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Back and Forward with Avante-Garde


Theodore Antoniou

The upcoming Alea III concert at Boston University’s Tsai Performance Center on Groundhog Day (February 2) may pit the audience’s prognostic powers against those of Punxsutawney Phil: if they run away, will that mean that the international avant-garde will stick around for a lengthy period?

That, of course, is a trick question: “avant-garde” is, or ought to be, always and everywhere a moving target. In fact, the program, titled “Avant-garde International And Not Only,” though hedging its bets a bit, may pose the musical question whether and to what extent that designation does move with the times, and whether one can attempt any fixed understanding of what it means. Perusing the program raises some questions, which only hearing the output can begin to answer. Music Director Theodore Antoniou has gathered into his net a variety of composers, mostly out of European waters, and performers of American, European and Asian origins, to present what ought to be a diverse sampling. But will it?

What does it mean to be avant-garde? Schoenberg and that crowd devoted themselves to the “historic necessity” of supplanting chromatic tonality with fully chromatic atonality, although they did so in the name of what they fancied was the linear progress of artistic history. Since the end of World War II, with isolated earlier instances like Ives, Cowell and Cage, much of it has been devoted to bringing within the ambit of music things that had not theretofore been considered music. Beethoven and Wagner were avant-garde in their day, but what they did was not anything like that —it was an extension of standard practices to encompass wider ranges of emotion. Is the postwar European avant-garde, with its plinks, plonks, snorts and bellows, a thing of the past? We don’t have any answers to that, but audiences attending Alea III’s concert (it’s free!) can reach their own conclusions.

Antoniou has reached a bit far back for his forward guard: John Cage, whose tinkerings we admit are always fresh-sounding, is nearing his centenary and has been dead for nearly 20 years. His Daughters of the Lonesome Isle dates from 1945 and is a solo for prepared piano. A composer whose work is not often heard hereabouts is the Egyptian-born Greek Jani Christou, born in 1926 and died in 1970; his Six T.S. Elliot [sic] Songs date from 1955 and are thus also in his early, free atonal period, at first blush not exactly avant-garde even for its time. A decade younger than Christou is another mainstream avant-gardist (can you say that?), the German Helmut Lachenmann, who characterizes his writing as “musique concrète instrumentale” (there must be a single German word for that!); he also goes in for extended technique in performance. His Dal niente (which is Italian for ex nihilo) dates from 1970 and thus brings us into what we may consider the “classical” avant-garde of the postwar era in Europe.

Also from 1970 is Cassandra’s Dream Song, for solo flute, the first of two works on the program by the British avant-garde pioneer Brian Ferneyhough, born in 1943. The other Ferneyhough is Superscriptio, the first section, for solo piccolo, of his larger chamber work Carceri di invenzioni, after the portfolio of etchings  by Piranesi. Also born in this decade were two other composers represented: the late French “spectral” composer (think sound colors, not ghosts) Gérard Grisey, whose 1981 Solo pour deux for clarinet and trombone may demonstrate, more than other works on the program, some of the uses for process music; and the Sicilian-born Salvatore Sciarrino, who also works with extended techniques, isolated sounds, and the relation of sound and silence.

This brings us to the youngest of the composers on the program, though each has earned some gray hairs: the Brit Roger Redgate, born 1958, who has worked in jazz, improvisation and performance art, teaches at Goldsmiths College, University of London (UL’s “official” avant-garde institution). Redgate and Sam[uel] Headrick, of the BU faculty, will both be represented by premieres, as yet untitled as far as we know. Headrick, the only recent American on the program, provides an interesting contrast to the Europeans: he has worked in electronics, but also in instrumental genres with such avant-garde titles as “Symphony No. 2,” a bit of which you can hear on his website here. Headrick’s presence on the program (we of course don’t know what his new work will sound like) brings us back to the Big Question posed by compendia such as Alea III is here attempting: what constitutes avant-garde when current trends in music are a) fragmented and b) more and more featuring restoration of “conventional” musical thinking?

For the record, we should mention that the soloists joining Alea III for this evening will include the Greek mezzo-soprano Margarita Syngenioutou, Polish flutist Iwona Glinka (for whom Redgate has written his piece), Boston-based Americans clarinetist Diane Heffner and trombonist Don Lucas, and Japanese pianist Yukiko Shimazaki.

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