in: Reviews

November 16, 2010

A Real Collage of New Music

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Collage New Music, one of Boston’s most prominent contemporary music ensembles, offered an eclectic program on Nov. 15, at the Longy School’s intimate Pickman Concert Hall. The concert featured music by three Northeast-based composers (that is, the Boston and New York areas), as well as one composer currently based at the University of Southern California; the three “local” composers, Fred Lerdahl, Donald Wheelock, and Andy Vores, were in attendance. The ensemble’s director, David Hoose, opened the program with a brief introduction to the ensemble’s history and future projects, with frequent references aimed at the group’s faithful followers.

The ensemble, primarily local members of the performance community as well as a few “friends of the ensemble” from outside of the area, performed their parts with veteran skill in executing the particular technical challenges associated with contemporary music. Hoose’s direction was confident and poised, again belying the challenges of his task.

Imbrications, written by Fred Lerdahl, features the juxtaposition of fast-moving, “noodling” theme fragments against cantus firmus-like statements of the melodies. The work, with a brief “fantasia” on the popular tunes “Happy Birthday” and “Auld Lang Syne,” was written in honor of American composer Andrew Imbrie’s 80th birthday. Lerdahl constructed this piece using “imbrications,” that is, the repetition of a regular pattern in which the edges overlap. This abstract pattern, though not always immediately perceptible, personifies the pieces itself. This is hyper-sophistication at its best, a musical “wink and a nod” that invites the audience to be a part of the musical experience.

Although Music for Seven Players by Donald Wheelock is in one continuous movement, the composer suggests that the work may be heard as a “suite… with elided movements.” Each of these smaller sections features sharp musical contrast to its neighboring sections, though these contrasts are effectively balanced by motivic unity. The work creates an effective balance between older and newer musical styles; melodic lyricism is contrasted and occasionally juxtaposed with tight counterpoint, the latter often featuring melody in combination with multiple countermelodies. The end of the work offers a musical reminiscence of the older tonal style, as the violin holds a pitch that, in relation to the piano’s cadential “dominant-tonic” figure, serves as a sustained mediant. The work itself brought to mind the experience of free-flowing mental consciousness: various thoughts pass in tandem with what appear to be unrelated thoughts and images; in the final summation, however, all these thoughts are related to a single stream of consciousness in a way that is meaningful, even if only to the mind itself.

Andy Vores’s Often, a multi-media work, features a live musical ensemble, a recorded soundtrack, and video footage, most of which was related to the recent military conflict in Iraq; these mediums are all presented predominantly in repetitive fragmentary loops. The soundtrack includes bird calls as well as political punditry (presumably on the topic of America’s foreign policy); the video begins with night-vision video footage of the first night of bombing of Iraq, followed by the “disembodied” arms of Iraqi children reaching for a bottles of water, and finally the composer and a friend talking in what appeared to be a collegiate office. The music has a broad spectrum of textures and styles, from rapidly-moving, unbounded scalar motions to a short flute solo, to a static “sound palate” over which violent outbursts of sound ring out; the overall structure of the piece is reminiscent of the works of minimalists Steve Reich, particularly in the looped, fragmented soundtrack and video as well as the seemingly unrelated succession of musical palates.

Following the intermission was Lerdahl’s two-movement Duo for Violin and Piano. The first movement, like Imbrications, features a very sophisticated scheme in which the musical concept expands and then contracts. Of course, the pattern is sufficiently complex that only more perceptive listeners would be able to follow it, though the overall “impression” is basically clear. The second movement, an elegy for recently-deceased friends of the composer, is truly moving in its succession of musical violence and repose, perhaps meant to represent the polar emotional extremes of the grieving process; the composer’s use of binary form is also effective in creating a unified product that could be perceived by even a less-than-musically-expert audience member.

The concert closed with Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile, a musical suite on “imaginary puppet plays” of the Asian court and theater in a style that could be termed “Neo-Orientalism.” The work is filled with musical motives and timbres associated with traditional music of the region, with which the composer creates a very effective integration and balance of Western musical style. This mixture at times features momentarily insertions of contemporary Western musical device, at other times the skillful juxtaposition of the two musical styles. Most significantly, the work effectively presents an “exotic” musical product that pays proper respect to its source (without trying to create an “authentic” reproduction) as seen through the eyes of a subjective foreign spectator.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.

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