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” … I think the thing about classical music being a class-signifier is more to do with the fact that our society has lost the notion that there are great works of culture that people should … might be excited to discover and there’s a common pool of artistic excitement that in a democracy you should offer to everyone.

“That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t broaden the repertoire, but essentially if you live in a western democracy you have a certain historical — well, things have got to where they are now because of the culture, and I think you’d want to look at what that culture has produced. I don’t think it is particularly restrictive. I’d feel awkward at a pop concert, but if I were to go, I’d try to find out about it.

“I think it’s also partly living in a culture that doesn’t have the idea that in order to enjoy something a lot, you might have to put something into it to get anything out. Maybe that’s television culture — it’s a passive culture. It sounds very old-fashioned, and maybe patronising, but the culture of working-class education at the end of the nineteenth century was incredible, because people had this sense of a culture of self-education, and I suppose that is what we’ve all lost.

“I think we’re all drawn towards the commodiification that television represents: an endless consumption of things. Shopping is the easiest thing in the world to do. Most people’s major cultural experience, where they exercise discrimination, where they look at things in terms of color, and shape, is through shopping. Maybe other things always seem a bit strange in comparison with shopping …”

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When BMOP (the Boston Modern Orchestra Project), now in its 10th season, says “Project,” that’s exactly what they mean. Everything on their recent (Nov. 3) Jordan Hall concert — some six works by four composers — was slated for commercial recording immediately afterward. This done, the BMOP discography will have rolled up an impressive 20 releases.

They’re strong on the “Orchestra” part too. One reward (or even danger) in a program like this one, where everything was so “for” such an ensemble — BMOP’s personnel positively drips with class — – is that a listener could sit back mindlessly, pull the shades on his mean-spirited analytical tendencies and just let all those instrumental timbres, massed or individual, thrice-familiar or newly minted, wash over him. It was a rough evening for ascetics.

First came was “High Bridge Prelude” (1999), an autonomous instruments-only spinoff from his imposing soloists/chorus/orchestra cycle on texts of Hart Crane, which showed the veteran Charles Fussell hardly ever putting a foot wrong. Surely there was some sort of narrative in there? Correct — the sad short course of the poet’s life, as it turned out. The ear sensed this partly from the sure, canny pacing, but even more so from this composer’s un-ironic working of a tonal idiom that would once have been dismissed as “Hollywoodish.” Instances: the troubling, grayish wind chords over darkly suggestive unison low strings; the mean stalking pizzicato bass line doubled by timpani; and the art of the long-building glowery climax. The overall impression was of a noirish texture (velvety black to gritty pale) on the move, judiciously reined in by a sense of beginning, middle, and end.

About Fussell’s curtain-raiser you knew for sure that it wasn’t going to go on forever or anywhere close to it. Which was not the case at all with Derek Bermel‘s exuberantly sprawling, ethnologically informed, labile, damn-it-all-I’ve-got-the-microphone “Thracian Echoes” piece (2002), the kind of dazzler that in a different age (say, Leopold Stokowski’s lifetime) might have borne a hokey title like “Bulgarian Rhapsody.”

But back then Bermel wouldn’t have gotten away with it. Would symphonic musicians then have been nearly as confident at “bending” notes as BMOP’s wind players were, or for that matter improvising, or barging their way through fierce metrical thickets, or playing out of phase, or abandoning themselves to an esthetic that knows what it is to go much too far and goes right ahead anyway?

“Thracian Echoes” is an exciting piece by a composer with what seems to be — on this single scrap of evidence — an extraordinary ear for translating his ethnological adventures into orchestral music that is itself adventurous and, in the doing, making it quite personal as well. Who else could have made all that up? “Thracian Echoes” was the hit of the concert.
The Fussell and Bermel pieces were sited on opposite ends of a very well-filled program. In between (and frankly threatening to fade from the memory) came a pair by BMOP’s new Composer in Residence Lisa Bielawa — “Unfinish’d, Sent” (2002) and “Roam” (2001) — in which an undoubted love for high-class literary texts sat uneasily at times with a magpie, somewhat naive composing persona. This showed a talent in the making, if nerviness and ambition have anything to do with it. Bielawa’s c.v. mentions Philip Glass, Brian Ferneyhough, Yale, and cabaret. “Keep tuned,” it all seemed to say.

The recurrent problem with the late Establishment heavy Jacob Druckman‘s music — as it was here, with his “Nor Spell Nor Charm” (1999) and “Quickening Pulse” (1988) — was that you couldn’t always be sure that the exquisitely wafting timbres weren’t the be-all and end-all. Or is it that the music isn’t as performance-proof as it has seemed?

As to that and the rest, no doubt time — and the forthcoming BMOP recordings — will tell. All throughout, the orchestral playing under Gil Rose‘s direction, unshowy but energizing, seemed to be speaking volumes. It inspired trust.

RICHARD BUELL may be reached at rbuell@verizon.net

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From the entry on “Musical bow” (p. 351) in Sybil Marcuse, Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary (New York: W.W. Norton, 1975).

See also: adingili, adungu, aeolian bow, andobu, arpa-che, bagili, bajang kerek, balu, bandingba, barikendikendi, bawa, bazombe, bendukudu, benta, bentwa, berimbao de barriga, beta, bikefe, bobre, bogonga, bombo, bucumbumba, bumba-um, bum-bum, burum-bumba, busoi, caramba, carimba, chizambi, chunga, cora, darkun, dende, didilavy, dingba, dongeldongel, dumba, egoboli, ekitulenge, elem, elingingile, enanga, fengcheng, gabus, gamakha’s, ganza, gedo, goaramba, gora, goukha’s, gourd bow, gualambo, gubo, gubuolukhulu, gulutindi, gunga, guru, gwale, gwaningba, hade, h’onoroate, hunga, hungo, ibigumbiri, igongs, ikoka, imvingo, inkinge, inkohlisa, ipiano, isankuni, isiqwemqwemana, isitntola, itikili. itumbolongonda, jejilava, jul, kabarome, kakulumbumba, kaligo, kalirangwe, kalove, kalumba, kambaua, kambili, kandiri-kandiri, kandiroe, kan’gan, kanutitsunanikoya, kashane, katungu, kedondolo, kha’s, kidrigo, kijonga, kilibongo, kilingbindiri, kilingilam kinanga, kitingbi, kitingi, koali, kodili, koh’lo, kongo, konko, kpwokolo, kudungba, kumbili, kimguleme, kinkulkawe, kupu, kwadi, kwendibe, lalango, lekope, lengope, lesiba, ligubu, lingongo, lipombo, lontana, lugube …”

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Achtung!

If you read something contrary here previously, consider this an update. The Lily Pad in Cambridge has been closed temporarily to obtain proper codes and licenses; they hope to re-open soon. Therefore, the Earle Brown FOLIO event scheduled for tomorrow night, Oct. 20, by the Callithumpian Consort will be rescheduled on a future date.

* * * * *

One conclusion that a body might draw from the Callithumpian Consort’s outing last week in Boston is that what some contemporary music needs — and richly deserves — is a near-empty concert hall.

No, seriously. Would Earle Brown’s “Sign Sounds” and John Luther Adams’s “songbirdsongs” have been anywhere near as atmospheric if the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall had been — sickening thought — full? Ah we happy few, all forty (40) of us.

The point comes up because of the way that “songbirdsongs” in particular relies, first, on silence, both in itself and as background; and second, on space, not just in the sense of there being a sort of aerating nimbus around the sounding notes (i.e., good acoustics) but room enough, measured in linear feet, for a pair of piccolo players to go wandering about inside and outside the auditorium making like birds.

These weren’t Messiaen birds, they were Adams birds. A nice thing about an Adams bird, if one can generalize, is that if it feels like modulating a bit that’s what it will do — just a little. And that’s as far in the direction of grandiosity as they ever get. Jordan Hall being three storeys high and with lots of doors to enter and depart from, there was a blessed abundance of perches.

So described, “songbirdsongs” might have you wondering about what’s been helpfully labeled the Cringe Factor. Yes, the titles that the piece’s sections bear — “Morningfield Song,” “Apple Blossom Round,” “Wood Thrush,” “Joyful Noise,” “notquitespringdawn,” “Mourning Dove,” “Meadowdance,” “August Voices” — do suggest a New Agey niceness that will not appeal to all tastes. And there were moments when you felt the composer was really pushing it (must all this be so calm, sparse, and Alpha-wavey?) but then what should land on us but an expertly timed, shock-cut, irruptive coup de theatre — so that’s what all those percussionists were on hand for.

Forget about the Cringe Factor then. Cumulatively, there turned out to be a much greater variety of tone color and strategy in “songbirdsongs” than might first have appeared. Examples: the quiet vibraphone roll teetering on the edge of audibility — you had to crane to see where it was coming from — that produced the oddest, near-electronic sort of hum; “Mourning Dove,” with its literalist sighing bent notes; the “Apple Blossom Round”; and the noisy bits, which in this context had the feel of natural disturbances.

How much of this sort of thing is too much? Reactions will differ, but evidently not a very great deal. “Relaxing but not insignificant” (John Schaefer) is one take on Adams’s music, “You either love it or like it” (Evan Johnson) another.

Finally, a matter we’re not exactly sure that the composer consciously intended. Toward the end of “songbirdsong,” as event placidly succeeded event, your reviewer became aware of a steady, silent pulse beneath it all — something like 50 ticks to the minute. The instrumental attacks were variously on or to either side of the pulse, but mostly on. It was there, wasn’t it? Or was it the brain that was supplying it? Or both?

The performers, excellent all, were: Nana Aomori, Jessi Rosinski (piccolos), Jeffrey Means. George Nickson, Joseph LaPalomento, Daniel Zawodniak (percussion), Stephen Olsen (celesta), Gabriel Diaz (violin).

* * * * *

Earle Brown’s “Sign Sounds,” which mobilized some 18 players plus conductor, raised certain questions if you thought about them as the music was going on, but somehow didn’t if you didn’t. The questions would have been: What, precisely, is in that score, and of what kind and how much, and did it matter?

It’s irresistible to quote Paul Griffiths, that indefatigible and learned pro, on the subject of Brown’s music:

“His aim was not the empty space of Cage, nor the quiet space of Feldman, but the decisive object — not the extinction of the composer, nor the liberation of the performer, but the creation of a well-made piece, one that would have a sure identity for all the variability of form and detail introduced by means of indeterminate notation. The more indeterminate the notation, the more the identity of the piece would have to be visual …”

– “Modern Music and After: Directions Since 1945″ (Oxford University Press, 1995).

In this particular performance of “Sign Sounds” there was a sense of the piece being assembled and set up out of blocks of air, right there in front of you — and in that loveliest of musical work places, Jordan Hall. How everything did sound — the sprinklings of celesta, some very in-tune string harmonics, the lyre-like punctuations of the harp, a swinging brass choir, and the quartet of mallet-wielding percussionists who, when the texture allowed, created one doozey of a great splash (like New York Modernist flung paint? Just a thought.)

Near-stasis then a flutter of activity — it was at these extremes, it seemed, that all these colorful sonic possibilities were being realized. At one point a series of staggered entrances had you listening for, of all things, a fugue. A fugue! But shouldn’t ghostly traces of such things be appearing in Brown? His worklist does include after all, though from early on, a fugue and a passacaglia.

In any event, the piece went over like you wouldn’t believe (40 pairs of hands clapping, all belonging to the right people), and there was an encore: a fragment of what had gone before, sounding pretty much as we’d heard it the first time.

The heroes and heroines of this performance were: Jessi Rosinski (flute), Will Amsel (clarinet), Amy Advocat (bass clarinet), Adam Smith (bassoon), Andrew Stetson (trumpet), Dylan Chmura-Moore (trombone), Hester Ham (piano), Minji Noh (celesta), Franziska Huhn (harp), Ethan Wood and Heather Wittels (violins), Ashleigh Gordon (viola) David Huckaby (cello), David Goodchild (bass), Jeffrey Means, John Andress, Joseph Becker, William Holden (percussion) and Stephen Drury (conductor).

* * * * *

First on the program was Alvin Lucier’s “Ever Present,” which as a late arriver (accursed Harvard/Dudley bus) we were reduced to experiencing from outside one of the windowed doors leading in to the auditorium. The flutist, sax player, and pianist all looked quite at peace with themselves, not having very many notes to play and perhaps for other reasons as well. Anyway, we didn’t hear any. But wait, was it the overhead lighting in the corridor that was giving off that high-pitched technological noise? Or ventilation gone haywire? No, silly, it was one of Lucier’s beloved electric gizmos.

RICHARD BUELL can be reached at rbuell@verizon.net

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Paul Griffiths gets off one zinger of a closing paragraph in the October 6 2006 issue of the Times Literary Supplement (London). The book under review is: Felix Meyer and Heidy Zimmermann (editors), Edgard Varese: Composer, sound sculptor, visionary (500 pp., Boydell and Brewer, 25 pounds sterling).

” … Unlikely as it must seem to anyone familiar with the old myth of the lonely pioneer,” Griffiths writes, “Varese did indeed work with jazz artists, including the trumpeter Art Farmer, the saxophonist Teo Macero and the drummer Ed Shaughnessy. We have the evidence, as [Olivia] Mattis tells us in perhaps the most tantalizing sentence of the book: ‘Recordings of several of these sessions, which also survive in the Paul Sacher Foundation archives, are astonishing.’ Perhaps, before scholars descend to wear these tapes out, the Sacher Foundation could release them on CD. Varese swinging: that would be something to hear.”

Note the “also” in the passage above. Question: So who else has these tapes?

PS. See amplification by Steve Layton and Micah Silver below in “Comments.”

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From H.H. Stuckenschmidt, “Arnold Schoenberg: His Life, World and Work,” translated by Humphrey Searle (New York: Schirmer Books, 1977):

” … in 1934 [Schoenberg] answered a query from Dr. Walter E. Koons of the National Broadcasting Corporation [sic] in New York, who wanted a definition for a book which he was planning, of what music meant to Schoenberg. His reply was:

Music is a simultaneous and a successiveness of tones and tonal-combinations, which are so organized that its impression on the ear is agreeable, and that its impression on the intelligence is comprehensible, and that these impressions have the power to influence occult parts of our soul and of our sentimental spheres and that this influence makes us live in a dreamland of fulfilled desires, or in a dreamed hell.’”

He had to ask?

* * * * *

Let’s say that your tastes run to Gagaku, the world’s most ancient (and ancient-sounding) orchestral music. Or to Messiaen‘s deliriously half-cracked song cycle “Harawi” (“Doundou tchil! Doundou tchil! Doundou tchil!” — one can’t help quoting). Or “Pierrot Lunaire.” Or that claustrophobic film classic “Woman of the Dunes” (dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964) …

Then lucky you if you happened to be at the First Church in Boston, 66 Marlborough Street, on a recent Sunday night (September 17) for the local premiere of Lee Hyla’s “At Suma Beach” (2003).

Something you noticed first off, and with relief, about Hyla’s “reduction/adaptation” of the Noh play “Matsukaze” was its avoidance of bogus japonaiserie, even of the most refined type. (If you crave some queasy examples of that, go and listen to Toru Takemitsu on one of his really bad days. And by the way, how widely known is it that in the early 20th century the Japanese themselves were turning out imitations of “Madame Butterfly”? Source: William P. Malm, University of Michigan.)

The piece’s instrumental setup — clarinet, violin, viola, cello, piano, and percussion — has nothing particularly extreme about it per se. But any mezzo-soprano who thinks about taking it on had better be carrying extra insurance. You either sing it or you die.

Mostly sing it, that is. Also required are: speaking, half-speaking and half-singing, moaning, whispering, and even growling. The pitches are fixed most of the time, but every so often they’re let loose and encouraged to range just about wherever they like. But please to come back. Towards the close, a few choice ones go either very high or very low.

Does “At Suma Beach” have one text or two? The question arises because for some 25 minutes the piece is constantly oscillating back and forth between the Japanese and an English translation, the latter making a point of leaving the Japanese word order quite as it is thank you. An example: “So recited with reason/Still longing deepens/’Yoiyo ni/Nugite waga nuru kari-goromo.’”

It probably doesn’t matter, since there was a kind of double benefit here. (1) You got to hear the abstract beauty an unfamiliar language can yield up (such vowels, such rhythms!) and (2) you also got to hear a fair amount of informative content. The sad, eerie story did indeed get told. We always knew where we were and what the characters were thinking and feeling.

It went like this. A tiny wisp of clarinet sonority gently detaches itself from the other instruments. Then comes some obliquely pictorial moon and sea music (more wisps and glints), and the singer enters: Bach specialist Pamela Dellal, whose lustrous mezzo — and its extensions — seemed primed for anything.

We’re told about the two sisters, who are now ghosts, about stifled passions of centuries past, and about the lover whom one of the sisters has willed into returning in an other than human shape. Nothing comes of it in the end except more longing and pain, the passage of time, the wind and the sea — those wisps of clarinet sonority have returned — and the sea and the wind. We are where we were.

Of course Hyla’s music is informed here by what traditional Japanese music sounds like — that’s why he went to Japan for two months — but it’s informed as well by his ease and familiarity with many different kinds of music, high and low, mandarin and demotic. (On that two-month visit to Japan to gather material Hyla found that there are such things as Gagaku garage bands. Well, he would. And by his own admission he threw out quite a lot to achieve that seamless 25-minute span.)

Overall what most struck your reviewer most about “At Suma Beach” was its feeling of steady, subtle emotional momentum. Next, how shrewdly integrated the thing was, and what a fetching, varicolored “sound” piece it turned out to be without half trying. That’s how Hyla is with instruments. He can’t help himself.

Marvelous stuff. Chilling. Moving. Will we ever hear it again?

The excellent performers — please note their names! — were: the Dinosaur Annex Music Ensemble: Diane Heffner (clarinet), Cyrus Stevens (violin), Kate Vincent (viola), Michael Curry (cello), Donald Berman (piano), Robert Schulz (percussion), with Pamela Dellal (mezzo) and Scott Wheeler (conductor).

* * * * *

October looms, the evenings draw in earlier, and the Boston musical scene has come to life again — flutist Fenwick Smith gave his annual virtuosic staples-plus-oddities recital at NEC, the BSO has had the carpenters in at Symphony Hall to lay down a new stage floor (mind those acoustics, lads!), the Handel and Haydn Society/English National Opera’s strongly sung, nice to look at, hip-exotic “Orfeo” came and went, and a rather dimly played all-Nikos Skalkottas concert at BU succeeded in raising doubts — not what was intended at all — about the reputation of this composer, who was cited as one of the 20th-century’s half dozen greatest by Hans Keller, the flintily brilliant UK opinion-monger, Haydn expert, string quartet coach, and BBC heavy, now deceased. (Evidently the Bis CDs of his music make a different impression, and it turns out that folklorism can indeed lie down companionably with the 12-tone method. See various rave reviews in Gramophone magazine.) A big shock: how loud and vehement, bludgeoning home point after interpretive point (the victim: Mozart’s K. 387), the Borromeo String Quartet, once everybody’s darlings, has become. Well, look at all the touring they do. They’ve caught the disease. Richard Dyer is gone, very gone (as of Sept. 18) from the Boston Globe. What a change in atmosphere. It’s as if the moment he left they immediately whisked away the throne chair, vowing: Never again another monstre sacre, never never. The question now is: who is this Jeremy Eichler person? Is there any ragtime in his soul? Will he spell even a wee bit of trouble? Let us pray.

All of which may be neither here nor there. The real event of the month — we insist — was Lee Hyla’s “At Suma Beach.”

RICHARD BUELL can be reached at rbuell@verizon.net

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