. Once again, I had been a beneficiary of Kotik’s unswerving belief in the creative potency and expressive power of rigorous contemporary art.
As I write this, Kotik is in the Czech Republic overseeing yet another of his quixotic tiltings: Ostrava Days, the biennial workshop and festival for contemporary music he established in 2000, for which he founded the chamber group Ostravská banda while also molding the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra into a potent new-music ensemble.
Quite possibly it’s because of Ostrava Days business that we’ve yet to learn what Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble have in store for their 2017-18 New York season. In one sense, though, the details hardly matter: Kotik has spent a lifetime showing us exactly what he stands for, and what we all have to gain by paying attention.
Alex Ross, “The Classical and the New in a Musical Adventure”
The New York Times, Dec. 3, 1993
Steve Smith, “A Work’s Long Road to New York”
The New York Times, Dec. 22, 2010
Nate Chinen, “Review: A New-Music Concert by the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble”
The New York Times, May 1, 2015
Seth Colter Walls, “SEM Ensemble review – Roscoe Mitchell played with startling precision”
The Guardian, May 10, 2016
David Menestres, “Scores on the Sidewalk: Julius Eastman’s Femenine“
VAN Magazine, Aug. 18, 2016