Music is as much of a time art as reading or looking at pictures because its subject, as John Ashbery once said about poetry, is always somehow about time. And composers, like writers, whether consciously or not, are always playing a game with time. A long piece can sound short, and a short one, long. Time can seem heavy, as in Dostoevksy, or Wagner, or light as in Proust, or Earle Brown. The four pieces on sfsound‘s most recent concert at The San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s elegant hall managed to be about all these things at once.
Anton Webern‘s pointillistic approach has often been remarked on, but this performance of his Quartet Op. 22 (1930) revealed other things besides his ultra precise and often very soft sound gestures. It’s characteristically brief, and clocked in at 8 minutes here (“the sweet succinct,” as Frank O’Hara once wrote–but also surprising, with scattered long tones in clarinet (Matt Ingalls) and tenor sax (John Ingle), and witty, almost whimsical. Hardly what you’d expect from the earnest, heavy breathing New Vienna School. Time seemed magnified, collapsed, the sound picture ably completed by violinist Graeme Jennings and pianist Christopher Jones.
Would that Jones’ Liquid Refrains (2011), commissioned by sfSound and the Koussevitzky Foundation, had the take it or leave it sense of style of the Webern. But the piece, conducted by the composer and performed by 12 members of sfSound said a lot less in its 13 minutes than the Webern. You always hope to hear a personal voice in painted, written, or musical art but you didn’t get much of one here, especially in the first part’s busy for no apparent reason, standard-issue modernist gestures. The second part, with its transparent writing and brief clockwork episodes–time standing still or at least examined up close–seemed to sketch a semblance of who this composer might actually be.
Improvisations usually have a way of speeding up our sense of time, and those by clarinetist Matt Ingalls, saxophonist John Ingle, and percussionist Kjell Nordeson sounded fresh and spontaneous, with Nordeson’s drum kit and assorted percussion making a joyful noise and providing lots of rhythmic and timbral interest.
Morton Feldman was famous – some would say infamous – for pieces of very long duration. His six hour String Quartet # 2 (1982), and For John Cage (1982), (which lasted 78 minutes when Jennings and Jones played it in San Francisco in ’08), atomize our perception of time, as does Clarinet and String Quartet (1983), which sfSound played for 45 minutes here. It certainly toyed with our expectations of what music should be, and bore not the slightest resemblance to the Mozart and Brahms Clarinet Quintets, which are from a tradition that Feldman was apparently hostile to, though his devotion to the passing moment makes him a kind of romantic, pursuing memory on his own very individual terms. Wisps–his term–of melody, through cells and figures varied and combined–is a more accurate description, with texture, and color always getting the upper hand. But does this make it unaccountably deep? Well yes–and no. I nodded off and on–the lack of rhythmic energy–is it going anywhere interesting –was both calming and aggravating. “Erased De Kooning”– well, not exactly, but perhaps this piece is a song that we can just barely hear, much less remember, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Jennings and Erik Ulman, violin, Ellen Ruth Rose, viola, and Monica Scott, cello, made present, but not quite near, with some wonderful invocations–the string harmonics from Lalo Schifrin’s 1979 score for The Amityville Horror near the beginning–adding a much needed theatrical juice.