In June I sat on a panel organized by Opera Cabal, in their visit to the Kitchen to produce Georg Haas’ Atthis, with two other critics, John Rockwell and Zachary Woolfe. While the audience was sparse, they were generally attentive and the talk, which began with the question of whether or not we missed City Opera, was varied and interesting.
I was surprised, though, by how much we ended up talking about the Metropolitan Opera, and how Rockwell and Woolfe’s critical thinking is so involved in the context of not only what the Met produces, but the general standpoint that the long-standing repertoire is the thing that matters. The Met demands that much attention in terms of both time and money, and the professional critics (I’m making a value-free distinction between those who are paid for every review they write and those who are paid for some of the reviews we write) pay that much more attention to the Met and that house’s peers: it’s their job.
This is certainly no criticism of Rockwell and Woolfe, especially the former, who has done so much to advocate for contemporary opera. It actually made my contributions more valuable, because while I certainly see plenty of things at the Met (almost a dozen performances this past season), what happens outside that house matters to me more. Nothing against good productions of operas of lasting value (though the grand opera tradition, as seen on stage, includes too many mediocre works), but as a composer I’m most concerned with the state of the form now, what other composers and companies are doing with it.
When I answered the opening question, I was even more surprised to realize that I didn’t miss City Opera. The loss of the company is still painful, but what involved me the most with them was what George Steel was doing to produce modern and contemporary work, and this past season, starting with City Opera’s swan song of Anna Nicole, I saw enough new work (on a necessarily smaller scale), and missed so much more new work, that it was clear to me in retrospect that contemporary opera is in decent enough shape. Smaller companies like Gotham Chamber Opera, Beth Morrison Projects, HERE Arts Center and Experiments in Opera are making new work, and they are free of the burden of having to maintain a redundant version of the repertoire that the Met has a lock on.
What does it take to produce an opera? Experiments in Opera has an infinitesimal fraction of the Met’s budget, easily less than 1,000,000th, so the composers who formed the organization—Aaron Siegel, Jason Cady and Matthew Welch—work together to produce each other’s pieces. I saw their season finale, Siegel’s Brother Brother, in the beginning of May at the Abrons Arts Center, and while the opera didn’t come off as a successful music drama, it has two important things going for it: it tries to expand the repertory and it made it to the stage—that itself is a success.
Siegel is trying to move narrative structure beyond linear story telling, something the world of contemporary opera desperately needs (as I said at the panel, I’m amazed that in a world with comic books, Pulp Fiction and long form dramatic TV, there is almost never any variation to the Verdian model). He is trying to convey a drama about the Wright brothers by telling the story of an additional pair of brothers, abstracted as Red and Blue. An interesting idea, but unsuccessfully executed.
Siegel wrote the libretto, and could probably have used some critical distance: the words don’t amount to much meaning. They don’t do much to provide human flesh to the Wright brothers (sung by countertenor Patrick Fennig and tenor Marc Day), and the fragmented, abstract dialogue for Red (Julian A. Rozell, Jr.), and Blue (Danyon Davis) make them poetic figures and put them out of the context of the drama. Red and Blue are also speaking parts, and although they are accompanied by music, they seem to belong to an entirely different piece.
Siegel fills in a lot of the narrative with a chorus, but this also works against his drama, because this is music the Wright brothers could sing, and by singing bring us closer to their experience and dramatic realization. They pop up, Day sings heroically at one point, everything goes up in flames. It doesn’t work. Siegel also doesn’t completely get beyond the challenge of his own minimalist idiom—the repetitive music relies predominantly on vibraphone (the accompanying ensembles were Mantra Percussion and the Cadillac Moon Ensemble, conducted by David Bloom), and as lovely as it often is, there is too little changes in quality and harmony to indicate that some kind of narrative transformation has occurred: the music doesn’t convey the dramatic idea.
Production- and performance-wise, the event proved that there is no lack of capable singers, musicians and directors (Mallory Catlett). The actors were miked, probably because the instruments were miked, but in the tidy acoustic of Abrons this should never have happened, and the vibes overpowered the actors and the singers too many times. Perhaps tight budgets mean insufficient tech rehearsals.
But the problems with Brother Brother are those of commission, people trying to do something new. No money means nothing much to lose, and an unsatisfying but honest attempt at something different is more welcome than another acceptable and predictable production of Strauss.
Now that we’re well (and sadly?) past the era of composers’ cutting contests, where the likes of Beethoven would take a theme from a pretender and improvise a dazzling set of variations (the origin of the finale of the “Eroica” symphony), it is exceedingly, impossibly rare to witness what I heard in December.
Early in the month, the American Modern Ensemble played a concert at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music. The program was based around music from Robert Paterson’s terrific recent recording, Winter Songs, made with the same ensemble. The concert was bookended by Paterson’s CAPTCHA and the title sequence, about half the contents on the CD (there’s also the song-sets Eating Variations, Thursday and Batter’s Box, making for one of the best releases of 2013).
One of Paterson’s Winter Songs is “The Snow Man,” from Wallace Stevens’ poem. Preceding that set was another song of the same poem, “The Snow Man,” by composer Steven Burke. Two songs from two different composers using the same text, finding entirely different meanings and producing dramatically varied effects. In a strong and enjoyable concert overall, this was a special moment and had a powerful effect.
Paterson is an excellent, old-school style craftsman. He produces limpid melodies and harmonies, his small ensemble orchestrations are colorful and clear, and he values lyricism and beauty. His Winter Songs are just that: despite the overall feeling of shattered loneliness in the poems he collected from Stevens, A.R. Ammons, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, and Billy Collins, the overall feeling is of interpretation at a distance, the composer and listener outside the experience of the poems themselves, safe from the emotional dangers.
Paterson’s “Snow Man” is only shrouded in ice, the warmth from the fire reaches out to touch the music. The singer, bass-baritone David Neal, and the music, describe the emptiness “Of the January sun; and not to think/Of any misery in the sound of the wind,” like a docent describing a painting. Burke’s setting, which came out of a period of personal turmoil for him, is deep inside the music and the poem. His singer was a tenor, John Matthew Myers, and the accompaniment is only violin and piano, not Paterson’s chamber ensemble. The voice of the music is the voice of the snowman, the feeling is of experience, not observation. Burke’s is the sound of a man lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering what the hell he’s going to do.
In contrast to all this is CAPTCHA, the nonsense text used on the web to verify that the user on the other end of the interface is a human being. Paterson collected a decent amount of these … words, such as they are, and made them into songs. They are utterly brilliant, and I’m not sure the composer recognizes their strength. Expertly sung by the great young baritone Jesse Blumberg, they are songs that poke fun at the entire art song tradition and yet fulfill the clichés of the style with skill and wit. That a man can sing “Voix gustroor/voice niionss/MUSICAL alengus/harmonic nstryfl” with a full, beautiful voice and an arched eyebrow, and convey meaning, testifies to how great this set is. By saying nothing, they mean everything. It needs to be a standard choice in the repertoire.
The concert was completed with songs from Tania Léon, Turning, and Russell Platt, “Two Whitman Panels” from his A Walt Whitman Cantata, that varied based on the quality of the poetry. Each composer writes fine vocal music, but Léon’s poetry couldn’t completely fill out her composing. The series of texts, sung by soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, from Sarah White, Lucille Clifton, Janice Mirikitani and Judith Ortiz Carter, hint at both social isolation and rituals that extend from ancient beliefs to modern materialism, but their cores are minimal, and the music tries, not completely successfully, to press them in to a maximal expression. Neither side is wrong, but they mostly mis-fit.
Platt’s two songs, with Jesse Blumberg again, contrast with each other. His settings of the poetry are superb: the first, “When I Heard at the Close of the Day,” is a genteel love song, one man to another, while “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing,” has the pleasing roughness and muscularity that is so special in the poet. Platt captures each quality well.
Before JACK Quartet played Georg Friedrich Haas’ “In iij. Noct,” String Quartet No. 3 Tuesday night at the Lincoln Center White Light Festival, the stage crew turned the lights off in the Clark Studio Theater for a test run, so that everyone in the audience could gauge whether they could withstand the extended period of essentially total darknes. The lights were down for one minute, and once the last light went out I counted to myself, “one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand.” By the time I hit twenty, the lights were on their way back up.
That is the profound power that darkness has, it drastically slows our personal sensation of time. It’s in that time-altered environment that we hear the musicians, one each in the four corners of the room, playing Haas’s piece (it’s duration can be flexible but JACK played it for about 70 minutes). The darkness is purportedly no gimmick, it’s at the core of the piece, as Haas described in post-concert remarks led by John Schaeffer. But the problem with the compostion, and it is a serious problem, is that it spends so much thought on darkness and none on time.
As a composition, the String Quartet takes the form of a series of structured cues — it’s fair to consider them improvisatory, but that’s a distinction that can easily shift responsibility away from the composer and onto the players. The musicians have different kinds of musical material to work with, things like sequences of effects, instructions to form chords from a tonic pitch using the overtone series, a notable and glaring quotation from one of Gesualdo’s Tenebrae Responsoria . Playing in the dark, away from each other, they have to come to consensus on each section.
JACKS’ unanimity in this concert was impressive. They’ve played this work almost three dozen times, in Ari Streisfeld’s telling, and although there have been performances in their account where they had to fight over events and direction, this was smooth and assured. But the net effect is that the piece has no form, that it’s a disjointed series of effects — none of them particularly compelling — interrupted by involving tonal material. It’s discontinuous, but there’s no intent to that, no shape, no argument for that structure.
The effects — tricks with the bow, quiet tapping on the fingerboard — evaporate in the dark, though there’s the benefit that the piece doesn’t come off as simplistic horrow music. They don’t linger in the mind, and don’t effectively mark moments in time. When the quartet builds their chords, or when they move via glissandi up and down through pitches, the piece is remarkable. That’s when it builds structure through time, and since it’s working with such a proufoundly altered sensation of the dimension, it starts to open up extraordinary worlds of aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual possibilities.
I get the impression Haas doesn’t hear this, because his instructions let go of all the power in the music. It’s easy, but lazy, to hear his work as avant-garde. He is avant-garde in a bourgeois sense, titillating with sensation. But he’s not in the meaningful sense of an obsessive focus on one single, simple idea, it’s permutations and possibilities. One hour of chord building in pitch darkness, the musicians at the edge of their senses to hit the exact intonation, the audience in constant anticipation of where the music will go and what will happen next, that might be extraordinary. One hour of scrapes and squiggles and some notes — with an entirely superfluous bit of Gesualdo throw in — in the dark, is a gimmick, and ultimatley disappointing.
It was an evocatively strange and ambiguous experience to hear Anton Batagov play Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories last Sunday evening in the newly restored Board of Officers Room at the Park Avenue Armory. The room is stunning, beautiful and elegant in a way that speaks not just of easy riches but of plutocracy and power. It’s the size of a studio apartment, and sitting in it is like being in the intimate quarters of the people whose riches ensure their legacy in and on buildings across the city.
And there we heard Feldman, the last of three concerts to inaugurate the Armory’s chamber music series. Fitting and strange — a born and raised New Yorker from a middle-class that won’t exist for many more generations, and one of the great and most uncompromisingly avant-garde composers in the Western classical tradition. A Jew in what is essentially a castle for old-money WASPS, making music that utterly ignores conventions of form, structure, development, harmony, melody and rhythm.
By the time in his career of Triadic Memories (1981) Feldman was not avant-garde anymore, that’s what my composer’s sensibilities tell me. He was, as the piece tells me both on paper and in my ears, a great composer in both history and craft; making music that developed and spread ideas important to the continuing development of knowledge about how to compose music, and notating those ideas with imagination, concision and profound skill. It’s a great piece of musical aesthetics and a great piece in the piano literature, pianistic in a way that makes it an absolute peer to Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Shostakovich, Ravel, Nancarrow, Carter and Ligeti.
Batagov dedicated the concert to Lou Reed — we had heard news of his death that morning — another ambiguous element. Reed is important and rightfully beloved, but his status in rock music and pop culture was, just before his death, cemented by his licensing of his song “Perfect Day” to sell PlayStations. Rock is part of mass culture and has never been able to escape commodification, selling is part of the point of its existence. Feldman is never going to sell any product, the three evenings of performances probably sold about 400 tickets. That many people heard Batagov’s transparent, affecting performance.
His concentration, his thinking, were exceptional. The music is terrifically challenging in a way that the likes of Lang Lang would never dare approach. The pianist must be on the knife’s edge of awareness, keeping a strict tempo for ninety minutes and placing notes in rhythms that are both exact and exceedingly finely varied. The technical point is to keep many pulses going at once through a specific period of time. Harmonically the music is tonal and dissonant, but there’s no predictable harmonic rhythm and there are few phrases, a handful of tightly confined one-handed patterns in the middle and towards the end. The physical demands are rudimentary, save for stamina, the intellectual demands are daunting. His measured tempo, slower than most of the recordings I know, shaded the experience with an initial and enticing feeling of tension: could he make it work at this pace?
Unerringly. I praise Batagov when I write that his playing never made the demands of tempo, thought and action noticeable. These are the things I did notice: uncanny and rich timbres of difference tones and especially overtones morphing out of the piano (the pedal is halfway down throughout the piece) — the first octave and fifth were almost as strong as the fundamental pitches — and demonstrating the great acoustic of the room, which gives even the softest notes fullness and presence; the audience so quiet that the sound of a second-hand ticking on a watch somewhere in my row was noticeable (although several people left during the performance, highly disruptive and puzzling — why did they come?); the sense of time not passing but accumulating. There are intellectual and mystical depths to Feldman, paths through those can be explored by each listener. What is objectively true about the piece is that it defines time not as notches on a line but a container to hold a set of events, it beings, proceeds through action and ends, and the arbitrary points that mark the first measure and the last could just be windows into something that is eternal. That’s as great as it gets.
Some of the most timeless, gripping, modern and surprising music I hear consistently are the vocal works of Renaissance Italian composers and their associated circle – Monteverdi, Gesualdo, the great Madrigalist Luca Marenzio. Saturday night at Miller Theatre I heard music from composers who were new to me – Giovanni Maria Trabaci, Il Fasolo (not Giovanni Battista Fasolo) and Marco Marazzoli – in a revelatory and affecting concert from the great early music ensemble, Le Poème Harmonique, led by Vincent Dumestre.
Why Renaissance music at Sequenza21? First, Miller is as important for their early music programming as they are for their Composer Portraits, and second, they build the connection between the two eras not only abstractly through the two series but through a newer exploration of the past by way of the present. Last season they began a Bach Revisted series that paired early and new music musicians and programs (I saw an excellent concert with Kristian Bezuidenhout playing C.P.E., W.F. and J.S. Bach accompanied by Ensemble Signal, who themselves gave a masterful performance of Michael Gordon’s Weather, and since you can’t have Gordon without Reich and Reich without Bach, there’s nothing to argue ). The series continues this year with concerts that pair Bach with Kaija Saariaho, Reich and Joan Tower.
This fits into the ongoing history of music, where composers continue to write a cappella vocal works. I had a significant dose of them from John Zorn, including a set he explicitly calls “madrigals,” and there’s a good handful of contemporary vocal music built on the work of the ancient pioneers that has not only crossed my desk but been in the news this year. The critical point of all of this is that the old music is for the most part so much more daring, free and innovative than what I hear from contemporary composers, with some notable exceptions.
New vocal music has had a moment this year with Caroline Shaw’s Pulitzer Prize award for her Partita, which appears on the debut disc from Roomful of Teeth. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the piece, but not much right about it either. There are contemporaneous vocal compositions that do some of the same things, do them better, and go beyond. Partita is polite music with a few accessories that might appear experimental but that are, in 2013, ordinary things in a composer’s toolbox. The teleology of her texts is shallow and brittle. Spoken words? Berio wrote and adapted far more compelling texts. Phonemes? Kenneth Gaburo’s works are older than Shaw and are still experimental. These tools are also better used in choral works on an excellent new CD of music from composer Kevin Puts. His work doesn’t sound as superficially ‘new’ but he makes richer, deeper and more proficient music with the same elements of text and fragmented vocal sounds.
His harmonies are also involving, and this matters. Harmony is the essential feature of the history of this music, it’s through the voice that composers created polyphony and counterpoint. But we’re supposed to know so much more today than they did in the 17th century, so why does Gesualdo sound so much fresher and newer than most new vocal music? His harmonic flights of fancy are surprising and effective because he creates a context that is clear, logical and describes the terms he’s working with. There is a fashion in contemporary vocal music of tossing in dissonant or extended chords that, since it’s in opposition to the overall harmonic context, comes off as a self-conscious way of asserting new music bona fides. That is one of the traps that Zorn’s work can fall into.
At edge of the trap but never falling in is a new work from Gregory Brown, Missa Charles Darwin, available in an engrossing recording from New York Polyphony. Brown works with history in two ways, cultivating a refined sense of vocal polyphony while setting Charles Darwin’s writing from On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man and various letters. The harmonic motion is mostly strong and logical, though parts like the “Alleluia” section suffer from jarring modulations. It’s a strong work overall, though, and in particular Brown is the only contemporary composer I can recall who crafts vocal lines that have the same sense of independent harmonic rhythm and expressive freedom that makes the madrigals of Monteverdi and the like so powerful (there’s a fine companion to Brown’s piece, another new recording from New York Polyphony, Times Go By Turns, a collection of works from Byrd, Plummer and Tallis).
It’s enduringly strange to me how the techniques of Monteverdi have been left by the wayside. The combination of voices singing the same text, in counterpoint and rhythmic opposition, is one of the most beautiful and involving sounds in music, across all genres. Add words like:
Veglio, penso, ardo, piango; e chi mi sface
Sempre m’è innanzi per mia dolce pena
Guerra è il mio stato d’ira e di duol piena,
E sol di lei pensando ho qualche pace.
(I watch, brood, burn and weep; and she, my undoing
Is ever before me, causing such sweet sorrow;
Warfare is my state, full of anger and pain,
And only thoughts of her bring me peace)
have immediate personal meaning to us across the centuries. Setting them as Monteverdi did gives them physical urgency and so the Miller Theatre concert was exciting and moving. Le Poème Harmonique, like other early music groups, sees this music as coming from the earth, the groin, not the mind and the heavens, so there is fire and humor. The program was “Combattimenti” which you can hear on this marvelous CD; it included Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda. It ended with Marazzoli’s La Fiera di Farfa, an astonishing dramatic parody of Monteverdi. For a while, it’s a dazzling picture of a fair, with hawkers, gawkers and more calling out, arguing, dancing. The parody comes near the end, when a ball breaks out and two gentlemen, friends, begin to fight. It seems in deadly earnest until the loser calls off the coup de grace by singing “Friend, you have won: I forgive you; you forgive me too. Indeed, in such circumstances it is a fine thing to be a base coward.”
In no way was this the experience of gazing quaintly back at the humanism of the past. Dumestre did something remarkable in this concert: there are songs within the larger piece, sung by characters inhabiting the fair, not only the faux-fight “Guera e Mort,” but two remarkable ballads, sung beautifully by tenor Serge Goubioud, “È no ssusciame’n canna (He cannot play a flute)” and “Vurria’addeventare pesce d’or (I’d like to become a golden fish).” In these moments, Dumestre moved the accompaniment from continuo-recitativo style repetitive bass and chord accompaniment, with a modern, vernacular sense of articulation and syncopation. Goubioud moved his voice from throat and head to his chest, and we were hearing popular music, as in-the-moment today as it was 400 hundred years ago. It felt liked the Marazzoli was here to keep us company with the knowledge that he knows our cares and loves and worries, because they are the same ones people have across epochs. The past is never past, the music of all eras speaks to us eternally.
But it would not if it wasn’t made with imagination and conviction. Those are the essential qualities of Andy Kozar’s remarkable recording On the End … . This is a superb collection of music, all the pieces exploring the possibilities of contemporary notation and instrumental playing. Kozar uses a variety of techniques, including graphic notation, and from the knife’s edge focus of the playing (Kozar plays trumpet and is joined by his colleagues in loadbang, Miranda Cuckson and others) it’s clear that he conveys his ideas to his musicians with precision and power.
The centerpiece is a Mass that has its foundation in the traditional movements and texts yet an expression that is at the cutting edge of creativity. Jeffrey Gavett’s voice croons and spits and shouts the words, through mellifluous lines and extreme intervals, while the instruments respond, sometimes amicably, sometimes antagonistically. There is a moment-to-moment fragmentation but an overall consistency of effect: the unfathomable mystery of death and how to express our incomprehension. Kozar steps outside the clichés of comfort and process, he never ingratiates and always fascinates. Like Le Poème Harmonique’s concert, it makes the past eternally alive, present and important.
A bit past the halfway mark in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll comes a passage marked “Lebhaft” (lively tempo). It begins with a bright, energetic horn fanfare that is quickly answered by bird calls in the flute and clarinet. The flow of the piece makes it sound like Siegfried – Wagner’s son as much as his character – has awoken from gentle slumber to find himself in the woods. But there was nothing like that sensation when Alarm Will Sound played the original sinfonietta version last Friday to open their “The Permanent Collection” concert, which itself opened their new residency at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Limor Tomer is remaking the Met into the most interesting performance space in the city, with programming that rivals that of Miller Theatre and the use of the gallery spaces for live music. Alarm Will Sound has some great programming on tap, including an all Steve Reich concert November 16, but Alan Pierson and the group choose to set their first concert in the museum’s physical collection by showing the roots of their ensemble. Pierson hints at something of an argument about the sinfoniette being the prototypical new music ensemble, which is sort of true and sort of not – it depends on what year you’re look from, and which direction you turn your attention.
Wagner was certainly making new music in the nineteenth century, but that’s not what the Idyll is. It’s one of his loveliest works, but the aesthetic is entirely different than that of the new music movement that began around a hundred years ago. The music is about cadences, modulations between chords and tempos and the gestural language used to effect those. That’s where the expression is, and Alarm Will Sound is steeped in the aesthetic of non-narrative expressive language. They strung along the notes, played nicely, but had nothing much to say about the actual music. It had me searching for my recording of Glenn Gould conducting an intellectually critical and lovely take with the same forces.
Thomas Adés Living Toys is more in their style, but only superficially. I’m not a fan of the music, or his work in general. I find his composing masks an ordinary romantic sensibility in a lot of bravura hand-waving material that, if it doesn’t amount to something ordinary, amounts to little at all. There is a mismatch between the density of musical activity and the density of thinking. It suffered in inevitable comparisoin with all the great pieces from John Zorn I heard last month, music that is overwhelming with both detail and musical, aesthetic and intellectual meaning. But Adés is more old music in new music clothes.
Truly new, and truly excellent, were Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto and Ragtime Dances1 and 4 by Charles Ives. These works are at the heart of Alarm Will Sound’s purpose, music that explores the possbilities of the future and that was written with experimental values at the fore. Ligeti’s work comes from his cloud phase, a period when he heard music as something like a collection of webs, gossamer strends connecting to each other across distances and forming sections that fill in space with a tantilizing wispiness. This was a beautiful, concentrated performance, the music clearly excites the players’ interest and concentration, everything focussed and spooky. The Chamber Concerto doesn’t tell stories, and it displays instrumental prowess in subtly challenging ways, the results tickle the bass of the skull in rare ways.
The Ives’ dances are rarely played or recorded, which is a shame because they are brilliant and practical, distilled and sharply written examples of his art and his importance. Ives was always pinning popular tunes to his pieces, but there’s something about hearing him create and lay out his own ragtime beat that is revelatory. True to form, he fractures it deliberately and exuberantly, and like a pinata, the yield is delight, joy and real, substantial satisfaction.
Q2 will have the concert archive available to stream, check their site for availability
The pseudo-fact that we are ‘visual creatures’ has been drummed into mass culture for the past several decades. It’s pernicious pieces of propaganda, one of those marketing tools that is so pervasive and in-plain-sight that social critics and paranoids searching for subliminal messages and methods of mass coercion not only overlook it, they embrace it. We see and therefore we buy what we see is the way it goes, from artful design to pornography to fine art, where currently overcompensated rentiers pay immoral sums for works meant that, when hung on the wall of the McMansion, are meant to dazzle and intimidate with their pedigree and cost.
It’s bullshit, of course. Yes we see and are interested in what we see, but our most important sense organ is our ears, we are hearing creatures. Our eyes are promiscuous and fickle, what pleases them changes from year to year and culture to culture. But our ears are connected to our lizard brains and our souls. The thing that goes bump in the night is universal and eternal, the way it sets our hearts racing and sense on edge is as human as it gets, and the effect that sound has on us is exponentially more powerful than that of images. As R. Murray Schafer has pointed out, we can’t close our ears.
It’s still so unbelievable and so marvelous, that John Cage would be able to perform such a piece on national television, on a game show! It’s the sort of thing that was not supposed to be possible before the Internet, but there it is, and at the time it was shown there was little chance that the federal government knew who was watching it.
“Water Walk” seems to me to be convivial, like a party, with the same aesthetic values as “Living Room Music,” something that friends should enjoy together in an intimate setting. It can be performed by anyone with the time and equipment to prepare and an inclination for quick thinking and good humor. I think Jenny Q. Chai has most of those qualities, but she’s a busy musician with many demands on her time, and in the living room concert venue, Spectrum, on May 7, she was a little flustered and a little rushed as she checked the running time on her iPhone and moved from object to object. Practicing the piano is one thing, setting up and knocking down all the bric-a-brac on tables, and doing it again and again, is a challenge on time that I don’t image Cage expected many musicians to undertake.
But in the context of the concert, and in the Spectrum setting with books lining the walls and easy chairs and couches, it was a convivial encore, a trick at the end of a good party. The party was a collection of old and new pieces, set together into short suites. Chai is known for her playing and her programs that demolish distinctions between past and present and show that the Western classical tradition is an endless flow, no part of it beyond the reach of any composer or the ears of any listener. The program was called Acqua Alta, the music having in some way to do with water.
She’s not the only musician who does this — most prominently in my mind is Marino Formenti — but she does so without didacticism, which is unusual and compelling. She plays the music with great skill, intelligence and commitment, but she doesn’t belabor her points or our need to hear what she hears, and as a critical listener I have utmost respect for that. I don’t think all the music she played in Aqua Alta was successful, but I was left feeling that everything she played was offered as it should be.
The opening suite sandwiched Kurtag’s “Hommage à Scarlatti,”, a couple Scarlatti Sonatas, and Gibbons’ “The Italian Ground” with premieres from Milica Paranosic and Nils Vigeland. Scarlatti’s are some of the finest keyboard works in the literature, and Chai played them with accuracy and insouciance, an ideal combination. All the older works put the new ones in difficult contrast, their combination of craft and the focussed exploration of controlled ideas set an example that Paranosic’s underdone, programmatic and overlong minimalism couldn’t match, Vigeland’s “I Turisti” sounded great, but the result didn’t match his own description, the composition too clear to encompass the sound of chattering tourists that was somehow supposed to drown out the music.
The large scale piece on the program was a new work from Michael Vincent Waller, “Acqua Santa,” that started modestly but grew into an ambitious and attractive work. Waller’s basic pulse both lengthens and picks up the pace as the music moves along, the structure builds from monophony to homophony, and there’s some of the pleasantly mesmerizing quality of watching waves from the shore. It’s essentially minimal without being minimalist in the repetitive sense, and the appearance of whole-tone scales develops an impressionistic aesthetic that elided nicely with the closing set of pieces: Ravel’s “Une Barque Sur L’océan,” Debussy’s prelude to “La cathédrale engloutie,” and Liszt’s “La lugubre gondola,” finished off with Marco Stroppa’s effective adaptation of a traditional lullaby, “Ninnananna.” This whole stretch of the concert was involving and powerful. While even the most sensitive, intelligent listener has to navigate their way through how a brand new piece should go, it’s easy to hear exceptional Ravel, Debussy and Liszt. Chai is great in this music: she has the technique to pull it off, the power to play it with expression and confidence, and the intelligence to make it coherent and meaningful. There are few musicians who can play both Scarlatti and Liszt naturally and convincingly — Formenti is one, there’s Mikhail Pletnev — and Chai does it. She plays Cage well too, and probably no one but the man himself can pull off “Water Walk.”
Since no one listens to contemporary classical music, and it doesn’t get put on concert programs, to have a new work not only recorded but recorded again, by different musicians, is an impossible dream. But that’s what happens when you’re John Adams, America’s leading composer. And deservedly so, because he’s a deeply skilled and intelligent composer with serious things to say and the aesthetic to say them clearly, expressively and winningly without pandering to or patronizing his audience.
But he is a busy man, and some of his recent work, like Absolute Jest and The Gospel According to the Other Mary seems more assembled from parts of pieces he (or, in the case of the former, Beethoven) has already made than thought through and composed. That’s been particulary frustrating, since his String Quartet, which I saw premiered in 2009, is not only a terrific piece but one that seemed to have opened the door to a new, late style.
The St. Lawrence Quartet was the original dedicatee, the ensemble that played it in public and recorded it first. Their intense, nervous energy was exactly right for the sinewy, restless music. Now they’ve been followed by the Attacca Quartet, with a Fellow Traveller, a new CD of Adam’s complete works for String Quartet. Their manner with the piece is very different, and that’s a strength of the recording that also serves the quality of the composition.
What is most interesting about the String Quartet is how Adams, who is fundamentally a Neo-Romantic composer with a great facility for tension, release and powerful expression, uses repetition to create a sensation of agitation, but this time without much resolution. At the Attacca’s enjoyable CD release performance at (le) poisson rouge, Adams spoke about harmony and how he believes that a facility for it is necessary for composers. But the Quartet is one of his least harmonically rich pieces, it subtly reaches back to Minimalist experiments like “Christian Zeal and Activity.” It’s also more closely related to Beethoven, who was of course a magnificent harmonist but whose secret power was always rhythm, especially building and releasing tension by moving the downbeat around to different parts of measures while maintaining the same meter.
That’s what Adams does in the Quartet, plays around with the rhythmic possibilities of short phrases, different lengths, different pulses. There’s a lot of chattering interplay that add to the overall dynamism and the whole builds to an evocative and enigmatic payoff. The Attacca plays this with less muscular vigor than the Borromeo but with more thoughtfulness, more introversion, and so bring out the internal mysteries of the music, and the swing a little bit more. They also are a more lyrical ensemble, and they pay more attention to phrasing than attack and articulation, and the results are not only expressive but place the music directly in the long history of Western classical music. I can hear the Haydn and Beethoven that is part of their memories.
That approach also pays off in John’s Book of Alleged Dances, which is both amusing in intent and seriously well-made. This is extroverted music, and the Attacca plays it that way, which adds to the impression that larger piece gives. Dances is not first-rate Adams, but especially in person, the Attacca give it a first-rate performance.
Just before intermission of the opening concert of the Beyond Cage Festival on October 22, I pulled out my iPhone to see if the Giants were beating the Cardinals for the National League Pennant, and was disoriented to see that it was 9:49pm. It seemed like there must have been a massive network malfunction, because the extraordinary performance of Atlas Ecpliticalis with Winter Music that I and the rest of the audience had fervently applauded could not possibly have gone on for an hour and forty-five minutes. The duration had felt assuredly like a leisurely performance of an early Romantic symphony, say the Beethoven Pastorale, something that was stimulating and enveloping but that never demanded a hint of endurance from the ear or mind.
But it was so, Petr Kotik had just led the Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, with Joe Kubera and Ursula Oppens simultaneously playing Winter Music, in almost two hours of some of the most resolutely avant-garde music, and the listening experience was such that the sensation of time was lost completely inside the performance. The extraordinary became the unbelievable.
Kotik had already presented this piece twenty years ago, in a historic concert that became a memorial to the recently deceased composer. And he and the ensemble have recorded it twice, on a recently reissued Wergo album and a great and unfortunately out of print Asphodel release, and these are not only the two finest recordings of Atlas but also two of the finest recordings of Cage’s music available. But the concert exceeded these, reflecting the understanding of such a profound work of art that can only come through time spent examining and thinking about it.