Tag: Boston Modern Orchestra Project

New England’s Prospect: Polytropos

Tell me, O Muse, of the generation of many devices, who wandered full many ways. I come to generalize about an entire cohort of composers, based solely—sample size be damned—on the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s May 17 concert at Jordan Hall. A foolhardy and even dangerous venture, surely? Well, consider it, in part, payback for making me type “Gen OrcXstrated,” which is what BMOP named the program, a collision of letters that I am still not quite sure how to pronounce. (And, yes, I am fully cognizant of the irony of bitching about unorthodox orthography in a publication called NewMusicBox.) But also consider it—the generalization, not the orthography—a tribute to the curation by BMOP and Artistic Director Gil Rose, who came up with three pieces that managed to be both stylistically divergent and yet similar in enough crucial ways to make the venture worthwhile.
It should be mentioned, though, that the whole “Gen X” thing was a bit of a contrivance, given that the three composers programmed—Mason Bates (b. 1977), Huang Ruo (b. 1976), and Andrew Norman (b. 1979)—were all very much from the tail end of Generation X, and that Generation X itself—roughly defined as post-Baby Boom to 1980 or so—was always a pretty fishy confederation to begin with. It might be more useful, if only slightly, to define the concert’s composers in terms of the internet: the World Wide Web came online just as they were hitting adolescence. As it turns out, that makes for a more intriguing connection, maybe not as immediately apparent, but, in the end, more of a generational statement than birth date or musical vocabulary.


Mason Bates

Mason Bates
Photo by Ryan Schude

The communication was awfully fluent. All three pieces were full of what Rose and BMOP do best: color and energy. The performances combined go-for-broke commitment with a groovy confidence; the pieces themselves were never boring. (The audience, however, was surprisingly thin, a symptom, perhaps, of Boston’s annual end-of-term exodus.)

Bates’s 2011 Sea-Blue Circuitry—given its New England premiere—put a lot of computer technology imagery front and center. It’s multi-platform, to begin with: originally premiered as a wind ensemble piece, here performed in full and expertly tailored orchestral costume. The posited trajectory is machine-to-nature-to-machine—a middle slow movement takes as its inspiration “Marine Snow,” the slow descent of dead organic matter to the sea floor—but the whole thing felt pretty automated. I would guess that most people only casually familiar with the term “post-minimalism” would associate it with something like Sea-Blue Circuitry: bright, looping, triadically colored thumping rhythms, in which the thump is more important than the loop. Jazz and pop references were stylized into occasional blues-scale touches; a movie music sheen was omnipresent.

Huang Ruo

Huang Ruo

Huang’s Path of Echoes: Chamber Symphony No. 1 (from 2006, another Boston premiere) couldn’t have been more different, on the surface anyway. It’s a riot of effects and extended techniques: a movement of glissandi followed by a movement of repeated notes and tremolos, a long toccata for timpani (Craig McNutt) and metallic things (Robert Schulz) leading into a finale of parts, flute and clarinet detaching and whistling through their headstocks. The collection of sounds is meant to echo across sections, sometimes closely, sometimes distantly, but the feel was of a collage, a cut-up structure, the section-based orchestration—winds and strings each moving en masse, brass and percussion punching in highlights—organized as non-stop montage.

Norman’s Play, a world premiere, dwarfed the other two in length (a forty-five-minute expanse) and ambition. (The work is the culmination of Norman’s term as BMOP’s composer-in-residence.) The title and conceit refer to computer games—the piece’s movements are labeled “Level 1,” “Level 2,” and “Level 3”—but the actual games were both organizational and semiotic in nature. It’s a front-loaded piece: the first movement a fiercely dense scrum of ideas and signals then given more stretched-out treatment in the last two sections. One idea—a slapstick crack that turns on a furious solo from a back-bench string player—proved particularly important, both in seeding the work’s formal rules (percussion punctuation spurring a sudden change in texture or idea from the rest of the ensemble) and in the finale, in which the wedge structure of the third movement is reduced to a compound ascending-descending scale portioned out, note by note, by single string players across the orchestra.

Andrew Norman

Andrew Norman

Play, for all its activity, is essentially ruminative; the first movement almost functions as a surfeit of climaxes to make up for the lack of such catharsis in the rest of the piece. “Level 2” emerged out of borderline pitch, tapped bows, fingers hammered on the fingerboard, brass players smacking their mouthpieces. It built up to an echo of the first movement (a save point, maybe), then got lost in the game: a tangle of wind counterpoint and a cloud of string glissandi, clicked on and off by the percussion. This settled into a very long string of elegiac string chords, bows inching ever closer to bridges, before another round of percussion Red Light/Green Light froze into a grand pause. “Level 3” started soft as well, with a host of those back-desk string solos, then embarked on another build, this time to a buzz of diatonic imitation (if the string chords of “Level 2” were like Morton Feldman rifling through Ralph Vaughan Williams’s effects, this came off as Aaron Copland on a caffeine bender), but, again, the music disintegrated into sparseness. The music seemed to embody something of digital life—crowded but empty. But it’s in the congruence with the other two works that one can hear just how much of its time Play really is.


So what are the common threads? In the first place, there’s not much melody. There’s melodic material, of course, but the lack of a really strong melodic theme among the works was notable. Bates came the closest, in the middle “Marine Snow” movement of Sea-Blue Circuitry, but what theme there was only assembled a couple of times, and what development there was consisted of disassembling it again, the better to slip back into the churn of rhythm. The rest was mainly the trading of two or three notes at a time, occasionally four. Play was similar—even when the wedge theme of the final movement emerged in extended, monophonic form, the feel was much more that of a concluding formal schematic than of a melodic line with a tension and release of its own. Path of Echoes had instances of melody—a short brass call in its central movement combined with the violins to make a divertingly woozy call to arms—but, tellingly, when it came back as an echo, it had been translated into semi-pitched percussion. It’s indicative of the continuing reign of musical process that started with serialism and continued through minimalism: the manipulation of the content is as important, if not more important, than the content itself. The long-line melodic foreground is gone; the quick-fire interplay of melodic cells is prevalent.

That kind of local interaction stretched and manipulated into chunks of music speaks to what seems a strong influence on all the music: that of the soundtrack, be it film, television, or video game. It’s not so much the style—though Sea-Blue Circuitry definitely displays a certain John Williams tinta—but rather the construction: a given musical mood filling up a given stretch of time. In every piece, the sense of boxes, of solid-color shapes, of timestamps was strong. The large-scale organization is by block and module.

Combine those two features—the atomization of melody and the modular approach to musical time—and there’s an implication about form that really gets at how the pieces all work. The formal surface of all three pieces tends toward simple trajectories, one texture gradually giving way to another texture, sometimes by incremental change, more often by a crescendo-decrescendo of cross-cutting. All musical forms do something like this, but the difference is in the amount of dramatic space required. Compare good old sonata-allegro form, for instance: because the formal components are self-contained themes and (relatively, at least) closely related tonal centers, the formal dialectic can play out over a much more circumscribed space and style—long-line melodies, for instance, can be easily distinguished from each other even without a lot of variation in mood, speed, or tonality. But if the melodic material remains largely at the cell level, the larger units, the ones that will act out the dialectic, need more variation to be perceived as formal components.  In order for their formal ideas to unfold in an intelligible way, the blocks that Bates, Huang, and Norman build up out of fragments—the segments of time they fill up—have to be highly contrasted. Which they are: in all three pieces, the contrasts were stark: fast and slow, bright and dark, loud and soft, dense and sparse, active and static.
And, suddenly, there it is: life in the early 21st century—in which the act of filling ever-longer stretches of time with ever-smaller bits of information creates ever-greater polarization. That is a shift in the discourse, one more significant than styles or schools or generational demographics. For all their variance, both within and without, the three composers on Friday’s concert, wittingly or not, have taken that shift and made music out of it. It’s music for a world of blocks and divisions, of memes and samples, of the machinery of spin centrifugating to extremes. It’s the soundtrack of a society that never makes it home, but instead just keeps sailing back and forth between Scylla and Charybdis.

Sounds Heard: Eric Moe—Kick & Ride

Kick & Ride proves an apt title for composer Eric Moe’s recent BMOP Sound release, highlighting his use of drum set and percussion throughout the three compositions represented. The high energy works, characterized by Moe in the liner notes as “cantankerous sisters,” indeed deliver shots of dramatic flair and suspenseful anxiety that could nearly persuade a listener to skip that all-important morning cup of coffee.

The first work on the CD, Superhero, is scored for Pierrot ensemble, and musically traces the trials and tribulations of an imaginary comic book character as planets are saved, evil twins are vanquished, and existential crises are survived. It is possible to hear within the work’s five movements the car chases, the personal anguish, and the sonic representations of the KA-POWs and BLAMMOs associated with favorite comic book superheroes. Before any assumptions are made about the somewhat lighthearted theme of this piece, rest assured that this is serious, thoughtfully rendered music, that Moe says is an affectionate, rather than an ironic, glimpse into the concept of the superhero. The musicians give beautifully crisp, tight performances, reflecting both energy and repose in their allotted places.

Eight Point Turn begins with the pulse of sand blocks paired with a low-register contrabass ostinato, onto which other instruments gradually pile to create obsessively winding circular patterns. These motions are interrupted at many points, but persevere in shifting orchestrations and harmonic schemes, giving a sense of navigating narrow switchback trails up a mountain.

Although the title track of the CD, Kick & Ride, is a drum set concerto in two movements for the percussionist Robert Schulz and BMOP, Moe reimagines the concerto format in his own fashion. The opening features call-and-response patterns between drum set and orchestra, but overall, rather than composing a competitive, back-and-forth dialogue between drum kit and orchestra, their relationship has to do with whether they are in sync or playing independently of one another. In the first movement, “The Cracked Tune that Chronos Sings,” the drum set often plays delicately, very much behind the orchestra, allowing long, lean string melodies to come to the forefront. Eventually, filigree patterns between cymbals and drums erupt into a full drum kit cadenza, which abruptly cuts away to a sober conclusion in winds and brass.

The second movement, “Slipstream,” opens with a reference to the “Wipeout” rhythm, which is quickly farmed out to various pitched instruments and continues to color the entire movement. Again the drums travel from foreground to background and back again, almost without pause, carrying on independent conversations and occasionally chiming into the group talk, ultimately joining the orchestra in an intensely romping final climax.

All of the pieces on Kick & Ride feature idiomatic, finely wrought writing for all of the instruments, but it is especially notable that the drum set music sounds completely natural and fits organically into the different ensemble settings. Although it is possible to hear whispers of many different types of music—rock and roll, African, jazz, etc.—Moe has made the music his own. This disc is a treat for percussionists, for composers on the lookout for effective drum set writing, and for contemporary music listeners in general.

New England’s Prospect: The Real World

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Ken Ueno works the Napoleon Room, March 5, 2012

Up until last week, I hadn’t yet made it to a Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert this season, a lapse that wanted correction. BMOP might be the most agnostic new music group in town, game for whatever style or school or angle they can get an audience for, or get a grant for, or even just get a hankering for. They were also early practitioners of that staple of new music coolness, staging concerts in clubs.

For a long time, BMOP’s chamber-sized Club Concerts were at Club Café, a large Back Bay gay club and restaurant. Lately, BMOP had moved into Oberon, the happy product of an odd circumstance—a brand-new nightclub in the middle of Harvard Square, created as a venue for the American Repertory Theatre’s Midsummer-Night’s-Dream-meets-Studio-54 extravaganza The Donkey Show, and subsequently filled on off nights by a whole range of fringe, cabaret, and jazz acts. But Oberon was otherwise occupied, so BMOP was back at Club Café on March 5 for a Japanese-themed concert curated by composer Ken Ueno.

It was terrible. Not the music—the music was brilliant. But the venue, frankly, stunk. BMOP was in the Napoleon Room, a tiny cabaret space to the side of the club. It was, not surprisingly, jammed. (Ueno, a Bostonian for a while before moving west, joked how proud he was that his one-time home could sell out a house with new music.) Kitchen sounds and waiters were constantly interrupting the presentation. And the glass wall that separates the room from the rest of the club proved a uselessly permeable barrier to ambient noise. From my seat, the deep, delicate, shifting white-noise landscape of Joji Yuasa’s 1967 tape piece Icon was pretty much drowned out by the exuberant insistence of a bar patron that the first season of the Lynda Carter “Wonder Woman” T.V. series was by far the best. I mean, sure, the writing became far less clever once they moved the setting from ’40s to the ’70s, and what was up with that whole “Steve Trevor, Jr.” business, and oh yes PLEASE SHUT UP BECAUSE I AM TRYING TO LISTEN TO THIS CONCERT.

It was too bad, because Ueno had come up with an excellent program, a remarkably efficient exploration of the Japanese dance between pitch, noise, and silence. There were two richly virtuosic solo pieces by Toshio Hosokawa: Winter Bird (played with acrobatic precision by violinist Gabriela Diaz), in which jeté and pizzicato avian sounds give way to a nifty continuous-glissando double-stop section, like a calligraphy brush splitting into different hairs and then coming back together as you drag it across the paper; and Vertical Song I (pulled off with equal energy by flutist Jessie Rosinski), which worked a similar trick via playing and singing at the same time. There were some hardcore avant-garde tape pieces, not only Yuasa’s Icon, but also Toru Takemitsu’s 1960 Water Music, a stunningly assured manipulation of water sounds, drips and splashes (which, in the context, made the place sound like a dank storeroom in hell’s speakeasy).

Ueno’s own divertingly Beckett-esque piano solo Disabitato, inspired by Roman ruins, still fit the program’s emphasis on the placement of—and space between—sonic events, its small catalog of stony sounds circling each other in an arena of sustain-pedal resonance. (Sarah Bob was the superb pianist.) For a finale, Diaz, Bob, and cellist Jing Li played Bruce Reiprich’s Chozubachi, a Takemitsu homage that evoked that composer’s most cinematic, Messiaen-jazz moods with unapologetic lushness. The performance was terrific. What I could hear of it, anyway.


Audibility isn’t much of a problem for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, who performed at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on March 10, part of an ongoing three-year residency organized by MIT professor (and All-Star) Evan Ziporyn. Both the All-Stars and the Bang on a Can composers—Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon, and David Lang—work with nearly omnipresent amplification. But what struck me at this concert was how much the group works with authenticity—the authenticity of expression that was such a concern to the existentialists, the authenticity of tradition that’s such a concern in cultural contexts, and the way that, for the better part of a century, musicians have been blurring the line between the two.

The great innovation of Bang on a Can, I think, is the realization that the ways composers and performers signal various forms of musical authenticity could be rich musical source material in and of itself—that the “authentic” is to the late 20th and early 21st century what the “sublime” was to the 19th. BoaC plays this game along with everyone else—part of the authenticity being claimed by this concert was that of celebrity, not only their own, but also the advertised appearances of cult-hero pop-collagist Nick Zammuto (formerly of The Books, as PR materials consistently reminded) and the Elijah of minimalism, Steve Reich. (It worked: Kresge Auditorium, not small, was packed.) But the group also plays with the game, a self-aware acknowledgement and exploration of how and why we like to declare musical heritages.

One of the main draws, besides Reich himself, was the Boston premiere of Reich’s 2×5, written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars in 2008. The instrumentation is a high-class garage-band: Mark Stewart and guest Derek Johnson on electric guitars, Robert Black on electric bass, David Cossin on drums, Vicky Chow and (usually-clarinetist) Ziporyn on two pianos. “2×5 is chamber music for rock instruments,” Reich explained in his program note. “We’re living at a time when the worlds of concert music and popular music have resumed their normal dialogue after a brief pause during the 12 tone/serial period.”

Sure, because no one’s ever tried that with serialism. (Don’t even get me started on the subtext of the word “normal.”) But that’s been Reich’s claim to authenticity almost from the start: the voice crying in the wilderness, calling music back from a hermetic detour onto the straight and narrow. And if that’s what has driven and continues to drive him, the music is beautiful, more often than not.

2×5, though, kept its distance from me, one of that group of Reich pieces that, for me at least, tips over from “bright and insistent” to “irritatingly aggressive.” (I had the same reaction the last time I heard Music for a Large Ensemble. I look forward to your letters.) It wasn’t so much the volume, although it was pretty gloriously loud. It was more, I think, because I tend to hone in on anything resembling a harmonic progression, and 2×5 felt harmonically abrupt, arbitrary, even clunky in places, common-tone and mediant juxtapositions piled on with diminishing returns. Three sections from the end, the piece briefly settled into a bewitching set of changes, Stewart and Johnson chiming accents over a repeated string of chords, to lovely effect. For the rest, it had all the volume of rock but not much of its formal satisfaction.

The other Reich selections were impeccable. Stewart gave a crisp and gorgeous account of Electric Counterpoint, Reich’s layered escapements polished to an irresistible ’80s pastel-and-chrome gloss. And Reich himself was joined by Cossin for Clapping Music, still a small miracle: idea, technique, process, and means in perfect, transparent balance. The contrast between performers was interesting: Cossin swaying and grooving, advertising the music’s affinity with pop, but Reich calm, centered, locked in. The best music doesn’t need special pleading.


The first half of the concert featured a preview performance (the official premiere is on March 20, in London) of Field Recordings, a nine-composer anthology commissioned for the BoaC All-Stars, marking BoaC’s 25th anniversary. (Cellist Ashley Bathgate, left out of 2×5, returned to her usual place in the sextet.) It really was an old-fashioned preview, still working out kinks—video cues weren’t always punctual, the sound mix wasn’t always optimal—but the overall spirit of the piece was apparent, and the spirit of the piece puts authenticity front-and-center. The concept is found footage, each composer building a movement around the pre-existing audio or video of his or her choice. And, of course, that choice revealed each composer’s attitude and approach to musical authenticity.

Julia Wolfe’s “Reeling,” for instance, opted for the imprimatur of folk music, starting with a Lomax-esque record of an energetic, wordless vocal—Appalachian scat-singing, maybe—and then amplifying it through live ensemble imitation into a wall of sound. (One particularly nice effect: sharp inhalations on the recording producing gusts of thick noise from the instruments.) That authenticity of celebrity—new-music celebrity, anyway—was the backbone of Florent Ghys’s “An Open Cage,” a recording of John Cage reading from his diary transformed, Different Trains-style, into modal, easygoing word jazz. Mira Calix’s “meeting you seemed so easy” went the ambient route, with a nod to Brian Eno’s Music for Airports: the burble of an airplane cabin, a fog of transience for some melancholy, circling fragments of melody to cut through.

There was a programmatic bent to David Lang’s “unused swan,” the sound of sharpening knives combined with a gloomy melody and Cossin dropping and swirling metal chains into the bowl of an amplified gong. I thought it didn’t go much beyond the set-up, though, to be fair, other people around me thought it the best of the movements. For me, the more transformative the approach, the more the music reworked, recontextualized, or otherwise messed with the original signal, the more I liked it. Ziporyn’s “Wargasari,” for instance: to start with a scratchy old recording of Balinese singing was probably inevitable for Ziporyn—never far from his gamelan expertise—but the result was awesome, a neither-here-nor-there fusion, the source pushing the ensemble into odd, asymmetrical rhythms, the ensemble turning the recording into a shiny, dissonant, globalized artifact.

Michael Gordon’s “gene takes a drink” showcased a video by Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame), a P.O.V. etude created by putting the camera on the collar of a cat and then turning it loose in a garden. The result was both witty and compelling, given unusual gravity by Gordon’s rippling, limpid minimalism: a cat-video Koyaanisqatsi. Christian Marclay took the notion of “found” footage to its limit in “Fade to Slide,” the ensemble romping through an onomatopoeic soundtrack to a montage of film clips, as cleverly and intricately curated as Marclay’s other cinematic installations. The authenticity here was the grammar of Hollywood—all the rhythm but none of the content of film narrative, the conditioning of pop culture revealed in its Pavlovian glory.

Tyondai Braxton worked a not unrelated vein with his “Casino Trem,” the source here the electronic jangle of slot machines and other casino enticements; through sampling, imitation, and drive, the ensemble turned the sounds into a primary-color, in-your-face symphony, a Beethovenian hard sell as reworked by Scott Bradley. “Casino Trem” was listed last, but the order was flipped so Zammuto’s “Real Beauty Turns” could be the finale, with Zammuto joining the group on guitar and vocals. The music was busy, head-bopping prog-rock; the found footage was collected television advertising footage featuring beauty products, their hopeful/skeptical customers, their before-and-after effects.

The original order might have been better. After Braxton, Zammuto’s conceit, as fun as it was, seemed almost too easy, both in the softness of its comic target (what’s the deal with infomercials?) and in the way its claim to authenticity was the result of a stacked deck—I mean, just about anybody looks cool next to someone enthusiastically demonstrating a motorized hairbrush. Braxton hadn’t let us off the hook that easily, instead taking the sound of one of the most manufactured, “fake” places imaginable and rendering it so ominously ebullient and saturated that one was roped into its siren song without being able to help it. Not the least delicious part of Braxton’s casino extravaganza was the cheer with which he dared to call authenticity’s bluff. In American life, Braxton seemed to be pointing out, the one truly authentic constant is money, the wheel of fortune, winning and losing.