in: Reviews

April 18, 2011

Threads of Multiculture Keep New Music Alive

by

with additional insights from Mary Wallace Davidson

Friday evening’s five-hour (and then some) New Music Marathon, may be one of the few times when Noam Chomsky and Kronos Quartet have graced the same stage, at the same time, as collaborators in the same performance. They were part of MIT’s Festival of Art + Science + Technology (FAST), an event on April 15 that brought together in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium the musical forces of Kronos, Bang on a Can All-Stars, virtuoso pipa player Wu Man, Gamelan Galak Tika, and the MIT Chamber Chorus.

Composer Evan Ziporyn, the MIT Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music, curated and emceed the evening’s festivities, in addition to performing as a member of both Gamelan Galak Tika and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. For the uninitiated, a “new music marathon” does allow one to come and go as they please (ideally during one of the four pauses/intermissions), which makes the audience as dynamic as the events taking place on stage. While the concert was reportedly sold out, there were empty seats throughout the evening, as each of the five “sets” attracted the curious, the suspicious, the enthusiastic, and, late in the evening, the Brian Eno fans.

The evening began with Kronos Quartet and Wu Man’s performance of three movements from Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic (2004).  The first movement, which shares the name of the work’s title, featured aggressive phrasing and electric figurations from the quartet, with bluesy inflections on the pipa (think Robert Johnson’s Crossroad). Wu Man, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the presence of the Chinese traditional instrument in Western new music concerts, played with amazing virtuosity and skill, clearly at home in what some might find a surprising context. “The Nursery” movement matched childlike whimsy (at one point Kronos first violinist David Harrington “played” on a toneless toy violin) with a lullaby sung by Wu Man. Harrington had a small arsenal of unorthodox percussion instruments at his disposal, and I found their implementation a distraction to the merits of the piece. The last selected movement, “Royal Wedding,” combined an almost Baroque theme from the cello with ornamentation and Italianate strumming from the pipa. Both Harrington and second violinist John Sherba played with dancelike gaiety, in a movement most enjoyable until its abrupt end that robbed it of potential shape.

World famous linguist/activist and MIT Professor Emeritus Noam Chomsky was both the honoree and “star” of  MIT Professor Tod Machover’s Chomsky Suite. A world premiere, Kronos’s Harrington explained, the work was “in progress” and that they would be “creating the kernel of the piece.” He offered hope that the piece would “lead us toward activism, thinking about the world we are a part of and making it better.” Noam Chomsky made his way up to the stage, clad in blue jeans and cable-knit sweater, and humbly took the seat recently vacated by Wu Man. A large video screen projected a real-time close-up of Chomsky, whose charming smiles and downcast eyes belied one of the sharpest minds and biting critics of our modern times. The work featured an interview of him, conducted by Harrington, interspersed and underscored by a quartet “arrangement” and adaptation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, BWV 1007. Chomsky’s anecdotes referenced his own brief experience as a guitarist for a pick-up band and his experience watching Casals play the cello suites in Prague in the 1950s. It was the discussion of Casals’s refusal to play in Fascist countries that brought us the first glimmer of “lead[ing] us toward activism,” but the conversation eventually turned toward the sublimity of music and how it helps us to “aim for something higher than that which we do regularly, expertly…”.

BMInt reviewer Mary Wallace Davidson, who was also in attendance, mapped the following scheme in regard to the relationship between the strings and Chomsky: “In the first movement, the strings gradually overcame Chomsky’s voice, or at least became an equal partner sonically. The second movement was strings only, long, dour, homophonic phrases at first, then a livelier contrapuntal texture. In the third movement they were definitely subservient to Chomsky’s musings, playing only brief, sighing phrases sotto voce. The fourth movement was simply a short postlude by the strings.” Machover’s treatment of the Bach Courante was engaging, with the melody broken up among the four instruments of the quartet. My sense overall, however, was that we were watching a documentary in the making (one that should be made, in my opinion), but I wanted more of an interpolation of the elements — an interweaving of Chomsky and Bach in a contrapuntal expression of genius.

SuperCollider (2010) by Christine Southworth featured Gamelan Elektrika (an electronic gamelan by Gamelan Galak Tika) utilizing instruments fitted with sensors and electronic components that facilitate alterations of tuning and timbre via sound processing at the computer (done by the composer). The work’s title refers to the famous Large Hadron Collider at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). The website for Southworth’s piece explains: “The behavior of subatomic particles is probabilistic, group-oriented: the motion of any one particle is unpredictable and unknowable: it’s what the group does that counts. This could also be a description of the Balinese gamelan, where individual virtuosity is subsumed to interlocking patterns, composite melodies, the sound of the whole. This is also the spirit of Kronos.” It is indeed a sense of collective energy that seems to radiate from the stage. Kronos Quartet members, who began the piece standing at the four gongs of the gamelan, seemed a natural extension of the instrument, powered by the intense and intricate rhythms of the entire ensemble. The work is a visual and aural spectacle that, despite its computerized elements and futuristic inclination, maintains an organic sense of collective virtuosity. Led by Evan Ziporyn on the kendang, the entire ensemble enthusiastically joined tradition and modernity without artifice or self-congratulation.

The audience was treated to the more traditional Balinese gamelan (sans MIDI) after intermission, as Wu Man also returned to the stage.  She opened with a 1960 work for solo pipa by Chinese composer Wang Huiran (b. 1936), Dance of Yi People. This piece is famous for its exploitation of the versatile sounds of the pipa, which can evoke a wide range of sounds from sitars to hammered dulcimers. Wu Man played with the rockstar energy of Hendrix, but always with a refined and congenial composure that placed her instrument front and center. After this lovely moment to wallow in the solo strains of the pipa, she joined Gamelan Galak Tika for a performance of Ziporyn’s 2004 work, Aradhana.  Much in the same way that the Kronos Quartet had become an extended arm of Gamelan Elektrika, here Wu Man’s pipa is both an integral component and gentle adversary of the gamelan. The steady patterns of both soloist and gamelan tug and pull at each other in multiple rhythmic dances, while bowing techniques in the gamelan created an ethereal backdrop for the plucked pipa and the hammered instruments. The work is hypnotic but not mind-numbingly so, instead inviting the listener to join the dance, stepping in and out of any number of possible aural interpretations.

Bang on a Can, the 1980s brainchild of composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, and David Lang, has successfully married popular music and classical compositional technique. The first work played by the Bang On A Can All-Stars was David Lang’s Sun Ray (2006). The composer was present and offered a few words about the work, wherein he explained inspirations as disparate as a laundromat in North Adams to Masonic obelisks.  Regardless of personal preferences toward what some call “post-minimalist” music, the individual talents of the five members, which includes Evan Ziporyn on clarinets and saxophone, is indisputable. While each player demonstrated mastery and technique, Lang’s piece also highlighted their amazingly tight work as an ensemble, particularly with its emphatic rhythmic punctuation. The sparkling texture of the opening section carried with it echoes of the gamelan, and Ashley Bathgate’s cello playing was a visual and aural treasure — as it continued to be for the remainder of the evening (with over two hours to go).

It was Michael Gordon’s for Madeline (2009) that I found most remarkable of the entire set. In this piece the vibraphone, played by the immensely talented percussionist Ian Ding, and the piano, mastered by Vicky Chow, engage in an almost unceasing rhythmic interplay that is mind-blowing for the stamina and exactitude it demands from the performers. This intense rhythmic ostinato is offset by sliding gestures in the guitar and cello. Gordon’s real feat here is that the slides become the destination itself, rather than a means toward a single-pitch end. The work’s not-so-hidden tunefulness and timbral dexterity made it a highlight of the evening.

Julia Wolfe’s Big Beautiful Dark & Scary (2002) is a case where, as Evan Ziporyn noted, the title speaks for itself. While the work showcased the tremendous talents of the ensemble, particularly Ian Ding’s double-duty on vibraphone and hi-hat /ride cymbals, I felt it over-amplified the “big” and “scary” elements a bit too much. Waves of musical energy that put Rimsky-Korsakov’s ubiquitous Flight of the Bumble Bee to shame, grew loudly and boldly, but without any sense of destination. While the work seemed to be an audience favorite, I found myself relieved by the sustained resonance of the piano at the very end.

The set closed with British composer Steve Martland’s Horses of Instruction from 1995  — an “oldie” in relation to the other pieces. As I watched Ian Ding towel off from the Wolfe work, I was very taken by this ensemble’s astonishing endurance. Most of the music is based on ferociously rhythmic ostinati (often supplied unceasingly by Vicki Chow on the piano), and yet each player performed without a hint of exhaustion.  Ashley Bathgate played this particular work with the joie de vivre of a Haydn concerto and artfully coaxed a wide variety of timbres from her black cello. The piece featured expressive and virtuosic counterpoint between the piano and electric bass (played by Robert Black), and managed to be both jazzy and dramatic. As with much of this repertoire, I felt the work’s length seemed somewhat gratuitous, but there was enough intricacy in the individual components that I arrived at the end without resentment.

I wish I could say the same of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports. The work, originally written in 1978 as an electronic piece, was, as Evan Ziporyn told the audience, never meant as a concert piece, but instead what Eno calls “ambient music.” While the 1998 arrangement by Michael Gordon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe. and Ziporyn gives the piece a very different kind of life, I am in the seeming minority who fails to understand the popularity of this work. As a grand finale, the piece featured all the previous performers except the Gamelan, and the MIT Chamber Chorus sang in the second and third movements. My friend and colleague commented that the work was a reminder that “not everything in life has to be efficient,” but I felt the piece replaced efficiency with somnolence. Eno conceived this “ambient music” to counteract the angry and irritated hustle-and-bustle of airports (and by extension, our time). The slowly unfolding diatonic sonorities initially offered a soothing contrast to the frenetic energy of the Bang On A Can All-Stars set.  The MIT Chamber Chorus performed admirably, offering focused and seamless vocalizations interwoven with the texture. The high point of the piece for me came in the fourth movement with a duet between clarinet and pipa. It was clear that there were many people in the audience that had arrived at the marathon just for this work, and had it not been for the very late hour, I would have stayed to ask them why. Peppered among the many Eno enthusiasts were several sleeping attendees (evidently one man anticipated the event and brought a pillow). I enjoyed the opportunity to explore the sonic saturation of the chords and admired the attentiveness of the players to parts that are probably more rewarding than they might seem, but at some point the work became rather tedious in its self-involvement. I’m ready for the onslaught of nay-sayers, but I stand by my opinion here. Those who were in attendance and offered the standing ovation will no doubt disagree with me. The Eno fans were rewarded with two Eno encores including the popular Burning Airports Gives You So Much More and Everything Merges with the Night.

The sound engineers and the production team deserve a hearty round of applause for their work on this undoubtedly complicated and challenging endeavor. With the exception of some miking issues, the sound production was excellent. It may seem ridiculous, given what I’ve just described in the previous paragraphs, to say I hoped for more variety, but there was a heavy representation of minimalist and postminimalist styles. What I do think is crucially important in the work of these ensembles, is this sense that the world is indeed a musical oyster.  These composers and performers gracefully leap over limitations and boundaries imposed by pedantic musical taxonomy, gathering threads of multicultural influence and experience to keep new music fresh, alive, and engaging.

Rebecca Marchand holds a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and serves on the faculty of Longy School of Music and Boston Conservatory.
Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

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