The tireless Stephen Drury brought the sounds of modernism to Jordan Hall once again through his Callithumpian Consort on Saturday evening. As acoustic and electronic dissonances floated through the air, the hall’s Rococo organ pipes seemed particularly bygone. The Callithumpian’s once again displayed their capacity for producing thoughtful programs and performing them with a deep insight into modern performance styles. Continuing their devotion to new music, the Consort gave a world premiere, two pieces written within the last year, and two “classic” modern pieces by New York school masters John Cage and Earle Brown.
Earle Brown’s String Quartet was a beautiful example of his open-form style of musical construction, in which certain aspects of the music are left to the performer. His scores are more of a collection of guidelines than a set of specific instructions [see example at bottom of review]. While John Cage spent most of his career trying to rid his music of personal taste and ego, Brown strove to cultivate these within his music. String Quartet became a vessel through which the players’ personalities were displayed. They reacted to each other, consciously or not, and by the end, one could easily point out the followers and the leaders, the introverts and extroverts, the bombastic and the reserved.
The young Mexican composer, Eduardo Caballero, followed Brown with the world premier of his What is time, please? Convergencias III for piano and live electronics. Pianist Yukiko Takagi performed the piece by scraping piano strings and utilizing other unconventional performance techniques. The piece developed slowly—the exposition dwelled on a single note before gradually adding in octaves. Space was left after each note so that it could be electronically processed and then re-delivered through a combination of the five speakers surrounding the audience. The processing always included an echo in combination with spectral manipulation, time-domain processes, or pitch shifting. Most of the composition used a single note loftily to display the elaborate electronic processing that the composer incorporated. While they created beautiful soundscapes, the “live electronics” sounded more like an afterthought to the piece than a compositional tool available to the composer from conception. The manipulations often sounded as novelties, separate from the music, and sometimes covered up instead of improving upon or elaborating upon the music.
After the Caballero, the performance area was set for two opposing ensembles on either side of the stage. There were three music stands per performer, in order to house the dense notation of Marek Poliks’ tress/burl (a 2012 Callithumpian Consort commission) but also to function as a barricade—a defense against the relentless aural assault of Poliks’ music. The composition was an onslaught of meticulously crafted dissonance, displaying a maturity and consistency in style well beyond the Harvard Ph.D. student’s years. The performance clearly corroborated the composer’s program notes that “tress/burl was conceived negatively” and “documents and crystallizes my deflections.” There was something of the punk attitude about Poliks, his anti-establishment tendencies fitting well on a program featuring John Cage, whose unofficial manifesto states, “I am going toward violence rather than tenderness, hell rather than heaven, ugly rather than beautiful, impure rather than pure—because by doing these things they become transformed, and we become transformed.” Indeed, listening to Poliks’ piece was a transformative experience, rather like gazing into the multitudinous layers of a Jackson Pollock for the first time.
After the short intermission, a septet (string quartet and wind trio) took the stage to perform Alvin Lucier’s Braid, written for the Callithumpian Consort during Lucier’s residency with the ensemble last spring. The stage was set up with the seats in a normal concert arc, but with an open laptop, facing the players on a stand where a conductor would usually be. After the players were comfortable in their seats, the first violinist stood up and consulted the Macbook Air, a slightly awkward yet equally intriguing gesture. I suppose the computer was functioning as some sort of virtual conductor, as the performers would glance up at the screen from time to time. Braid takes advantage of the beating phenomenon, in which two tones of slightly different frequencies sound simultaneously and lead to periodic amplitude modulation at a mathematically predictable frequency. The winds formed tone clusters which produced audible beats at various speeds while the strings slowly circled around in what the composer called a “braid pattern.” The extended work was fairly demanding on the players’ concentration and stamina, but they managed well, carrying out the piece with an incredible sense of consistency without which the music would have lost its effect.
Braid turned out to be the most beautiful piece of the evening, one which lulled the listener into a complacent state of transfixed introspection much like Cage strove to do in the “nearly stationary” textures of his String Quartet in Four Parts which closed out the evening. The piece was composed by arranging various pre-selected kernels of sound. These kernels, evoking the “permanent emotions” of Indian traditions, were assembled together unevenly so that each instant becomes unadulterated. The performers were wonderful in their impressive execution of rapid changes in technique and their interpretation filled each of these musical moments with a sort of detached sense of emotion. The music, as it flowed by changed quickly from a dose of tragedy to a dash of hope, followed by a bout misery, interrupted with a quick jab of wistfulness.
The Callithumpian Consort, now into its 3rd decade, is an organization that continues to push the boundaries of new music by offering adventurous commissions within an established legacy through support from a respected institution such as the New England Conservatory. This was another of the many free concerts of fine quality that NEC offers each semester.