Music has always come from two basic sources, and served two quite different masters — thought and emotion. The Western tradition, especially in its modern and contemporary permutations, has given the upper hand to thought, as if it was superior to feeling, and therefore inescapably deep. Hence our worship of Bach’s “pure” architectural lines and use of forms, and Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School and their satellites’ obsession with 12-note sets, have driven the wedge between the two even deeper . And that’s why some composers have claimed that that their music is music better than it sounds because it exists as “pure” thought on paper.
But most of the music by the 10 Bay Area-based composers on sfSoundSeries “Small Packages ” at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s handsome and warm-sounding Recital Hall 23 January , which revolved around a rare performance of Ligeti‘s 1970 Chamber Concerto, seemed to focus on feeling as not being divorced from thought, or vice versa. This wasn’t paper music. And one had the distinct sense, to paraphrase Dorothy, that we weren’t in Vienna any more.
Music always plays with time, and the 10 pieces here, which ranged from a little over 2 minutes to a whopping 6, teased one’s sense of duration as each filled its space with different kinds of weights, lines, and densities. The physical character of sound , which is of course a central modernist concern, also varied widely from piece to piece. Tom Dambly‘s Chamber Concerto, op. 3 (second movement) for 8 players, including the composer on trumpet, even had 12-note stretches, as well as a delirious sense of shifting tonal anchors. Nick Bacchetti‘s String Trio, which obviously evokes Schoenberg’s late masterpiece in this form, was expertly delivered by Graeme Jennings, violin, Alexa Beattie, viola, Monica Scott, cello, and Christopher Jones, conductor. Canner MEFE‘s witty Pen and Pencil Drawer, played here by Kyle Bruckman, oboe, and Matt Ingalls, clarinet, with its rapid glissandi, sounded like a virtuosic series of hockets/canons both elegant and forceful.
Dan Becker, as his program note admitted, is usually ” tagged with the post-minimalist label, ” and while his Gobble, with its hammered rhythmic / harmonic patterns for Ingalls, bass clarinet, John Lyle, alto/baritone sax, Jones, this time on piano, with Jennings and Scott again on violin and cello, is clearly a minimalist groove, it was also dramatic, and entertaining. Greg Saunier‘s Secret Mobilization also refused to take itself too seriously, and its transparent textures were openly sensuous, which is a relative anomaly in new music’s often thought centered world. And the quintet — with Bruckman this time on English horn, Ingalls, again on bass clarinet, Beattie and Scott, seemed to be played with both accuracy and warmth. Theresa Wong‘s Castings, for Bruckman, Ingle, and Jones, on piano, got its sense of mystery from the music’s elongated and overlapping tones, and the fact that it was performed behind the wood wall center stage, and this removal of visual contact with the players was as arresting as that scene in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, with Keanu Reeve’s back to the camera, or painter Alex Katz’s positioning of his wife Ada center stage — but from behind — in one of his Black Brook series heightens the drama by removing the subject from its expected place.
Ending the concert, Ligeti‘s Concerto is a new music classic which encapsulates a lot of compositional moves — homogenous and individualized timbres, sometimes simultaneously, clearly picked out textures, a logical formal trajectory, and a fondness for tritones. The 13 member ensemble played it with concentrated affection and verve, and proved that Ligeti’s unique sound world needed no special pleading, but was an undisputed fact of our contemporary musical landscape. Ligeti had simply cleared the land, and now that land was shared.
A recording of the entire concert is available for listening on the website.