in: Reviews

September 21, 2017

An Unsustainable Avant-garde

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Young and passionate musicians known as FONEMA CONSORT gave it their all. In collaboration with the Group for Latin American Music (GLAM), FONEMA rendered works by composers from Mexico, Ecuador, and Costa Rica in Paine Hall last night. Just knowing that much you might well have wanted to be there, curious as to what has been going on in those countries these days. Well, for starters, search as I could with my ears, where were those cultures vis-à-vis this music? The evening’s fare really was a continuation of what we once thought of as the avant-garde. Blasting, thrashing, distressing cries from a flute, clarinet, piano, and voice said little more than “been there, done that.”

If there were any seizeable moments they were to come from a harpsichord’s surges syntactically formed, these out of a chamber piece by Ecuadorian Juan Campoverde. Later, a big accented downbeat from the bass clarinet followed on the tail of an especially sizeable surge, making for a point of arrival, a feeling of a destination reached. How satisfying that was. It was much like that of finding an oasis in the midst of a desert.

Most of the evening might have left you in the dark. Program notes were minimal, however, that would not have prevented a music devotee from “getting it.” In fact, that the audience could find its own way by simply listening is a feather in the hat of the program’s planners. Literally, though, the audience, a slim one at that, was cast into darkness, a throwback to the quasi ritualized events already peaking as far back as the mid-late 20th century.

Imagine very little lighting on stage, two musicians, one from stage left and the other, right, slowly walking toward each other trancelike. They breathe audibly. They exchange a few isolated vocalized utterances. They pick up Tibetan singing bowls and tap them. To end their séance, they stand entranced for some time by a rattling type of sound. That was Lamentos y reflejos of Mexico’s Valeria Jonard.

Costa Rica’s Pablo Santiago Chin created 7 Voice Studies on Chapter 3—did that title help anyone? FONEMA CONSORT’s vocalist was featured as soloist. Who she is we do not know, leaving us once more in the dark, but do you suppose that was the intent of these fresh, fervent avant-gardistas? Chin’s studies were made up of vignettes, each mounting in distress starting with whimpers, moving on to cries, then, for the climax, arms flailing and some hair pulling, and finally, screams. The vocalizations kept reminding me in ways of Cathy Berberian in Luciano Berio’s Circles dating from 1960.

Chin’s Three Burials for flute and video contrasted quiet imagery with flutings that could be construed as the tortured wind or maybe an altogether grief-stricken bird. For the middle burial, only video, and for outer two burials, it appeared that the same graphics (my surmise) were at play with the three burials resulting in an A B A structure, and with one A reflecting the other A as do those funny mirrors at circuses.

This year’s invited composer of the Barwick Colloquium Series at the Harvard Music Department is Julio Estrada. All three works on the program of the Mexican composer, theoretician, historian, pedagogue, and interpreter received highly spirited performances. Canto tejido for piano doted on one single note to another in simple time with warm touches veering toward abstractness.

Yuunohui’Tiapoa’Ehecati for clarinet and piano, as with most of the pieces on the concert, remained primal, inarticulate, aiming at bypassing what is civil. That attitude prevailed in Estrada’s Yuunohui’Ehecatu for flute. Three double-sized stands held the score. What the flutist saw could not have resembled a traditional score with a staff and so on. This piece explored “new concepts of what Julio calls ‘macro-timbre’ as well as new graphic forms of musical notation.”

The concert was presented by the Harvard Music Department and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies in co-sponsorship with the Instituto Cervantes Observatory at Harvard University and the Leonore Annenberg Foundation.

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. He is the author of 20 Little Piano Pieces from Around the World (G. Schirmer). www.notescape.net

6 Comments

  1. Having enjoyed and learned from Prof. Patterson’s reviews in the past, I trust that the evening was as intolerable as he describes. My only quibble is that he seems (I could be wrong) to think of  music that is primal, inarticulate, and aims at bypassing what is civil” as inferior. I can think of lots of fine music that is all three of these things. Also I can come up with lots of wretched stuff that is not primal, is articulate and civil to boot. An example: Ferde Grofe’s miserable “Grand Canyon Suite.

    Why continue with this sad list?

    Comment by Jonathan Brodie — September 21, 2017 at 5:01 pm

  2. This review shows what happens when younger generations of composers in those countries, better informed than previous generations, want to ‘catch-up’, and look towards the established modern music scenes in ‘more developed’ countries. But these scenes are often very conventional, with petrified ideas of half a century old, so they catch-up with something already completely outdated. In itself, ‘outdated music’ is not necessarily bad music, since the entire repertoire as played in the central performance culture is ‘outdated’, but it is timeless musical qualities which keep music contemporary for ever. Postwar modernism as practiced in the Western world however, derives its identity from being ‘up to date’ and utopian and homogenic cosmopolitan, so when it gets old, it becomes meaningless and characterless if there are not some universal musical qualities to be found. Unfortunately, modernist ideologies made sure that such qualities would not be found in the average modernist piece of music. And ‘modernism’ as such is an entirely passed station. It is with modernist music like with modernist architecture: the same, glass and steel streamlined functionalist glittering cubes and pickles rising everywhere where people want to ‘develop’ and hence, end-up with producing entirely characterless, ugly environments.

    Comment by John Borstlap — September 23, 2017 at 4:15 pm

  3. After posting my response to this review, I regretted leaving out something out.

    “I trust that the evening was as intolerable as he describes.” needs revision. Upon reflection (I do it at least once a decade) I want to change that to: “ I trust that the evening would have been as intolerable for me as it was for him.” That change honors the subjectivity of musical judgements. Certainly it is possible that there were audience members who were enthralled and inspired by what they heard just as they were members of the audience who left the hall with tummy aches.

    Mr. Borstlap is as erudite and learned as Sir Donald Francis Tovey (and that’s saying a lot.) My worry, though, is that his learning sometimes distracts him from respecting that portion of the audience that might be attending the concert for the simple reason they find “arms flailing and some hair pulling, and finally, screams.” to be their cup of tea. Why respect them? Because those folks took the time to leave their couches and paid good money to hear something that enriched their aesthetic lives.

    For myself, hair pulling and screams doesn’t do it…but whom I to disparage that population who enjoys such ululations?

    “The IMUS (International Musical Ululation Society) is every bit as worthy as the “HIF Biber Society.’

    Choose your club and enjoy.

    Comment by jonathan Brodie — September 23, 2017 at 5:33 pm

  4. >>> Borstlap is as erudite and learned as Sir Donald Francis Tovey

    >> Postwar modernism as practiced in the Western world however, derives its identity from being ‘up to date’ and utopian and homogenic cosmopolitan, so when it gets old, it becomes meaningless and characterless if there are not some universal musical qualities to be found. Unfortunately, modernist ideologies made sure that such qualities would not be found in the average modernist piece of music. And ‘modernism’ as such is an entirely passed station.

    I see I have missed where Tovey ever wrote anything as reactionary and sweeping as this.

    Comment by david moran — September 23, 2017 at 10:19 pm

  5. Dear Mr. Moran…you are absolutely right. Sir Donald possessed a profound mind, His musical insights showed him to be wise beyond measure. Dip anywhere into his “Essays in Musical Analysis” and you will see evidence of this. The passage you quote is systematic of a world-view that is propped up by lots of technical information that sadly leads the writer down an unfortunate path. In short…scratch out “learned and erudite” for our contemporary correspondent.

    Keep it in spades for Sir Donald.

    Comment by jonathan Brodie — September 24, 2017 at 11:07 am

  6. I would have to disagree in entirety with some of the sentiments echoed in the article as well as the comments section here. Modernism is not really a passed station. Merely, modernism as a single entity has run its course and, now, we live in the truly postmodern. Modern styles can exist alongside neo-styles as well as referential material. The fact that the current scene of new music pays homage to the roots of the past, IE the Boulez/Stockhausen/Carter cabal, does not mean that inherently the style is a relic nor the scene petrified and fossilized. We as a concert crowd and public entity are looking to find the middle of the pendulum swing once again.

    Comment by Ian Wiese — September 25, 2017 at 11:25 am

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