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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.

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Musical programs come in all shapes and sizes, just like people. But getting a program to make sense is what separates the quick from the dead. The San Francisco-based new music chamber group sfSound usually puts on provocative programs, and their latest one, on Sept 19th at our town’s Community Music Center in the Mission, presented different kinds of musical energies, and made perfect sense.

It’s never wise to serve something heavy before the main course, and Swiss composer Beat Furrer’s 5 minute Ayer (1991), though not exactly lightweight, didn’t tax its audience unnecessarily. Sure, it was somewhat demanding–for the players–but also mercurial, with linear and disjunct material, plus a broad range of colors, which Matt Ingalls, clarinet, Christopher Jones, piano, and Monica Scott, cello, dispatched easily.  The succeeding 9 minute group improvisation by John Ingle, saxes,  Jones again on piano, and Kjelll Nordeson, percussion, was thicker in texture, but not especially memorable.

Hans Thomalla’s 14 minute Lied (2008), which the composer described in truly informative program note, made a far stronger impression. It didn’t sound particularly Germanic–meaning Angst-ridden or drily didactic–but was instead carefully balanced–the sections functioned like strophes in a song–and full of sonorous contrasts, especially in the tenor sax part–John Ingle again–which had a long slow sequence of closely related pitches. The piece wisely avoided closure–is anything ever really resolved?–which made it doubly poetic, with Ingle capably supported by Nordeson, vibraphone, and Jones, piano.

Matt Ingalls’ Improvisation for Solo Clarinet (2010) was both minimal–constructed from the most basic elements like scales and detached notes–and more complex musical ones like difference / combination tones, which thudded at unexpected intervals from the speakers on the stage floor.  And, like any good improv sounded both spur of the moment and composed, and Ingalls’ easy virtuosity held the audience spellbound for 17 uninterrupted minutes.

Philip Glass is famous–some would say notorious–for pieces of long duration, and his first opera with Robert Wilson, Einstein on the Beach (1975), which lasts over 5 hours,  is easily one of his most seminal works, and a landmark work in recent new music. And the entire ensemble here–with the addition of Stacey Pelinka, piccolo, Kyle Bruckmann, oboe, Matthew Goodheart, electric ogan, Hadley McCarroll, electric organ and voice–she served as Glass the conductor by nodding her head dramatically before the next complex figure–and Diana Pray voice, made Train 1, from Act 1, go by in a flash , even thought it lasted 25 minutes. Glass’ work requires perfect ensemble and the ability to play, evenly, at breakneck speeds –it begins at met. 92, and moves up to met.126. The carefully prepared modulations and textural changes were breathtaking, and joyful. And it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear the great composer working his magic, and the audience respond with way deserved cheers.

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“For me it’s very hard to see people who adore Mozart and then don’t appreciate what Keith Jarrett does. You know what I mean? For me music is really just music, and what separates? When you talk about Gershwin and Rhapsody in Blue where do you put that? Is it jazz or is it classical? But it really doesn’t matter this Third Stream or First Stream concept. Who cares if it’s Third Stream or First Stream? It really doesn’t matter as long as you go and enjoy the experience. “

Syrian clarinetist and New York-based composer Kinan Azmeh clearly has a mind of his own. And he’s off and running when we meet for mint tea at San Francisco’s Cafe Zitouna–we’re Nagib’s first guests–on a bright Sunday morning in July. He’s here for a concert of his latest album–his fifth–Complex Stories, Simple Sounds , with his Sri Lankan pianist friend Dinuk Wijeratne, who’s missed his flight from Nova Scotia, scant hours away from their date at The Legion of Honor’s Florence Gould Theatre. But Azmeh, who speaks rapidly in his distinctive mellifluous voice, is ready for anything, suggesting with a warm laugh, that he has enough pieces should he have to go it alone. But then he’s used to playing in different contexts and configurations. He’s in the Syrian jazz group Hewar (Dialogue); a chamber group in his hometown, Damascus; the Gilgamesh Project with Kevork Mourad’s done on the spot paintings; the NYC-based City Band, which is giving an NYC concert 1 September 1, and Neolexica, which he co-founded with Wijeratne when they were students at Juilliard. He has also played with many orchestras, including Daniel Barenboim’s Arab-Israeli West -Eastern Divan Orchestra, debuted a clarinet concerto written for him by his friend Zaid Jabri, with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, at the opening of the Damascus Opera House. Azmeh also writes film scores, like his incredibly moving one for Rigodon, and he plays the clarinet solos in his Boston-based friend Kareem Roustom’s score for Israeli Julia Bacha’s new set in the West Bank doc Budrus.

But is Azmeh’s openness to these varied musical experiences a generational thing? “You know I think what it is is–I’m talking about myself- is growing up in different places. But geography moves around you because San Francisco and New York are very open to lots of different cultures anyway, and I don’t think that one can be fascinated by one kind of music without appreciating other stuff. ”

And then we get into the subject of improvisation, which Azmeh’s very vocal about, though he approaches it somewhat circuitously. Read the rest of this entry »

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Putting a musical program together is always a challenge, but it’s one thing on paper, and another live, in front of people. The San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Silence of the Wolves program, which it performed a couple of weeks ago at San Francisco’s Old First Church was a curious one. Was it about wolf tones, or the devil’s interval–the tritone –which has more or less been the foundation of modern music since Schoenberg and his school began to exploit it? Or was it about the West, and San Francisco’s being on the wild edge of the continent, which its music director and co-founder composer Mark Alburger implied in his opening remarks from the stage? It seemed to be vaguely and particularly about all these things, and its contents varied considerably in tone, content, and impact. But thankfully no one was thrown to the wolves.

Loren Jones’ Wolf Wood, which he described as ” a solo piano piece inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ” sounded to these ears like one of Satie’s evocative miniatures, especially in its opening, which was followed by lush yet still transparent variations , which Jones, on piano, played movingly. John Beeman’s 2 movement  Fancy Free , with the composer on double bass, was carefully written and expressive; its most striking sound image being a sequence of unison rising fourths near the very end.

But what was one to make of Cindy Collins’ Kinesthesia which she described from the aisle — there were no program notes –as being about physical states of mind she’d felt? There’s nothing wrong with musical autobiography if the piece justifies it, but Collins ‘ didn’t seem to. We’ve all had vague or unfocused moments but these don’t necessarily make for an absorbing experience when made into music. Collins did however produce at least one arresting image — a viola/cello drone, played with great concentration by Nansamba Ssensalo and Areilla Hyman, which slowly changed pitch, and evoked an acute sense of disquiet. Davide Verotta’s  An Enticement of Silence, which began like an off pitch version of Ives’ 1906 The Unanswered Question, progressed into a series of reasonably varied harmonies and textures, but didn’t add up to much more than that. Our sense of our postmodern world as a chaotic place has produced some provocative music –John Zorn’s comes to mind–but Verotta unfortunately failed to make
anything as powerful, or succinct as his.

Lisa Scola Prosek’s Three Songs from her new opera Ten Days, Dieci Giorni, based on Bocaccio’s Decameron  was, as so often with this composer, full of surprises.  Transparently scored, clearly played, and vividly sung in English and Italian by soprano Shauna Fallihee, it said what it had to, then stopped . And the 16 person band — the largest complement of the evening — was obviously moved in several places. Conductor Martha Stoddard’s Cowgirl Rondo (with Stoddard sporting a Western handkerchief around her neck) for string quartet and double bass), was vigorous and fresh, though top honors in that department went to Darius Milhaud’s Chamber Symphonies #1 – # 3 ( 1917-22 ) whose polytonal moments barely disguised their very French folk-like structures.

The playing throughout –under Martha Stoddard and John Kendall Bailey–seemed both accurate and enthusiastic, though the more obviously complex pieces by Collins and Verotta suffered from Old First’s unforgiving acoustics — the walls are concrete, the outside brick. Maybe a an orchestra friendly adjustable partition behind the players would help?

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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.

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keplerPhilip Glass always does the unexpected. Or, as he said to me when we were talking on the phone about his subsequently Oscar-nominated score for Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, “I’m a bad person to interview because I never stay on the subject.”  Well, yes and no. Yes, because Glass’s  focus on the work in front of him is unflinching, and no, because his instincts always lead him to surprising solutions. His two-act 155 minute intermission-less new opera Kepler is yet another example of Glass’s wandering, yet disciplined, mind.  Premiered at the Linz Opera by  American conductor Dennis Russell Davies and his Bruckner Orchester Linz on September 20 2009 as part of that  city’s celebrations as this year’s Cultural Capital of Europe, Kepler made the trip to Brooklyn smoothly, carrying a bit of history.  Kepler lived in Linz,  Mozart’s Symphony #36  was dedicated to it, Bruckner was choir director there — and two of the Nazis’ death camps — Mauthausen and Gusen, whose specialty was getting rid of the intelligentsia, were scant kilometres from its city limits. But then darkness is rarely far from light.

And darkness, as distinct, or in contrast/opposition  to — light –is the motor that drives Glass’s Kepler, but not in a Manichean way.  Glass is far too subtle to put his cards on one table.  Instead, being a practical and practicing Buddhist, he seems to have chosen the unglamorous “Middle Way” which means seeing “things as they are” and in Kepler’s case this is war, strife, and people who dared question him. The mathematician-teacher-astronomer-astrologer and all-round provocateur, who lived from 1571 to 1630, seems to have been at the epicenter of cultural ferment, and of course, the first decade or so of  The Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which began more or less as a conflict between Catholics and Protestants  and ended up devastating much of Europe, with a death toll as high as 11.5 million people.

Glass dramatizes these stresses  in a direct and indirect way. And Glass’s German and Latin libretto, assembled by Austrian artist Martina Winkel, from Kepler’s theoretical writings on the laws of planetary motion and other major discoveries, his enemies list, passages from the Lutheran Bible, and poems by Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664), works both as reportage and evocation. The oratorio-like piece for the 79 member BOL was partially staged here with effective lighting and Karel van Laere’s costumes for its seven soloists — bass-baritone Martin Achrainer as Kepler is the only specified character with  Soprano 1 — Sadie Rosales who substituted for the indisposed Cassandra McConnell — Soprano 2 (Cheryl Lichter), Mezzo (Katherina Hebelkova), Tenor (Pedro Velazquez Diaz), Baritone (Seho Chang), and Bass (Florian Spiess) — who functioned as aspects of Kepler’s often beleaguered psyche. The 40 member Linz chorus moved incrementally through the work.

I’d have to agree with my “plus 1″ friend that the first 20 or so minutes (after a wonderfully transparent orchestra only prologue with lovely chromatic figures for the strings) was pretty tough going. But things began to pick up when Kepler outlines his theories and his conflicts —  the notion that heaven’s not a place inhabited by “divine beings” but a “clockwork” – which, of course, suits Glass’s formal processes perfectly. The chorus, operating as both character and commentator, gave Kepler heft and vivid and enormously varied contrasts. Glass has always written superbly for massed voices — the choruses in Satyagraha (1979) are contemporary landmarks — and those here were both affecting and powerful, especially the “Vanitas! Vanitas!” , which the full vocal ensemble sang on the lip of the stage facing the audience, with the orchestra seated behind.  And wouldn’t you know it, my cell rang — being a neophyte in all things cell –which was the only sound in the house as the audience was completely spellbound — and how could they not be — by this arresting passage.  I promise to learn how to turn the damned thing off. Read the rest of this entry »

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baliOld age isn’t for sissies or the timid and I think the same thing can be said about writing for the stage, especially if it’s the operatic one. It took Verdi years before he produced something that worked on the boards. Evan Ziporyn’s no stranger to the stage–he’s written and performed Shadowbang–and his new two-act 140 minute amplified opera A House in Bali has much to recommend it. The story is drawn from gay Canadian composer Colin McPhee’s (1901-1964) 1946 memoir, with ancillary material drawn from the words of the two other main Western characters–anthropologist Margaret Mead and painter Walter Spies. A piece about a composer seems an odd choice for anyone but another composer, though McPhee’s success at combining Balinese gamelan sonorities and rhythms into a western orchestral idiom impacted Ziporyn’s work bigtime, The problem is there was little real dramatic juice in the piece, which is a shame because Ziporyn’s music for New York’s 6-piece Bang On A Can All-Stars and Bali’s 16-member Gamelan Salukat is striking, even arresting.

Drama means “action” and even interior action has to be explicit — we can’t take it on faith. But Ziporyn and his librettist Paul Schick have created a script that mostly tells rather than shows. The words have an “intellectual ” rather than emotional rhythm, and sometimes no discernible rhythm at all. And what is anyone, much less French tenor Marc Molomot, who sings the part of McPhee, to make of lines like ” But here / I feel suddenly shut in, / and I can hardly wait / for the end of the concert. ” It’s not as bad as ” the only saviors are the ham sandwiches and the hot coffee ‘ in Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ self-important dud Dr. Atomic, but that’s not saying much. The book for a purportedly avant garde show like this should be as solidly built and serviceable as any for the Broadway stage where we’re rarely in the dark about who does what and why.  Jay Scheib’s direction didn’t clarify what was going on either, and any well-directed piece — no matter how complex it looks (say the party scene in La Boheme) should make its points simply and directly. But Scheib wasn’t content to leave well enough alone. Instead he did things that may have looked good on paper as “concepts” but simply didn’t work on the stage. Like having the gamelan players build McPhee’s house (the scenic designer was Sara Brown) as an angled well-lit room parked stage left which we could hardly see into, save through the lens of a videographer stationed inside. And there was never a sense of constriction when McPhee was supposed to be falling apart. How could there be on Zellerbach’s huge open non-proscenium stage which easily accomodated Ziporyn’s band in the center and Gamelan Salukat to its left.

But the biggest failure of the piece was portraying McPhee as just another alcoholic composer, which he was, and a repressed gay man which he most decidedly wasn’t. Yet Ziporyn would rather have it his way. ” I have no way of knowing,” he told interviewer Jonathan Leibovic, “whether he ( McPhee ) acted on these feelings ( for the young Balinese boy Sampih, played charmingly here by Nyoman Triyana Usadhi). I don’t ever suggest that he did and in fact I’ve always presumed that he didn’t in this case.” That contradicts what McPhee said in a letter to his psychiatrist . ” Many times there was a decision to be made between some important opportunity and a sexual relationship that was purely sensual. I never hesitated to choose the latter. This I did deliberately and would do again and again. The Balinese period was simply a long extension of this.” Which means that Ziporyn didn’t really do his homework regarding this important matter. But without this driving passion, or if you will, obsession, beautifully revealed in an ultra simple and very soft vocal line for Molomot, with transparent contributions from the All-Stars (the audience heaved a collective ” ah “), the piece had hardly any center, and hardly anywhere to go. It doesn’t have to be a male to male version of Butterfly but conflicts and/or misunderstandings between cultures have to be made in personal terms. But Ziporyn made his piece a tragic love story about two divergent cultures which got him off the hook of dealing directly with subject matter he’s obviously uncomfortable with.

But Ziporyn’s comfort level with the music is complete. And the sounds he devised for the All-Stars — hard driving or evocative, or the gamelan players with their gold hammers ever ready — clangorous, with complex layered rhythms and startling but perfectly logical shifts in timbre and dynamics, and a spectacular chorus for flutes — there even seemed to be some polytonal stretches in the score — held one’s attention when the words and stage action action didn’t. It was also strongly sung by the three Western principals and there was a startling passage, in falsetto for Molomot, who’s a counter tenor. Especially good was soprano Anne Harley ( Margaret Mead ) who had a highly ornamented passage — she does lots of Baroque music which makes similar demands — which she projected with refulgent warmth and charm. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov was also impressive and impressively tall as the confident, even arrogant Spies. All the other Balinese perfomers — Kadek Dewi Aryani, Desak Made Sarti Laksmi , I Nyoman Catra — made stong impressions, as did the choreography by Aryani and Catra. If only Ziporyn and company had built a house which was more than sum of its component parts.

[ed. note — corrected the spelling of Mr. Ziporyn’s last name.]

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We like to think that we live in the light, or as the current phrase goes — “it’s all good ” — when in reality everything really seems to happen in the dark where angels are wrestled with. This came forcibly to mind when I caught the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra’s Restless Dreams concert on the June 13th at San Francisco’s Old First Church. The program — 8 pieces by 8 composers–also bore out music director Mark Alburger’s from the stage quip that it was Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony in reverse — instruments were added instead of subtracted as it progressed. Restless Dreams also appeared to go from meditation to conflict, or light to dark.

Philip Freihofner’s Obelisk, which the composer wrote over a long period and “finalized” for this concert, could be described as meditative and/or minimalist in gesture. We tend to think that only loud pieces are powerful , but Freihofner’s soft one, which Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Steve Adams played, backed by a repeating figure on synth with passion and point, hit home. Lisa Scola Prosek’s Voodoo Storm, performed clarinettist Rachel Condry, trumpeter Eduard Prosek, cellist Juan Mejia, and pianist Scola Prosek was delicate and expressive, with subtle yet highly individualized part writing — Condry giving way to Eduard Prosek and vice versa — and it ended, in mid phrase, as so much in life does. Read the rest of this entry »

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Photo:Jerome de PerlinghiIt’s sometimes said that composers are either German or French, and American vanguard one Frederic Rzewski, with his much vaunted admiration for Beethoven, is clearly on the German side.  But how could he not be when some of his composition teachers like Dallapiccola and Babbitt forsook a flowing lyric line for a jagged dramatic one, whose aim is not to seduce the ear, but to wow with intellectual rigor?  But that doesn’t mean that Rzewski’s work is insincere, or lacks power — it has that in spades — but that it tends to be aimed at the mind and not the heart. It’s often confrontational, too. But that’s a good thing because any real musical interaction, like any real human one, has a built in   confrontational element, and confrontations help us grow.

Rzewski’s 1976 solo piano piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated (El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido) is certainly a work in which he confronted the musical possibilities of all kinds of things that had been appearing in his output until then.  He was 38 at the time he wrote it and his discoveries here power lots of his subsequent work. I t’s as much as a watershed piece for him as Glass’ massive ensemble work Music In 12 Parts (1971-74) was for him.  It’s also a kind of compendium of rhythmic, harmonic and coloristic approaches to Chilean composer Sergio Ortega’s song for Salvador Allende on which it’s based. There are 6 variation sets of 6 each plus a coda, and Rzewski seems to use every possible pianistic device in it. Read the rest of this entry »

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Some people like to think that music is always somehow about something… usually them.  My bad love affair, the world will never understand me, much less remember me.  And lots of music — from the troubadours with their songs of courtly love  to the meditations and dramas of the romantics to the skitterings and upheavals of the New Vienna School — have been a kind of narrative of this beleaguered self, or if you will, the audience’s identification with the composer’s ups and downs. But the New York School  of Earle Brown (1926-2002), Christian Wolff (1936-  ),  John Cage (1912 -1992), and Morton Feldman (1926-1987) threw  this book out the window. Like the abstract expressionist painters with whom they were friendly, they believed in the concept of art as abstraction, not a representation of something external.  They wanted their listeners to experience music as sound unmoored from any story frame, an event in and of itself. Morton Feldman made a career out this approach and his focus on the specifics of sound was his calling card.

FOR JOHN CAGE (1982), which violinist Graeme Jennings, late of the Arditti Quartet, and and Christopher Jones performed here in mid-September as part of the sfSound Series, has all the stylistic hallmarks of his late work. It’s ultra soft – down to ppp – has an evenness of color, and its duration –78 miniutes– is roughly the same as a Bruckner or Mahler symphony, or the Beethoven 9th. But what happens in that time frame is an entirely different  story.

Feldman isn’t after a logical dialectical continuity but an ahistorical present, and this can make his music, with its fragmentary gestures, seem odd, or even empty. But Jennings and Jones made that lack of “content “ convincing,  and urgent. A slow steady sequence of quietly inflected piano chords sounded as if they were going somewhere, and Jenning’s playing of Feldman’s circumscribed violin gestures — cells, simple, spaced chords, harmonics -– was equally acute. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the composer achieved a kind of Brechtian alienation effect/affect by having the violinist use a leather mute, and the pianist play with the damper pedal half depressed so that the music appeared to disappear as it was being heard.

Classic masters like Brahms meditated on the past in the solo movements of his violin sonatas, but that past existed within a kind of narrative frame, whereas here only a present  past survived. Feldman’s music is both annoying –- when will it change, and where will it end ? –- and transcendent, and Jennings and Jones came down squarely on the side of the latter. And  the music seemed to gain much of its poetry from the place where it was played. A big mirrored dance rehearsal studio, with a spic and span Steinway grand where each sound had its tenuous, and all too fleeting life.

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