IN: Reviews

Prozession and Fabrication for Fromm


Chaya Czernowin (file photo)

The Fromm Players at Harvard University offered a long program, “Procession,” on Friday evening, performed by the Klangforum Wien, an ensemble that brought together 22 players and conductor Johannes Kalitzke  to Sanders Theatre. The concert consisted of two recent works of large proportions, each lasting an hour. Harvard’s Chaya Czernowin, who curated the show and  made introductory remarks; in a well-printed handout Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s brief but frothy notes sometimes helpfully indicated what to expect.

Prozession by Enno Poppe (b. 1969) needed a large ensemble on the Sanders stage, framed at four corners by four percussionists, each with a group of drums, blocks, and cymbals; each group included a covered bass drum, and one player had two bass drums. There was a palpable sectional structure over the hour’s music, and percussion formed the sectional boundaries. The beginning was ultra-quiet (marred by a crying baby who soon exited the hall) but punctuated by tomtoms and bongos played with raindrop-like fingered notes, and I remembered that Burt Bacharach had died only two days earlier. Soon these were joined by glissing strings and bent pitches on the flute (there was even a bass flute), high horn notes, and actual chordal sounds, organ-like amid string squeals, with rhythmic clusters of brass with many different mutes, and crescendo to fff . Abruptly there was a dramatic changeover in all four percussions from hard wooden sticks to metal brushes, and this was an apparent demarcation between sections (nine “lifecycles,” according to the notes). It was fascinating to see the conductor furiously beating small measures in what was generally a very slow texture full of small detail — and this was part of the procession that became more and more prominent through the hour, sometimes even with a regular though glacial pulse. The double-bass player, of short stature and standing at the front of the ensemble, was especially active, often reaching desperately over the instrument’s shoulder to achieve maybe the 15th position before hurrying down the fingerboard to play an arpeggio, and much of this could be heard. This bassist soon engaged in a pointed duo with contrabass clarinet, a scary but expressive low-register sound. Following a return to wooden sticks and sfz strokes, as the texture grew in volume, electronics from two synthesizers made their way into the overall sound, alternating with woodwind-brass expostulations. Eventually, chordal clusters with a nearly harmonic perceptibility came to dominate the sound, and in the last moments there was a downward drift of texture closely resembling a motion of real chordal roots, just before the action shifted back to the four bass drums, this time brushed with shoe brushes, a wispy breezelike sound that was both affecting and relaxing. Afterward, a well-known composer opined to me that the sounds and the structure alike were well-motivated but the whole piece could easily have been ten minutes shorter.

After a 30-minute intermission, Chaya Czernowin’s The Fabrication of Light began with a smaller ensemble — single winds, solo string quintet, 2 percussion, piano, electronics. Some differences from Poppe’s work in instrumental technique were noticeable from start to finish — snapped strings (Bartók sign), air-blowing through brass, Firebird glissandi in strings, rips (glissando through overtones) in brass, rim shots on snare drum answered by finger tremolos on bongos, the presence of pitched mallet instruments (but no crotales). All of these, punctuated by glissandi and col legno battuto strings, came in bursts that the composer said were organized in spirals, but the spirality was not obvious. There seemed to be a distant procession from time to time, marked by a bass drum beat or other timekeeper. Woodwind warbling figures (including some neat piccolo) alternated with very high string trills, yielding to a short passage with rainsticks, offset by inside-the-piano brushes. I noted two kinds of trumpets, one of them a smaller instrument with upward-pointed bell like Dizzy Gillespie’s. One could feel as much as hear the sustained low octaves, contrabassoon and tuba, and the slow 4/4 procession of many subtle stretches of sound — string ponticello tremolo, prepared piano, two triangles with attached jingles (a new sound for me), eventually building to a fff torrent of electronic white noise that lasted well over a minute and seemed quite incomprehensible, with simultaneous solo strings playing furiously but completely inaudibly. After this there was another spiral, a duet of woodblocks accompanied by a jazz pizzicato double bass, bowed notes on the vibraphone, and soft-stick glisses on vibraphone and marimba with synthetic drumbeats keeping pace. Snare drum sticks rolling on the hi-hat cymbals, and a weird moment of string and wind players whispering through cones of rolled-up paper — these preceded the emergence of longer low notes chiefly on C, which became insistent. Near the end there was a nagging outburst of sharp woodblocks played, I believe, with glockenspiel sticks (brass tips), and a regular beat of string glisses and brass rips, and then a sudden ending. The entire work transpired in discrete bursts of color; this veritable thesaurus of timbres, saw first one and then the other―constantly in motion but not moving.

It was fitting to hear these two different works together because they were similar in so many ways. There was a nearly overwhelming preponderance of sostenuto — very long and very loud tones, especially in the winds, as though imitating electronic sound; except for maybe fifteen or twenty seconds, there was no fast tempo whatever during the entire evening. The flailing percussion was often furioso and everywhere, but without a jazz pulse to move it forward, and the profusion of instruments surrounding a single percussionist goes all the way back to Berio’s Circles (which I heard at Harvard in 1961) and even long before. But the instrumental execution seemed faultless, especially the percussion, and the conducting very precise. The audience, in a half-filled Sanders Theatre, was respectful, and seemed to enjoy the performance even if not fully comprehending the music. “Something has happened here that I have never written before,” Enno Poppe is quoted as saying. Yes, but it was Wagner who wrote “So ward noch nie komponirt” at the end of the sketch of Tristan und Isolde, Act I.

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

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