On Saturday, day three at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, 23 players, almost all young TMC Fellows, performed six essentially unfamiliar chamber works with uniformly excellent coherence and ensemble, turning the focus on the works themselves.
Works that ostensibly drew their inspirations from extra-musical sources filled the first half. Elizabeth Ogonek’s (b. 1989) curtain-raiser Falling Up name-checks Arthur Rimbaud and Shel Silverstein to explain the layered fast-slow structure of the piece, though my knowledge of both of those authors did not contribute to my understanding of the piece. Written for flute/piccolo, English horn, clarinet, violin and cello, it places mournful melodic lines against ensemble outbursts, demonstrating a sure hand for texture. Its evolution relies on contrast and voicing for its interest. Ogonek does not overwork her modest tools which finish their job just as the Falling Up concludes.
Barbara White’s (b. 1965) more ambitious Learning to See expressly calls out the artists Jean Tinguely, Constantin Brancusi, Eva Hesse and Jasper Johns in the titles of its six movements (three movements all entitled “Bird” go to Brancusi), yet again, the citations seemed irrelevant to comprehending the work. Employing flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and cello, the composer draws contrasts between pairs of movements. The first derived from some repetitive or mechanistic principle, combines off-kilter rhythms and pitch material, and catches the eye as well as the ear as the percussionist assiduously bangs away at junk—a bicycle wheel without tire, a tomato can, what looked like broom heads—while the pianist’s arms spread wide to play exclusively at the extremes of the keyboard. The effect is like listening to a factory making Rube Goldberg machines; the process is inexorable, but the pieces have bits of unpredictability embedded in them.
The second “Bird” movements develop material more lyrical and mysterious, combining deep piano rumblings and rolls on the bass drums with occasional flourishes, creating a directionless mystery. The third movement hints at perpetual motion, while the fourth movement constitutes a more extended “Bird.” Things blur by the fifth and sixth movements. A cello soliloquy in the fifth speaks before the machine-like piano enters, now prepared in tribute to Cage (according to the notes). It is a piece best described by a listing of events, which unfolds interestingly in time but evades summation. On first hearing, its unity evades me, substituting similarity in its place.
Visual Abstract avoids being associated with any given artist, but apparently Pierre Jalbert’s (b. 1967) piece has been paired with videography (available on Vimeo here), and its title points outside the music itself. Once again this listener witnessed nothing especially visual about the music itself. I found the main interest of the work in the ABA-structure middle movement, “Dome of Heaven” which builds foreboding out of extended notes and slowly darkening close dissonance to make way for a spectral barcarolle at its center. A yearning and straining in this music resurfaces in the third movement, “Dance”, which begins with repeated accented notes that build towards a suppressed violence.
If the above summaries of the first-half works seem vague, perhaps my experience of them is to blame. Though much variety and inventiveness can be found in them, none claimed any special purchase on the attention. The work that opened the second half, Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece 29 (a world premiere and TMC commission) caught the attention but couldn’t exactly justify it. Gee is a vocalist who focuses on all the various possibilities of vocal production, from what we mean by singing (rarely heard on this occasion), to clicks, pops and whistles, among other emitted sounds. Mouthpiece 29 combines a virtuoso vocalist with violin, viola and bass, and subordinates the instruments to the voice, which Gee herself supplied. Although the strings often play different material from each other at any given time, they almost always play together, and in a kind of rhythmic unison, echoing the shape and timbral details of the wildly hyperactive vocal part. Many of the sounds would be inaudible from the stage, so all performers were miked and mixed. Gee’s interest in the sounds a human can make alone is part of a now extended tradition, which finds inspiration from distance sources, from Meredith Monk to Brian Ferneyhough to Helmut Lachenmann, but which hasn’t much new to add except perhaps a few sounds not yet exploited. Mouthpiece 29 doesn’t rise above novelty. The echoes of (say) vocal fry in bowing arouse but don’t sustain attention. One waited in vain for the extended technique to make a musical point beyond its own virtuosity.
Donald Crockett, the oldest composer on the program (born in 1951), contributed its most energetic work. His Whistling in the Dark (for the same ensemble as the Jalbert, plus a percussionist and violist), grew from a piano figure that recalls Conlon Nancarrow in its jazzy shape and shifting, rhythmically complex relationships; it aspired to dance while frustrating it at almost every turn. Imagine hobbling partygoers with much patience for restarting. The slower moments had melodies with an over-decorated lyricism. Given a little ironing-out, they might have served as movie melodies, but with their odd wrinkles, they both enticed and teased. Crockett’s rising intervallic accompaniment sometimes evoked distorted Copland. His style fully digested all the neo-Classical games with meter, morphing it into something joyous, but listeners had to bring their own intelligence to keep it all straight. It made the preceding works on the program sound tentative and partial. Its complexity made it the only work that demanded a conductor. Happily, Stephen Drury officiated; his gestures made visible the motions, both lithe and angular, in the sounds.
Where Crockett’s music enlivened the concert with shifting rhythm, Arthur Levering’s (b. 1952) Cloches II closed it with lively harmony and resonance. Inspired by bells, the composition begins with obvious mimicry, as long tones get held and overlapped. Bells also amplify and extend force. In a well-made bell, a stroke induces in a mass of metal a sound both deeper and richer than the initializing impact, and sustains it through time. In a similar way, Levering takes the opening material and through procedures that are roughly minimalist, transcends. Less extroverted than Crockett’s Whistling, but perhaps more deeply rooted, Levering’s Cloches II rang a deeply satisfying conclusion.