Steven Drury’s Callithumpian Consort kicked off its 30-somethingth season Monday night at Jordan Hall—the program says they were formed sometime in the 1980s, so the season number is a guess. The players offered four intensely expressive pieces, though the forms that intensity took were wildly divergent. The Consort trusts its audience to find its way—the program had exactly no explanatory notes—although Drury did speak briefly to warn us that the first half consisted of “horrible noise” in contrast to a groovier set for the second half.
The first half was not all that horrible, as it turns out. Drury’s description of the first piece, 2003’s wild.thing by Hans Tomalla (b. 1975), was also a little off base. It was billed as a “head-on collision between Chopin and Jimi Hendrix”, an accurate assessment if the collision leaves the corpses nearly unidentifiable. Jeffrey Means and Mike Williams did most of the work, employing a battery of percussion that entirely hid Yukiko Takagi on the piano. Her playing was intermittently amplified, which only emphasized the degree to which she had to battle to be heard. I think this was on purpose; while a few recognizable Chopinesque fragments wafted out to catch the attention, much of the piano figures acted primarily as irritants to the percussionists, who pounced immediately to assert themselves. The work moved roughly from more-or-less unpitched percussion, to pitched and then to a mixture. There were some clear pauses and divisions, but I failed to track exactly what they were dividing. I was distantly reminded of Helmut Lachenmann’s Accanto, an intellectually rigorous defacement of fragments of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, but Tomalla doesn’t quite have Lachenmann’s mysterious ability to make a personal language out of collections of noise. Filled with impressive and exciting moments, but about 25% too long, wild.thing holds the ear from moment to moment, but doesn’t linger in the memory.
Robert Ashley died this year; the composer of Perfect Lives was invisible to concert audiences, but looms large among those who track the American fringe of composed music. His best known works are theatrical in nature, and are somewhat difficult to describe. String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large, Real Bodies (1972) was presented in what Drury said was “possibly” a US premiere. It was theatrical, austerely so– four players sat in a widely-spaced line at the front of the stage. Each attached a microphone to his or her instrument and took playing positions – all but the first violinist holding their instrument vertically like a cello. After a silence we heard what seemed to be pre-recorded sharp, low electronic sounds. As they began to cluster and one squinted to see just what the players were going to do, it became clear what the sounds were in fact coming from the quartet. Their bows were pulled very slightly but heavily against the strings, generating a short grating sound with just a hint of pitch, amplified greatly. These sounds comprised the entire universe of the piece, and the rough envelope of the work was a crescendo of increasing density of sound, with a few moments of relief. It was evocative of the incremental movements of something heavy and huge and barely beginning to move. It was Bolero written by a creaky old house. It was both the same as and the opposite of Charlemagne Palestine’s Schlingen-Blängen: Palestine uses a huge organ with the sustain pedal held down and keys wedged in place to create a slowly changing wall of sound where the ear must hunt for overtones to keep its interest. Here, Ashley reduces sound to a handful of dry gestures and the ear hunts for rhythm and echoes. As the sounds come faster and the racket denser, the sight of the barely moving players is unsettling. Micah Ringham, Stephanie Skor, Mary Ferrillo and Stephen Marotto were the quartet; John Mallia was credited with electronics, and presumably ensured the audibility of the sounds without risking catastrophic feedback.
After intermission, we had The Temptations of St. Anthony by John Zorn. St. Anthony was a particularly intense desert hermit, and his temptations were those brought by the devil, who tortured him with visions of women, among others. How this drove the composition of Zorn’s piece is unclear. Written for an ensemble of 10 players, five winds, four strings and piano, it begins with a mournful line in the English horn which is almost immediately fragmented and developed in a whirlwind. Based on my memories of seeing him live years ago, Zorn’s name will always evoke walls of sound and Japanese pornography. Temptations is extremely conservative by contrast. Yes, it plays fast and loose with tonality, often obscures the pulse, and allows itself to engage in ungainly melodies – but if it weren’t for the occasional riffs that sound distantly of popular music it would fit comfortably with any number of other pieces written by American academic compose. It does have a flash of energy here and there that recalls Zorn’s interest in chaos, especially in the solo piano part, which was played with flair and fury by Ashley Zhang. There were many engaging moments of interplay between the players. The most memorable was a brief stretch where Zhang and Edward Kass on the bass played a duo of interlocking and echoing motives. They were almost swinging as they completed each others’ thoughts, trading, not fours, but some irrational number.
The evening ended with Franco Donatoni’s Hot from 1989, written for a kind of jazz ensemble (clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and piano-percussion-bass). The only piece that had a steady pulse, it chugged along with a constant stream of notes, moving from dark, covered timbres to a raucous middle section with E-flat clarinet and soprano sax, and ending with the Philipp Stäudlin’s tenor sax running up scales over and over as it built to a final climax. Think of the final section Bernstein’s Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, but with a much wider range of pitches and a whole lot more going on at once, ending the evening noisily, but not at all horribly.