New England's Prospect: Cottage Industries

New England’s Prospect: Cottage Industries

The Festival of Contemporary Music produces an annual, temporary, vibrant community—at times, it feels like a new music networking event with added concerts—but one set apart from the customary Tanglewood crowds. It’s genial to outsiders, but also prone to bewilder them.

Written By

Matthew Guerrieri

But what in the world does experience taste like?

—Maurice Sendak, Higglety Pigglety Pop!

Oliver Knussen conducts fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in Castiglioni's Inverno In-Ver.

Oliver Knussen conducts fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center in Castiglioni’s Inverno In-Ver.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Just prior to the start of the Sunday night concert of this year’s Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood, a couple slipped into the seats just in front of me. They were older, but in that good-looking, nonchalantly well-put-together way that suggests affluence; I’m guessing they were tourists on a getaway to the Berkshires. I imagined they had been at Tanglewood for the weekend. They had heard Pinchas Zuckerman, they had heard Yo-Yo Ma, they had heard Beethoven’s Fourth. And now they were in Ozawa Hall to hear Inverno In-Ver, Niccolò Castiglioni’s 1970s magnum opus.

Across the festival’s six concerts, festival director Oliver Knussen had programmed three works by the late Italian composer, as a kind of fill-in-the-historical-gap exercise. Castiglioni’s sound-world is more singular than most, and Inverno In-Ver is one of the most singular examples. The timbre is almost painfully bright—a classically proportioned orchestra, but one in which the bass instruments are almost always pushed precariously into their high ranges, one in which the strings are playing harmonics more often than not, one in which the glockenspiel and celesta and triangle are the main ingredients, not the garnish: a monstrous Sugar Plum Fairy run amok. The melodic language is almost quaintly tonal, neo-classical, but the melodies either run all over each in bright profusion, or else are buried under a dense foil of high clusters and trills—like trying to glimpse Pergolesi through the scintillating scotoma of a migraine. It’s extreme music, the ping and waver of a music box blown up to Godzilla size.

The couple in front of me was not buying it. Give them credit: they stuck it out. But they were perplexed, annoyed, contemptuously amused. The husband made disbelieving jokes in an unwittingly loud voice (probably because he was wearing a hearing aid—I can only imagine how much more bonkers Castiglioni’s music must sound through a hearing aid). The wife was fully engrossed by the program book before too long. They left at intermission.


I’m sometimes amazed that there’s any overlap at all between the audiences for the Shed concerts and audiences for the festival. (After a couple of tentative efforts under James Levine’s tenure, programming overlap has atrophied as well, the Boston Symphony Orchestra returning to its pattern of marking the festival with but a token novelty—this year, it was André Previn’s Music for Boston, one of three BSO commissions to mark Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary, conducted by Stéphane Denève on Saturday night, and channeling neo-classical Americana in a manner that alternated between divertingly odd and bafflingly odd.) Think of what, these days, the annual Tanglewood programming stalwarts are: James Taylor; Tanglewood on Parade, a day-long happening somewhere between a gala-of-unusual-randomness (a Tanglewood specialty) and a funfair; Film Night at the Pops; the traditional season-ending iteration of Beethoven’s Ninth; and the Festival of Contemporary Music. One of these things is very much not like the others, a sense amplified by being at Tanglewood itself, both a shrine to music and a place that, at every turn, gives permission for the music to recede into a pleasant background.

This is not always a bad thing: there are a lot worse ways to hear a Beethoven symphony for the umpteenth time than barefoot on the lawn, with a bottle of wine. But, on the other hand, Tanglewood does have that sacred reputation, and, increasingly, it seems like the FCM is one of the main events tasked with protecting it. It would certainly explain why people have tended to get so exercised about it over the years, about its breadth—or lack thereof.

Recent festivals directed by Augusta Read Thomas and Charles Wuorinen were such conscious anthologies—diversity for its own sake, attempted snapshots of the full landscape—that it was a bit of a cold-water splash that this year’s lineup was so restricted, almost all British and American composers, almost all with similar musical DNA: not necessarily atonal, but with the complex, texture-driven density of atonal modernism as a starting point. Part of this I understand; Thomas and Wuorinen are composers, but Knussen is a composer and a conductor, on the podium for much of the festival, and it’s a big difference between believing in a piece enough to add it to a program and enough to learn it, rehearse it, and present it to its best advantage in performance. For better or for worse, the majority of the works were ones that Knussen felt a strong personal and/or professional connection with. And, it should be noted, even with such a hemmed-in playing field, the festival still had at least a bit more stylistic variety than the Bang on a Can marathon I heard last month. But nothing on the FCM ventured close to the BoaC aesthetic, and even hints of a larger minimalist umbrella were sensed only in passing moments. It was a return to the Recent-Developments-In-Transatlantic-Modernism days of festivals of old.

Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin with the TMCO at the final FCM performance. Photo by Hilary Scott.

Oliver Knussen and Peter Serkin with the TMCO at the final FCM performance.
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Even within that limited focus, the programming was further focused to mini-surveys of a handful of composers. Harrison Birtwistle was one—four works, including the curtain-raising Sonance Severance 2000, which opened Monday night’s Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra concert under Knussen’s baton: a wine-dark sea of sound, an inexorably churning mass. George Benjamin was represented by three works, and a hint of stylistic restlessness, as in Duet, a compact 2008 piano concerto (also on Monday’s concert, conducted by Knussen, with pianist Peter Serkin) that hones the lushness of Benjamin’s earlier works into sharp steel. The piano opens in clanging, jittery two-part counterpoint, which gives way to a chain-of-custody negotiation of textures and ideas: brusque brass, rustling strings, a harp-driven, quasi-Reichian accompaniment pattern. Gunther Schuller, longtime director (and lightning rod) of past festivals, was back, both conducting a Saturday concert devoted to the perennially provocative Charles Ives and offering a new orchestra piece, premiered earlier this summer and reprised on Monday: Dreamscape (conducted by Knussen), which seemed to revisit the old Schoenberg-Stan Kenton Third Stream style in unlikely guises, be it a Tex Avery-style Scherzo, a noir-Bartók Nocturne, or a finale, “Birth—Evolution—Culmination,” that portrayed the life cycle as a pilgrim’s progress through a burly, dissonant, jazz-romantic big city landscape.

The TMCO presented Gunther Schuller's Dreamscape Photo by Hilary Scott.

The TMCO presented Gunther Schuller’s Dreamscape
Photo by Hilary Scott.

I had reviewed the first four concerts of the festival for the Boston Globe, hanging that all-too-brief recap on a division between older composers, experienced enough to indulge their own obsessions, and younger composers, still cloaking their more idiosyncratic compulsions in an effort to impress the listener. It was a bit of a journalistic convenience, but still, on Monday’s concert, one sensed some sort of doorway through which the younger composers had yet to pass. It is both a compliment and a mild criticism to note how much Helen Grime’s Everybody Sang sounded like a fifth Sea Interlude from Peter Grimes; the craft and confidence were on that level, but, as with Sunday’s performance of her Seven Pierrot Miniatures, I also felt like I had heard this sort of piece many, many times before. But the reality is that, as a thirty-something composer, these sorts of requests (Everybody Sang was commissioned by BBC Radio 3) come with the unspoken pressure to demonstrate that one can Handle The Orchestra, that one has the competence and flair to justify the money and rehearsal time. That sort of advertised professionalism was a prominent feature of other festival composers at a similar career point. The American composer Sean Shepherd’s These Particular Circumstances, a chamber symphony performed on Thursday’s concert, was superbly engineered, but the engineering was so elaborate and prominent—every instrument, every range always in play—that it felt hemmed in, like the music didn’t have enough space to go exploring.

But all composers have to go through this in order to make a career, I suppose. Craft is important, and the demonstration of that craft is, in a lot of cases, what gives composers the wherewithal to, eventually, have the chance to fully explore the sounds that really compel them to create. (Maybe Grime and Shepherd are already doing that, and it’s my failing that I don’t find those sounds as compelling as they do. I don’t know.) Part of the postgraduate work of any composer—the process often annoyingly referred to as “finding your voice”—is reconnecting with more extreme musical impulses; one perhaps shouldn’t fault Grime or Shepherd or Luke Bedford (another young-ish composer given a spotlight on this year’s festival) that the current institutional landscape either allows or demands that such a reckoning come later in life than it did in, say, Beethoven’s day. Bedford’s Monday night piece, Outblaze the Sky (conducted by TMC fellow Alexandre Bloch), was really interesting on this point. It was unusually monothematic, a long orchestral crescendo built solely from gradually shifting harmonies and lobbed-arc glissandi (imagine, if you will, the introduction to “Keepin’ the Dream Alive” extended out to six minutes and given a modernist sheen). In the end, though, it’s a piece that almost-but-doesn’t-quite work, never quite going into the over-the-top, propriety-challenging orchestrational overdrive that the build-up seems to promise. Brilliant failure or cautiously partial success? The boundary between the demands of the muse and the demands of a career was anything but clear.

Alexandre Bloch leads the TMCO in Bedford's Outblaze the Sky Photo by Hilary Scott.

Alexandre Bloch leads the TMCO in Bedford’s Outblaze the Sky
Photo by Hilary Scott.

Like a programmatic vault over that boundary, Outblaze the Sky was followed by Happy Voices, one of the orchestral interludes from David Del Tredici’s evening-long Child Alice (conducted, with enthusiastic stamina, by Asbury). I will admit that I’m not really a fan of Child Alice; unlike its predecessor, Final Alice (which I adore), here the neo-Wagnerian tonality feels more like the end, not the means, with a certain amount of resulting bloat: short ideas sequenced or repeated four and five times when three would be plenty, a lot of over-the-top modulatory delaying tactics without any long-line melodic or contrapuntal strategy to sustain them. But as an example of a composer reconnecting with extreme impulses, it is choice. Earlier in the festival, Alexander Bernstein had played Del Tredici’s 1958 piano solo Soliloquy, a craggy and expressionistic entry in the modernist ledger. It was a reminder of what Del Tredici cast aside in favor of the cheeky joys of diminished chords and deceptive cadences—but also a reminder of how much time and talent he had lavished on the other style before he was ready to make the break.


Stephan Asbury leads Knussen's Higglity Pigglity Pop at-Tanglewood. Photo by Hilary Scott

Stephan Asbury leads Knussen’s Higglity Pigglity Pop at Tanglewood.
Photo by Hilary Scott

On Sunday night, Inverno In-Ver was followed by a semi-staged version of Knussen’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!, his other Maurice Sendak opera, considered something of a companion piece to his better-known Where the Wild Things Are (which was on the 2009 FCM). Sendak’s original book—an anticipatory requiem for his dog—has usually been interpreted as a wry commentary on the artist’s life: Jennie the terrier (Kate Jackman in this performance, ably negotiating the part’s musical demands, though sometimes not quite translating that into a full vocal characterization) leaves the comfort and security of her home, feeling that (as the opera’s subtitle emphasizes) “there must be more to life”; she encounters a series of somewhat suspicious characters and increasingly surreal adventures, culminating in a showdown with a hungry lion, the result of a failure to make the human baby she has been employed to take care of eat anything. Jennie’s seeming tragedy—hungry, abandoned, alone—is transformed into triumph, as she is made the leading lady of the World Mother Goose Theater.

The performance could best be described as a high-level mixed bag: orchestrally thrilling (Asbury conducted), vocally solid if intermittently cautious, theatrically efficient (Netia Jones contributed a modified version of the video she produced for the Aldeburgh Festival, animating Sendak’s drawings). But the work itself was perfect for the festival. It might not be a perfect barometer, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, if you like Higglety Pigglety Pop! better than Where the Wild Things Are, you might just be a composer—or a pursuer or survivor of some other similar creative vocation. I can’t think of another piece that so acutely channels the fundamental absurdity and loneliness of creative activity, the frustration of working toward an ever-receding goal, the difficulty of communicating the nature of that work to anyone outside the bubble. And most of that is the music: Sendak’s perspective is gentle, but Knussen’s score—concentrated in its span, but immense in its volatility of color, every passing mood expanded into a deep-focus panoply of fanatical instrumental detail, even subliminal images rendered in IMAX HD—amplifies everything into almost overwhelming immediacy, the moment-to-moment highs and lows of the creative process translated into fluid music. The great thing is that it’s done without a hint of false pathos or rose-tinted romanticizing: Jennie is the heroine, but she’s also foolhardy and stubborn and even clueless. The opera manages to be simultaneously madcap silly and deeply poignant throughout.

Higglety Pigglety Pop! rather ingeniously recapitulates the life of the composing mind—but, then again, thanks to its strange relationship to its setting, so does the Festival of Contemporary Music itself. It produces an annual, temporary, vibrant community—at times, it feels like a new music networking event with added concerts—but one set apart from the customary Tanglewood crowds.  It’s genial to outsiders, but also prone to bewilder them. It sails at an angle to the prevailing Tanglewood winds, but it still sails nonetheless. It’s the creative predicament made manifest: it’s there but it’s not there. Even an ex-composer feels at home.

Looking for more content like this?