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Monday, March 20, 2006
Evan Johnson On the Record: Applebaum, After Ferneyhough

Mark Applebaum: 56 1/2 ft.
20, Agitprop, Sum=Parts
St. Lawrence Qt.; Stanford Jazz Orchestra, cond. Fredrick Berry; inauthentica, cond. Mark Menzies; Applebaum
Innova 646

In his 1984 article �Il Tempo Della Figura,� Brian Ferneyhough argues against the effectiveness of appropriation of musical styles, gestures, and mannerisms native to music of the past, writing that their impact is wholly dependent on context and that �ripping such units out of the contexts which gave them being leads to a fatal debilitation of their innate expressive powers at the same time as their integration into new montage forms demands precisely this unimpaired semantic impact in order to support and bring out the envisaged innovatory impact of their juxtaposition.� Instead, Ferneyhough believes that, however unitary and seemingly self-sufficient a given musical gesture might be, its power and expressiveness is denied unless it is fully integrated, formally, motivically or in terms of Ferneyhough�s preferred quasi-geological force-fields, into both a local and global context.

I bring up this rather extreme position because Mark Applebaum is known, still, as Ferneyhough�s most successful American student, the best-known product of the elder composer�s twenty years of university teaching in California, a stint that began shortly after �Il Tempo della Figura� was written. And yet, by virtue of the works on the present recording, one can reasonably claim that Applebaum�s work stands in precise opposition to these ideas � that, far from denying the aesthetic and formal validity of stylistic or affective reference, his music makes it a fundamental motivating force.

This is not to say that the music on this disc is pastiche, some sort of collage of �found materials� with the postmodern aim of expressing a fundamental parity and interchangeability between all musics; what is going on here is far more subtle. Within all these works, there is a veritable forest of outward-pointing arrows � this music exists contextually � but, with rare exceptions, those arrows are so small and so nearly transparent that one could easily miss them, and one�s experience of the music would not be too much poorer for it.

20, for string quartet, is a compelling example of Applebaum�s infinitely subtle acknowledgement of musical context. It comprises twenty linked miniatures, only the last of which is much more than a minute long, whose expressive ambitus and formal function within the whole are defined by affective descriptors: �rhythmic�; �atmospheric, sparse�; �lyrical�; �polyphonic, contrapuntal�. The whole, Applebaum tells us, is defined by the emotive poles of �Aquarian and Existential modes,� which can be defined respectively as (to excerpt Applebaum�s prodigious list of adjectives) �the reflective, the nostalgic � the conventionally beautiful � the expressively sincere� and �the savage � the anxious � the hermetic � the expressively cynical.�

Crucially, though, the result of this adjectival structure is not collage; the seams are subtle, the transitions smooth, the juxtapositions defined contextually rather than for the fact of their juxtaposition. This music stands or falls on its own terms, not as a gloss on Music, nor as an exclusively outward-looking commentary. 20 acknowledges context and reference without being devoured by it. The result is a graceful, involving, varied and beautiful work that gradually over its twenty-five minutes comes to describe the boundaries of an unusually wide rhetorical universe without the listener ever realizing it.

Agitprop features Applebaum on the mousketier, some sort of �electroacoustic sound-sculpture� of the composer�s invention, accompanied by the intrepid Stanford Jazz Orchestra. There is very little jazz going on here, but Applebaum�s outward-pointing arrows are a bit bolder and a bit more brightly colored, with drum fills and other instrumental figures that are in fact �cut and pasted� from other musical traditions and environments. To me, this is a far less effective strategy than that employed in 20, but the piece is not without its zany effectiveness, and some of the collectively improvised textures are quite earcatching in their own right.

It is in the last work on the disc, though, that the fundamental referentiality of Applebaum�s music comes most strongly to the fore. Sum=Parts is composed of a set of independently performable brief chamber pieces entitled 56 � ft., Authenticity, Integrity, Depth, Merit, and Seriousness. As if the titles were not enough to clue us and the musicians in to the relation of these pieces to outside �forces,� each measure � yes, each measure � of 56 � ft. is supplied with a fairly lengthy quotation from one of a bewildering variety of literary and musical sources, from Kundera to Partch to Ferneyhough to Stuart Saunders Smith to Simone de Beauvoir to Galileo. The relation to the music is not clear, but I can�t imagine that it is meant to be, really; in any case, the entire set of citations is given in the booklet for the listener�s (simultaneous?) reading pleasure.

As with 20, the wit and self-awareness that mark every non-musical element of the piece are assimilated into the music with a great deal of subtlety, almost gentleness. The opening piece of Sum=Parts, 56 � ft., is a dizzying and exuberant collection of gestures for chamber orchestra, involving unexpected and disorienting repetitions, pauses, shouted (and indecipherable) exclamations from the players, and a general inability to stay in one place. To hear the piece, it�s not surprising that every bar has its own extramusical baggage, but nor is it blindingly obvious. Uncharitably, the piece could be heard as a disordered collection of modernist gestures, but I give Applebaum more credit than that, and it is possible to hear a tenuous, tangled, knotted thread.

The rest of the pieces that comprise Sum=Parts are for smaller ensembles, each of the members of the opening piece�s chamber orchestra reappearing once in the set of �companion pieces,� and each taking up and reinflecting material from 56 � ft. Each, aside from its quite obviously tongue-in-cheek title, is provided with �peculiar character markings derived from the labels of various consumer goods,� such as �fast-lighting, longer burning, multi-purpose, heavy duty� (Integrity) and �fast acting, pain relieving, calorie-free, disposable� (Seriousness).

Once again, none of this is particularly audible in the music. The smaller-ensemble pieces that make up the central section of Sum=Parts (the collection ends with a reprise of 56 � ft., which sounds quite different due to various indeterminacies in the score) are lighter and more gesturally single-minded than 56 � ft, and their status as offshoots is clear. The whole piece, like 20 and like Agitprop, is in one sense a bit of a mess � but also, in another, an exuberant and subtly humorous collection of musical characters that see no need for the doctrinaire Modernist�s axiom of cohesion, that takes as its motivating force not the desire for a perfect structure but the planting of a forest of arrows.

All in all, this collection of Applebaum�s recent works is a little bit strange, a little bit self-conscious, a little bit undisciplined � but also consistently interesting, undoubtedly honest, and well worth your attention. There is a strong creative personality at work here, and those who find the intellectual and cultural apparatus of Applebaum�s imposing teacher or other rhetorical Modernist boogeymen too much to take seriously would do well to experience Applebaum�s uniquely refracted take on his educational inheritance.


12/19/2004 - 12/25/2004 12/26/2004 - 01/01/2005 01/02/2005 - 01/08/2005 01/09/2005 - 01/15/2005 01/16/2005 - 01/22/2005 01/23/2005 - 01/29/2005 01/30/2005 - 02/05/2005 02/06/2005 - 02/12/2005 02/13/2005 - 02/19/2005 02/20/2005 - 02/26/2005 02/27/2005 - 03/05/2005 03/06/2005 - 03/12/2005 03/13/2005 - 03/19/2005 03/20/2005 - 03/26/2005 03/27/2005 - 04/02/2005 04/03/2005 - 04/09/2005 04/10/2005 - 04/16/2005 04/17/2005 - 04/23/2005 04/24/2005 - 04/30/2005 05/01/2005 - 05/07/2005 05/08/2005 - 05/14/2005 05/15/2005 - 05/21/2005 05/22/2005 - 05/28/2005 05/29/2005 - 06/04/2005 06/05/2005 - 06/11/2005 06/12/2005 - 06/18/2005 06/19/2005 - 06/25/2005 06/26/2005 - 07/02/2005 07/03/2005 - 07/09/2005 07/10/2005 - 07/16/2005 07/17/2005 - 07/23/2005 07/24/2005 - 07/30/2005 07/31/2005 - 08/06/2005 08/07/2005 - 08/13/2005 08/14/2005 - 08/20/2005 08/21/2005 - 08/27/2005 08/28/2005 - 09/03/2005 09/04/2005 - 09/10/2005 09/11/2005 - 09/17/2005 09/18/2005 - 09/24/2005 09/25/2005 - 10/01/2005 10/02/2005 - 10/08/2005 10/09/2005 - 10/15/2005 10/16/2005 - 10/22/2005 10/23/2005 - 10/29/2005 10/30/2005 - 11/05/2005 11/06/2005 - 11/12/2005 11/13/2005 - 11/19/2005 11/20/2005 - 11/26/2005 11/27/2005 - 12/03/2005 12/04/2005 - 12/10/2005 12/11/2005 - 12/17/2005 12/18/2005 - 12/24/2005 12/25/2005 - 12/31/2005 01/01/2006 - 01/07/2006 01/08/2006 - 01/14/2006 01/15/2006 - 01/21/2006 01/22/2006 - 01/28/2006 01/29/2006 - 02/04/2006 02/05/2006 - 02/11/2006 02/12/2006 - 02/18/2006 02/19/2006 - 02/25/2006 02/26/2006 - 03/04/2006 03/05/2006 - 03/11/2006 03/12/2006 - 03/18/2006 03/19/2006 - 03/25/2006 03/26/2006 - 04/01/2006 04/02/2006 - 04/08/2006 04/09/2006 - 04/15/2006 04/16/2006 - 04/22/2006 04/23/2006 - 04/29/2006 04/30/2006 - 05/06/2006 05/07/2006 - 05/13/2006 05/14/2006 - 05/20/2006 05/21/2006 - 05/27/2006 05/28/2006 - 06/03/2006 06/04/2006 - 06/10/2006 06/11/2006 - 06/17/2006 06/18/2006 - 06/24/2006 06/25/2006 - 07/01/2006 07/02/2006 - 07/08/2006 07/09/2006 - 07/15/2006 07/16/2006 - 07/22/2006 07/23/2006 - 07/29/2006 07/30/2006 - 08/05/2006 08/06/2006 - 08/12/2006 08/13/2006 - 08/19/2006 08/20/2006 - 08/26/2006 08/27/2006 - 09/02/2006 09/03/2006 - 09/09/2006 09/10/2006 - 09/16/2006

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