IN: Reviews

More Languages To Parse at FCM


Inasmuch as no dominant story explaining the development of Western art music, the composer of a new work has multiple dimensions of challenge. There is the demand to be original, to speak in “one’s own voice”; but a personal voice is only meaningful if it can be understood by others, which demands a common language. When there was broad agreement on the common language in Western music, one could stake one’s claim through innovation, extension, selective “rule breaking” (although the rules were always formulated in hindsight, often to explain how they had been broken). To move forward, you need something to push against; our language now can feel frictionless. The composer must both decide what language she will speak, and then decide how to speak it on her own, sometimes leaving both composer and audience feeling disoriented, a little too free—overcoming gravity is exhilarating, but it is hard to maneuver with control.

Such were my musings at the third concert of the Tanglewood Festival of Contemporary Music. The FCM is co-curated by TCM alumni John Harbison and Michael Gandolfi, who have produced a program heavy on the works of other TCM alumni and Americans, without having yet provided any detectable artistic unity.

In listening sympathetically, it has been necessary to think in general terms about what makes new music satisfying, apart from the mastery of thinking in sound: we can trust the curators of this series to have assured us of that. A new work must needs invite the listener to approach; it needs to have centers of interest that appear on various scales, so that the piece retains interest from moment to moment and also in retrospect, in its entirety. It needn’t be pretty or pleasing, but it should induce some sort of reaction in the listener. It needn’t be entirely comprehensible on a first hearing, though the knottier and more compressed it is, the more the composer must risk missing his mark entirely.

This is an extremely challenging undertaking even if one is working in a popular genre where the expectations are relatively clear. In the concert hall, both composer and listener find themselves drawn to titling and program notes to help create expectations before a note has been played.

Jordan Koransky- and and Joseph Kelly in Makan's "2" (Hilary Scott photo)
Jordan Koransky and Joseph Kelly in Makan’s “2” (Hilary Scott photo)

Having to confront Keeril Makan’s 2 for violin and percussion as the first piece of a full afternoon was provoking, even irritating in my philosophical mood. Program annotator Robert Kirzinger speaks of Makan “avoiding musical syntax”, and Makan’s own note speaks of writing “without reference to the expected contours… often central to musical narrative.” These negative descriptions are supplemented by Makan’s further description of 2 as “a sort of inexorable musical stream in which musical ideas are explored and then are swept away, never to return.” This suggests an abandonment of musical language, as if such a thing were possible: John Cage’s work would seem to have cured us of the idea that you can step outside of music entirely, as random processes can still create sounds with which we cannot resist struggling. Cage sometimes seemed to suggest that one should deal with this by just letting it all go and allowing sounds to just exist: but he himself couldn’t resist continuing to provoke more of them. Makan’s 2 (which he apparently wanted to call /tü/ “to suggest all the implied homonyms”) begins with the violin and dampened chimes striking the same cluster of pitches over and over again, in groups of up to 27 individual attacks. Watching Jordan Koransky (violin) and Joseph Kelly (percussion) as they studied their scores with fierce intensity and shot looks at one another to coordinate, it was obvious that pages “without reference” to some conventional musical rules were only being executed through slavish attention to many of the other rules that are expected for new music: playing on high-quality, traditional instruments, albeit in altered ways; producing sound through complex encoding on the page that requires highly trained technicians to realize; performing in a hospitable place for new music. It was this struggle that ultimately made 2 interesting—as the two players executed the demanding rhythms and extended techniques while attending carefully to tone, timber and intonation (where appropriate) it seemed we were watching the music attempting to pull itself free from itself. Even in the final moments, where the violin descended into dark sounds and Kelly pulled a bow across a thunder-sheet, producing deep groans, it couldn’t quite escape the printed page.

Katherine Dowling performs (Hilary Scott photo)
Katherine Dowling performs (Hilary Scott photo)

George Perle’s Six Etudes were the odd-man-out on this program. Written in 1976, 22 years before 2 (the next oldest work on the program), they are examples of Perle’s idiosyncratic read on serialism, which produces a sound that is less rebarbative than, say, Milton Babbitt, while still embracing the complexity of arrangement and permutation that serialism encouraged. It conjures up a world that is always moonlit and obscure, in which all activities, whether rapid or langorous, convey constant activity and a hiddenness. Given the constraints of that world, the etudes run a relative gamut, from the buried lyricism of the second, to the stuttering rhythmic energy of the fourth, to the extrovert virtuosity of the sixth. Katherine Dowling performed them with confidence but a somewhat covered tone; and as she did with Harbison’s Parody Fantasy on Thursday, she performed demanding works from memory.

Hannah Lash’s Friction, Pressure, Impact (2012) for cello and piano expressed a composer’s reaching to create a language out of gestures: the first movement consisted of constant, frantic scalar passages, growing out of a simple half-step motive at the high end of both instruments and then moving out to lay claim to the entire range of pitches available, but gradually, swarming around one center then migrating to another. Within this texture ideas would appear—new modes of transition, addition pitches, differing degrees of freedom. The other two movements worked in similar fashion, with their own material: bowed double stops on the cello, often with a drone pitch staying in place, while scalar roulades moved nervously in the bass of the piano for the second; triple stopped pizzicatos and motoric piano figures in the third. Cellist Nathan Watts and pianist Livan were especially well suited to one another, each with a distinct and strong personality and a muscular melodic drive.

David Dzubay was the oldest composer on the program (born in 1964), his 2008 String Quartet No. 1, Astral. While all the composers provided notes for this program, Dzubay’s were of particularly noteworthy, packed as they were with orienting references and explanations. This seemed perhaps ironic in this company, since of all the pieces, his was the most harmonically accessible and conventionally structured. Dzubay alluded to three evenly-spaced attacks representing Orion’s belt, and further referenced stars, asteroids, wormholes, Van Gogh, the Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a Native American funeral song, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. None of this quite advanced our appreciation of Astral, which apart from some extended techniques and occasional density of texture is fairly easy to parse if one has heard Bartòk or Shostakovich. The opening movement, which paraphrases much of what is to come in the following four movements, was particularly engaging; after the severe pieces that had preceded it, it succeeded in being both accommodating and intellectually absorbing. The working-out of those ideas was done with craft and grace, but without the same sense of drive. The quartet of the New Fromm Players (Samantha Bennett, Sarah Silver, violin; Jocelin Pan, viola; Jesse Christeson, cello) were especially fine when producing the gleaming, steely sounds Dzubay was fond of creating in the faster movement – and when Dzubay would send motives around the quartet to each player in turn, there was a fine sense of “playing catch.”

The Dzubay would have been without a doubt the most playful of all of the pieces had it not been for Eric Nathan’s unique trumpet solo Toying. Written for a concert whose theme was in fact “play and playthings”, Toying generously demonstrates both in the music itself and in the techniques Nathan used to increase the potential of the instrument. Extended techniques have been a constant at the FCM, and in most cases they are used as a kind of exotic color; for Nathan these transformed musical language dramatically. The first movement, “Wind-Up”, is a tour-de-force of passage work distantly descended from Herbert Clarke, except that it is played pianissimo with a mute. And, in a final inspiration the first valve of the trumpet is un-screwed so that it clicks, which allows the player both to evoke the winding up of a toy, and to introduce syncopated rhythm into the fast work. In the second movement, “Elegy for a Toy Soldier”, the first valve slide was removed, so that any music played with that valve open would sound much quieter, and frequently not quite in tune. The musical material is mostly long notes, broadly tonal. The piece alternates between the crippled sound of the first valve and the full voice of the trumpet, sometimes over whole phrases, sometimes note-by-note, Nathan conjures up a duet with a distant player, whose music has a lonely melancholy. The final movement, “Ventriloquising”, allows the player to use a fully-functional trumpet, but uses material that is much more gestural and which uses mutes to constantly change the quality of the sound. The ambitions of Toying may not be great, but there’s a sense of careful thought to both effect and communication that made it more than a novelty. Trumpeter George Goad made the most of Nathan’s creativity, and gave the imagined toys of the piece an unexpected dignity.

George Goan performs Eric Nathans Toying (Hilary Scott photo)
George Goan performs Eric Nathans Toying (Hilary Scott photo)

Anthony Cheung is a composer and apparently quite talented pianist. His Roundabouts consist of five movements for solo piano that speak a familiar language of density and complexity and pianistic technique; however, it seems to be speaking to an audience for whom that exploration is of paramount concern−one to which I do not belong. The redoubtable Katherine Dowling once again returned to make short work of the technical challenges, and astonishingly once again played entirely from memory.

With eight more pieces from the last 10 years remain to come at the FCM, eight more languages to parse, perhaps I will discern a thread weaving all of the concerts together.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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