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Boxed in with Harvard Group for New Music


Chaya Czernowin, possible influence? (file photo)
Chaya Czernowin, possible influence? (file photo)
fractalating mosaiks (file photo)
fractalating mosaiks (file photo)

Why Berlin’s ensemble mosaik played the season opener for the Harvard Group for New Music Saturday night came to light in the five works on the program mostly shadowing European trends. That a city such as ours, full of musical expertise from early to contemporary, did not contribute players to this undertaking, further underlines the interest of these Harvard Ph.D. candidates in tendencies from across the pond.

Presumably, the five graduate students represented on the program are working under the guidance of Chaya Czernowin and Hans Tutchku, both professors in the Harvard Music Department. What I heard in an overly long program suggested considerable influence of Czernowin on the way these young composers think about sounds and actions. I imagine that Tutchku’s influence is more along the electronics side, the wiring of their compositions.

If gold or platinum record awards were the aim of the Group for New Music, that certainly would be the exact opposite of what we experienced, never mind the often abstract program notes of the composers writing about the meaning of their music. If, on the contrary, they aimed to conduct us on a journey toward the “new”, well, nothing did sound—or felt—new to me.

Recall when listening to orchestral music and hearing a cow’s bell or thunder sheet for the first time, and we asked, what was that? The reverse was true with Saturday’s continuum at the John Knowles Paine (pain) Concert Hall. After a 15-minute-late start, we were told there would a 30-minute intermission due to the necessity of resetting electronic gear, instruments, and performer seating. The concert ended well past the usual two-hour standard. Further irritation mounted throughout the evening with a cello directed to use only the bow, the left hand never setting fingers on any strings. But, there was a “moment” coming at the end of Still Life with Squares (2014) by Sivan Cohen Elias: two bows were taken up and held in a crossed sword X across the cellist’s torso. A few in the audience even chuckled.

Unsurprisingly, a small army of youth was in attendance. Hooray for them to show support. More experienced listeners were hardly spotted. One such couple who arrived late, stayed only for a while, and could be overheard querying, “what is the equivalent of this in language?

The soft breathing and light scratching of flute and cello in Tomorrow I will build a house here, if I can hold still (2014) by Chris Swithinbank lasted 15 minutes with a burst of forte past the midpoint that would not hold still. We might recall ancient Chinese music where joy was taken in merely observing the finger continue to undulate on the string well after the sound had died away. Happily, this piece’s quietness resisted an otherwise nasty and loud sound-action-making evening. Stefan Prins composed a 25-minute-long PlayStation type of visual-aural game in which the stage was split in half, the cellist and percussionist taking sides. There were two other performers as well, their instruments, electronic machines. Onstage veils, real-time and fast-motion images, layered action and soundscape befitting Generation Kill—Offspring 1 (2012) made obvious over and again the barbaric, violent, and assaulting. Its moment was silence that came past midpoint.

In Zaira (2014), Josiah Wolf Oberholtzer placed two identifiable sounding objects in his healthier world of rummaging and rooting: a bang-bang-bang pulsation and a tremolo piano harmony, the only real echoes of what most of us know as music. With the aid of a conductor mapping out beats and gestures we were given some sense of where we humans have been.

Overall, as with Krummzeit (2014), the concert closer by Trevor Bača, such creativity lives in a hermetic box, much of the time exhibiting self-consciousness as much as avoidance of the past, especially in diminishing the instruments to something profoundly inadequate.

The seven instrumentalists in ensemble mosaik with guest violinist Mark Menzies and guest conductor Jonathan Hepfer were all naturals with the myriad of “extended” techniques called for in the five new scores. Dedicated, these musicians were, and top-notch at this sort of thing. Seeing some of them at times so physically engaged in a single pizzicato or percussive blast, or the like was a bit puzzling, I would add. Simon Strasser, oboe, and Ernst Surberg, piano, doubled on game controllers in the PlayStation piece.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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