Friday night’s SICPP (Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice or “Sick Puppy”) concert, the last before Saturday’s Iditarod marathon of new music, featured two world premieres, two percussion pieces by Iannis Xenakis, and two compositions that induced titters.
The opening pieces, música impura, by living German composer Mathias Spahlinger and Patchwork by Alan Sentman both produced laughter from the audience, and both strayed from anything resembling an established melody or really any convention (form, harmony, rhythm, timbre) at all. Música impura for soprano, guitar, and percussion was around eight minutes of single notes and vocal noises, all obstinately lacking even the vaguest association with surrounding notes. Saying there was a heavy use of extended techniques would be an understatement—hardly any notes were performed conventionally. Alan Sentman’s Patchwork for marimba called for extended techniques as well; percussionist Stuart Gerber whistled, dropped mallets, and made grand gestures with his hands—almost all of which incited chuckling from the audience.
The laughter certainly wasn’t derisive—even hardcore cynics don’t show up in the numbers that filled Brown Hall practically to capacity. The only explanation I can posit is that these audience members heard in these pieces satires on absurd 20th-century extended techniques. And perhaps such was intended, but the composers could just as easily have been sincerely exploring new—a reach for aesthetic autonomy, and nothing to laugh at. Witnessing for the first time the col legno string technique, in which the player bows with the wooden side of the bow could be a laughable experience—it’s something so obviously, even literally, backwards—but its effective integration into a piece like Also sprach Zarathustra is far from that. It was interesting to see how this interpretation of the pieces as satire quickly caught on. Initially as stifled giggles penetrated the audience they were met by cold stares. But by the end of the second piece even the most stiff audience members had lightened up and at least cracked a smile.
Iannis Xenakis’ Rebonds, a viscerally thrilling percussion piece for bongos, tumba, tomtom bass drum, and five wood blocks, changed the atmosphere drastically from comical to one of reverence. Though the piece is stimulating on a cerebral level due to its technical nature and mass of interrelated polyrhythms, it also reaches one on an emotional plane. Stuart Gerber expertly handled all these instruments himself, working up a sweat as he navigated the dense fabric of Xenakis’ percussion music.
Following the intermission were two cello pieces, both world premieres, written for and performed by Benjamin Schwartz. The first, Adam Roberts’ Anakhtara was achingly beautiful. After the violence of Xenakis’ percussion and the experimental avant-garde that came before it, Anakhtara was welcome—the kind of piece that would restore a cynic’s belief in new music. There was not much in the way of steady rhythm but rather it was performed with a fluid and natural rhythm like that of human speech. Everything had a natural progression to the next idea even though the language was made of contrasts—plaintiff harmonics, whimpering glissandos, and abrupt pizzicatos.
The second cello composition was Abendlich auf schattenbegleiteten wegen… (roughly ‘in the evening along shadowy paths…’) by German composer Ulrich Kreppein. Though again for cello, it was significantly less grounded in conventional harmony than Adam Roberts’s. Abendlich… began with beautiful dramatics, pizzicatos with lots of space in between. Another exercise in contrasts, Benjamin Schwartz’s performance would provoke mutterings from the low strings followed by an outburst of violent bowing then finally a grounded and lucid statement. The musical instincts of Schwartz and his handling and technical mastery of the cello made these pieces a somewhat unexpected treat of the evening.
Xenakis’ Okho for three djembes finished off the evening. Written for the bicentenary of the French Revolution Okho features many traditional and non-traditional djembe techniques. Although it was purely a percussion piece, the writing was still fairly melodic—there were canons and imitative counterpoint and thought was given to orchestration and form. Though the world of timbre was fairly homogenous the piece didn’t ever feel hypnotic like a repetitive Reich percussion piece. Instead, Xenakis was able to connect unique rhythms and distinct patterns in an exciting way. Mike Williams, Nick Tolle, and Jeffrey Means performed exceptionally well, maintaining an intense focus while translating technical polyrhythms and mixed meters into deeply-rooted meaning for the audience.