When I was first hired here
in 1987, one of my responsibilities was to start a contemporary ensemble. The group I started thrived for about ten years, puttered down for another five years as my composition career started to pick up a tailwind, and halted completely when I became Dean of the school in 2003.
The first ten years were mostly fun, although conducting was never something I loved doing – I found that it directly interfered with my composing mindset. In the last few years it became increasingly difficult and frustrating to fit the ensemble in with all of my other responsibilities. I felt guilty when it finally died – I knew the students really loved it and benefited greatly.
So when Ransom Wilson was hired to direct our orchestra this season, I was delighted, but I was even happier when he announced, soon after he arrived, that he intended to start a contemporary ensemble. ACME, as the group is called, gave its first concert this week.
Most musicians know Ransom as the virtuoso flutist from Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and Professor at Yale University. Many others realize that he has, in recent years, developed quite a nice little conducting career – he’s conducting Peter Grimes
at the Met next month.
Those who have really followed Ransom’s career closely, though, know that he was one of the first mainstream virtuosi to take minimalism seriously in the 1970s, a fact he recounts here
. Accordingly, the first half of ACME’s concert this week featured three perspectives of minimalism, which I'll refer to as Early Phasing, Expressive Potential and Minimalism on Steroids.
The first work was Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood
a composition from what I affectionately think of as the Male Pattern Baldness period of minimalism – so-called because 1] part of the point was to make patterns as clear and obvious as possible, and 2] women who did it had a hard time being taken seriously. Five musicians perform, armed with claves, one tapping out a steady pulse while the others enter one by one, subtly shifting the pulse groupings. I’ve heard this piece many, many times – it’s a staple of percussion ensembles, as a kind of rhythmic etude that’s great for young players. The piece has done the opposite of growing on me: I found it fascinating the first time I heard it, less and less so with subsequent hearings. Now it leaves me pretty indifferent, although it’s nice to see new young audiences connecting with its straightforward magic.
The next piece was a recent work of Martin Bresnick’s: My Twentieth Century
(2002). The text is an adaptation of a wonderfully understated but touching poem by Tom Andrews, listing random things that happened to the author in the century gone by. Bresnick turns the poem into a lovely ritual. The ensemble – flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano – play a repetitive Bulgarian dance of death. In varying groups of two, the musicians step forward to two podia to recite individual lines from the poem. The piece finds a wonderful expressivity in predictability: it doesn’t take long to recognize the pattern through which the recurrent line, “My brother died in the twentieth century” will return, and waiting for it to reappear, each time spoken by a different voice, exercises a special kind of fatalistic hypnotism over the listener.
To conclude the first half, we had the large-ensemble version of Michael Gordon’s Yo Shakespeare.
The title is a quote from one of the composer’s childhood friends – his telephone salutation whenever he called up Gordon on the phone. Gordon used some of the newly-available software of the early 1990s to create a rhythmic tour-de-force: interlocking tuplets crossing the barline at crazy angles, all with a hyper rock band scoring. The result is both fascinating and exhausting.
For the second half, we got a work from our guest composer – about which more later.
And what does ACME stand for? “Nothing,” says Ransom. “If anything, Another Contemporary Music Ensemble.”