Tag: Boston

New England’s Prospect: “The harpsdischord shall be theirs for ollaves”

It was the beer, in the end. And Schrödinger. But for much of the time, Martin Pearlman’s Finnegans Wake: An Operoar did right by James Joyce’s garrulous tumble of language. The Sunday night premiere was under the nominally anachronistic auspices of Boston Baroque—the inaugural concert of the group’s new chamber series—but the rationales were both obvious (Pearlman is Boston Baroque’s music director) and, maybe, a little meta-historical, the whole early music movement being, after all, a product of modernity. And the opening chapter of Finnegans Wake is nothing if not historically informed, a dense, hallucinatory tour of legend and lore, the centuries peeled back to set the stage for the fall of the original Finnegan, Finn McCool, and the wake which proves the unlikely creation act of the novel’s dreamlike narrative.

What success the work produced could be traced to two fundamental decisions: not cutting the text (the piece—as it stands, Pearlman reserving the Joycean prerogative of calling it a “work in progress”—sets the novel’s first seven pages in whole), and opting for a reciting actor (Adam Harvey) rather than singers. The words could flow unimpeded, Pearlman’s rhythmic setting natural and fluent, Harvey’s delivery (even with the handicap of an American accent) confident and—no small feat—remarkably off-book for a premiere. The music, for the most part, provided constantly shifting scenery. The ensemble was of the new music ilk—flute, clarinet, violin, viola, double bass, piano, and a fair collection of percussion—and the musical accent that of post-serialism, rhythmically and contrapuntally busy and multivalent, but harmonically mediated, not averse to venturing forth chromatically (occasionally rising to a pitch reminiscent of Joyce’s “duodisimally profusive plethora of ululation”) but always staying within earshot of a tonal center or resolution. Many of the motives alternated between chromatic, “atonal” versions and more triadically contoured twins.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Pearlman clearly loves the song-like nature of Joyce’s language (Joyce was a singer, after all), and his delineation of it was optimized towards bringing out its capacity for rhyme and dance-like scansion. (At times, as in Harvey’s snappy delivery of lines like “the strupithump of his ville’s indigenous romekeepers, homesweepers, domecreepers, thurum and thurum in fancymud murumd,” it was almost as if to make a case for Joyce as a kind of proto-rapper.) And Pearlman was attentive to the broad symmetries in the prose’s structure: the rolling tolling of historical events, with the musicians giving fragmentary cues for Harvey to respond to, was mirrored in the telling of Finn’s fall, Harvey now the one spurring commentary from the instruments, interpreted portents now become portentous gossip. The tallying of Finn’s various incarnations, with the music providing a mickey-moused soundtrack keyed to the text, was transformed into the din at the wake, the speech rhythms herded by the hints of Irish song burbling up through the ensemble. The opening glimpse of the River Liffey, a wash of cymbal and a heavy jig from the violin, returned at the end, Anna’s “wivvy and wavy” hair (borrowed from page 28 for a coda) now elided with the river’s current. (The perception of all these structures was vastly aided by the piece being performed twice.)

Still, it was those Irish songs that hinted at the barrier Pearlman’s setting—along with all settings of Finnegans Wake—eventually ran up against. Pearlman relished the chance for the ensemble to provide a gloss to the text, the songs Joyce hinted at or parodied suddenly poking out of the musical texture. But the results were more of an Ivesian hubbub than Joyce’s rapid-fire but precisely aimed allusive vectors. The problem, of course, being that music goes, inexorably, in real time—on the page, Joyce’s references, however passing (and they almost all are in passing), can still hit their marks, clear and momentarily in the spotlight; but layered into music, they were perceived only peripherally. By the time one had processed a musical quotation, the next one had already gone by. (And some remained unprocessed—even on second hearing, and primed by Pearlman’s mention of it during a question-and-answer interlude, I still missed a Beethoven quote accompanying the “dusty fidelios” at the wake.)

It’s the eternal trade-off of trying to musicalize Finnegans Wake: you can capture the rhythm of the language or the depth of field of the allusive web, but not (at least in my experience) both—because the allusive web is as much visual as aural. You can see it in the beer, the cask meant to accompany Finn, pharaoh-like, on his journey to the world of the dead, the “barrowload of guenesis hoer his head” to match the “bockalips of finisky fore his feet.” It’s one of the book’s more famous portmanteau-puns, the barrel of Guinness made to bookend the whisky in a Genesis-Apocalypse biblical whole, but also containing within it the spark that will fuel the book: not only genesis (after all, what better image for creating a universe than brewing it) but also genius, the creative urge to tell the story. And, if you’re a close reader of Finnegans Wake, you note that this is already the book’s second version of the pun, after the initial introduction of the title character, who, in a parenthetical digression, we learn

sternely struxk his tete in a tub for to watsch the future of his fates but ere he swiftly stook it out again, by the might of moses, the very water was eviparated and all the guenneses had met their exodus so that ought to show you what a pentschanjeuchy chap he was!

And then you can dig deeper and find out that the Guinnesses did meet their exodus in a way particular to Joyce, Joyce’s father having been secretary to the Liberal Party whose candidate unseated Sir Arthur Guinness for a seat in the Irish parliament, Arthur’s father, Sir Benjamin Guinness, Lord Mayor of Dublin, to be likened in Finnegans Wake to Noah, Noah who went on the first biblically recorded drunken spree, a spree recorded in Genesis, a spree that could very well have been fueled by a barrel-load of Guinness. It’s the sort of referential rabbit-hole that infuriates the book’s detractors and endears it to its adherents.

In a way that has eluded every musical setting of it I’ve yet heard, Finnegans Wake is a book of quantum superposition. Joyce, in fact, wrote it at the same time quantum physics was coming into its own, at the same time as De Broglie’s equation, Schrödinger’s wave function, the Copenhagen interpretation. It was Schrödinger who came up with the most famous analogy for the superposition that resulted from a probabilistic interpretation of his wave function, his cat, suspended between the states of life and death until an observation forces it into one state or another. But Finnegans Wake might be an even better illustration of the concept, every one of Joyce’s half-inherited, half-invented words encompassing an abundance of states simultaneously, all the interpretations and allusions and hints able to hover, superimposed, for as long as the reader wants. For all the respect and entertainment value Pearlman brought to his setting, in the end, the performance, the accompaniment, the necessity of forward motion inevitably collapsed all those functions, the multitudes within each of Joyce’s redolent mutations reduced to whatever wave was most aurally apparent.

Still, the one-state-out-of-many that Pearlman chose was almost always an agreeable one; Finnegans Wake: An Operoar might hem the text in, but it does so in a way that still defers to it, puts it in the foreground, and celebrates it. It has to be some sort of testimonial that, after hearing the piece, quibbles and all, I nonetheless went home and started re-reading.

New England’s Prospect: Tracking Devices

When I meet the engine with its train of cars moving off with planetary motion—or, rather, like a comet, for the beholder knows not if with that velocity and with that direction it will ever revisit this system, since its orbit does not look like a returning curve—with its steam cloud like a banner streaming behind in golden and silver wreaths, like many a downy cloud which I have seen, high in the heavens, unfolding its masses to the light—as if this traveling demigod, this cloud-compeller, would ere long take the sunset sky for the livery of his train; when I hear the iron horse make the hills echo with his snort like thunder, shaking the earth with his feet, and breathing fire and smoke from his nostrils (what kind of winged horse or fiery dragon they will put into the new Mythology I don’t know), it seems as if the earth had got a race now worthy to inhabit it.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.

Harry Partch performing on the Cloud Chamber Bowls.
Photo from the original Gate 5 recordings of Harry Partch’s music. Special thanks to Sedgwick Clark.

The sound of trains runs through Harry Partch’s music, the wheeze and whine of whistles drifting over and beyond the settled grid of equal temperament, the percussive cycles phasing in and out like the rods and wheels of a locomotive. At last week’s “Harry Partch Legacy” symposium, jointly presented by Northeastern University and the New England Conservatory, both Kyle Gann, in his keynote address, and Philip Blackburn, in a multimedia tour of Partch’s biography, highlighted the same passage from Partch’s Delusion of the Fury, a stream of sixteenth notes progressively subdivided into groups of seven, then six, then five, the music picking up speed while still chugging along. Blackburn’s audio tour of Partch’s influences started off with the keening and clack of the Southern Pacific line. Or is that just the celebrity of Partch’s biography forcing its way in? He was, after all, the great hobo composer, someone whose itinerant existence, first riding the rails, then jumping from place to place, job to job, situation to situation—Blackburn’s punctuating timeline of years and cities began to resemble a railroad timetable—makes a tempting mirror to the open-road unfettered ambition of his musical innovation.

The three-day conference (September 19-21—I attended most of the first day’s proceedings), organized by composer Brian Robison, aimed to be a catalyst within the academy, a spur to a greater dissemination of Partch’s music and ideas. The presentations and lectures were forward-looking, either towards new horizons in microtonal music, or new efforts to realize Partch’s works and schemes. The concerts mixed Partch’s music with newer works inspired by him, both in microtonal language and, on Thursday night’s concert (which I missed), in utilizing Partch’s specially designed musical instruments.

The instruments were there, of course, Partch’s custom-built orchestra of fanciful machines—the Cloud Chamber Bowls, the dulcimer-like Harmonic Canons, the enormous Bass Marimba looming at the back of the Jordan Hall stage like some sort of mysterious ancient monument—transported from their current home at Montclair State University along with their keeper, Partch votary Dean Drummond. And the audience was one largely familiar with Partch’s credo: the jargon of just intonationflowed fluent and free, thick and intimate with various partials and ratios.

But Partch’s legacy also seemed very much a work in progress. The portrait that emerged was of a composer still better known by self-made reputation and theories than by his music—Genesis of a Music is still better known and far more widely available than any of Partch’s scores. Much of the discussion surrounding Partch specifically dwelled on difficulties—of performance, of interpretation, of scholarship. The sense was that Partch and his music remain problematic, in ways both good and bad. This is not necessarily a bad thing—comfort and ease bring their own sins—and might even be a compliment: the other eternally problematic composer who often came to mind was Richard Wagner, good company (on balance) for a visionary. “Harry Partch Legacy” made its case for adding Partch to the list of exalted musical troublemakers.


The place where Partch’s influence is still felt the strongest is in American microtonal music—both in technique and attitude. The latter traces its origins to Partch’s inimitable writing; Gann mused how Partch’s furious rhetorical style—combining “an overflow of recondite detail with an action-packed vernacular”—encouraged generations of American microtonalists to adopt the same anti-establishment, us-versus-the-world stance.

Issues of microtonal theory abounded, from the grand to the practical. Gann reminisced about programming Partch’s 11-limit diamond—overtones up to the 11th harmonic, arranged into Partch’s 43-note scale—into a synthesizer and then letting the intervals loop until they were in his ear. Partch’s system becomes a baseline, a catechism from which adherents can derive the confidence to venture into higher partials: 13th, 15th, 17th. Jon Wild, from McGill University, gave a highly technical presentation on ways to derive scales from a 13-limit version of Partch’s diamond, and then approximate those scales with multiples of a single ratio, analogous to mean-tone tuning. One wonders what Partch would have thought of the result—a tempered, transposable cousin of a Partch-like collection.

But there was also an undercurrent of tension, the technological distance between microtonal ideas and their realization. Even simple technology: Gann, at the outset, raised one of the great barriers to Partch scholarship, the sheer difficulty of deciphering and transcribing his tabulature-based scores. And how to move forward? Translate the scores into Ben Johnston’s microtonal notation, as Richard Kassel did in his critical edition of Partch’s Barstow? Some other system? Keep Partch’s notation, and supplement it with guides to the instruments? During a question and answer session, Gann tangentially—but tellingly—noted that his favorite tool for managing MIDI tuning (a program called Little Miss Scale Oven) was in danger of obsolescence, its creator wearying of having to update the software for ever-proliferating operating systems, an obsolescence that, Gann admitted, would leave him at a loss. At what point should the technology settle into a user-friendly if imperfect standard? It felt like a distant echo of the dilemmas that drove Partch into instrument construction, but also a brush with the danger of the development of the system and its tools becoming an end in itself.


Maybe inaccessibility and distance is part of the attraction of Partch, the appeal of unexplored territory. He is a self-made cult composer, one who practically ensured that an extra mile of pilgrimage and fealty would be required for in-depth engagement. Performing Partch’s music requires something akin to a rite of initiation. You need to develop the discipline to approach matters of temperament and tuning with something approaching Talmudic dissection. You need to decipher esoteric texts—the scores. You need access to the relics—the instruments, or (as composer Bradford Blackburn recounted in his presentation) you need to muster the devotion to build your own. Along with Partch documentarian Jon Roy, Philip Blackburn (no relation) presented a video exploring the backgrounds of the 1969 and 2007 productions of Delusion of the Fury, including interviews that made plain how unhappy Partch had been with the earlier production, and how unhappy Drummond had been with the latter. Blackburn compared those productions with the preparations for Kenneth Gaburo’s 1980 Berlin production of The Bewitched, the performers spending the first rehearsal on the floor, naked, psychologically readying themselves to embrace Partch’s concept of corporeality. “There’s a lot of inculcation and indoctrination that needs to happen,” Blackburn said.

As with Partch’s own pronouncements, corporeality was a concept much discussed if only (or, perhaps, because) loosely defined. Everyone agreed that it was a concept that increasingly guided Partch, shaping his musical development, his move toward larger extravaganzas and more driving rhythms. What exactly it was, though, seemed to hover just out of grasp. A level of engaged athleticism on the part of the musicians was part of it—more precisely, a level of noticeable athleticism, the instruments designed more and more so that the physicality of playing them became theatrically manifest—and, certainly, a responsibility of each performer to center the performance in the body, to energize the musical texture with an individual energy.

But, on the other hand, such corporeality, such individuality, could come into friction with the composer’s authority, and Partch was as tyrannical a composer as any, demanding loyalty to his instructions, even in extra-musical regards. Blackburn’s presentation had another prominent ritornello, Partch’s dismay at failures to strictly adhere to his vision on the part of collaborators in his later, large-scale music-dramas: The Bewitched, Revelation in the Courthouse Square, Delusion of the Fury. After hearing Blackburn recount Partch’s dressing-down of choreographer Alwin Nikolais over his work on the original staging of The Bewitched, I looked up Partch’s initial instructions to Nikolais, which turned out to be a scene-by-scene mulligan stew to test the range of any dancer: Imitation of Cantonese music hall; Eighteenth-century formality, with satiric twentieth-century expressionism in some parts; East Indian, with some tumbling; A formal solo, with modern dance farce at the end; and so on. Much of the list, like many of Partch’s libretti, could be read as a recapitulation of Partch’s early stylistic and cultural influences—Blackburn noted that Partch’s recruiting of members of the University of Illinois gymnastics team as extras for Revelation could be tied to the acrobats Partch would have seen in visits to Chinese opera performances in 1930s San Francisco—but also shows how Partch’s gesamtkunstwerk could strain at its margins, in a way destined to alienate specialists in other art forms.

Those large-scale works, with their purposefully mashed-up mythologies and symbols, also seem to be at odds with Partch’s call for narrative clarity, his criticism of “abstract” music. In his video interview, Drummond expressed doubt that much of Delusion—with its ying-yang, Noh-drama-plus-African-comedy plot at times expressed solely through dance and music—would be perceived by most listeners as anything but abstract. Partch’s decision to present the surreal events of The Bewitched (such as scene 5, “Visions Fill the Eyes of a Defeated Basketball Team in the Shower Room”: “Through their failure a basketball team becomes feminized, and as women, realize the triviality of the defeat, and begin to dance in praise of Hermes”) via a libretto made up entirely of nonsense syllables presents a similar barrier. The works almost try to communicate through sheer conviction alone, as if Partch’s belief in the power of such mythological vocabularies will somehow shine through and carry the audience past an abstract experience. They sometimes have the feel of a kind of reverse-chronology cargo cult: reenacting the rites, even in the absence of context or collective knowledge, will somehow recreate the original power. Video excerpts from the original production of Revelation did, at times, feel like a grand free-for-all, circuses from multiple eras thrown together for the thrill of it, but at the work’s big dramatic moments, Partch’s dramaturgy, both musical and theatrical, could turn defiantly conventional, standard, archetypal.

Still, that might just be a sign of how far we have to go to catch up with Partch. For all their frustrating, naïve grandeur, Partch’s seeming contradictions—individuality vs. authority, narrative vs. abstraction—nevertheless have a whiff of the Hegelian about them, a sensation that the friction results from a too-narrow field of view. It might be why, as his music evolved, he cast his net wider and wider.


In that regard, it was interesting that the best glimpse of the core of Partch’s aesthetic came at Wednesday night’s concert, a concert including only small-scale works by Partch, a concert that was, at least on paper, the least stereotypically Partch-like of the conference. The pieces by Partch himself were early works, in the intimate confines of Williams Hall—the menagerie of instruments stayed across the way—but, especially in contrast with the other works on the program, one could hear that Partch’s crucial concern had been there all along.

The two newer works both drew on and bypassed the Partch legacy. Manfred Stahnke’s Ansichten eines Käfers (“Views of a Beetle”) comprised six miniatures for guitar, selective de-tuning of the open strings and the equal-tempered fretboard negotiated into an approximation of sixth-tone microtonality. Despite the exotic intervals and a programmatic conceit that seemed to echo Partch’s multicultural fascinations—the beetle being given a Taiwanese wife, an Indonesian family, and an African drum teacher, bringing corresponding world-music touches into the musical discourse—both the piece and Robert Ward’s performance seemed more of an exercise, a study in generating such sounds rather than a compelling assemblage of them. Gann’s The Unnameable was more diverting, with Won-Hee An’s keyboard triggering just-intonation microtones in tandem with a pre-recorded, drum-machine nostalgic percussion track, barely moving harmonies nevertheless consistently looping around into distant relatives of prog-pop ♭VII-I cadences. The whole thing was both gently meditative and charged with the sinus-rattling buzz of its tuning scheme, something like a 13-limit retooling of the plagal serenity of Brian Eno’s early ambient albums.

But both were, in their own way, what you might call well-formed pieces, built around specifically musical structures: motives, progressions, forms. The transition to Partch’s own compositions was a little startling. A set of eight of the Seventeen Lyrics of Li-Po, Partch’s earliest surviving essay in speech-music, made the music seem almost defiantly subordinate, the soft-spoken microtonal inflections of John Schneider’s adapted viola so closely tailing his vocal intonations as to fade into shadow. In the Li-Po settings, or the December 1942 trio of songs (Schneider switching over to adapted guitar), or Partch’s Psalm 137 setting By the rivers of Babylon, the effect was so consistent that it was the places closest to traditional musical setting that seemed the most out of place: the falsetto evocation of the title instrument in the Li-Po “On Hearing the Flute in the Yellow Crane House,” the just-intonation analogue to major-minor contrasts in “The Rose” (the third of the December 1942 songs), the lamenting vocalise in the center of Babylon.

Schneider’s aim was to recreate the sound of Partch’s own early performances, when he would bring his microtonally modified viola and guitar to women’s clubs and artistically inclined salons. Schneider’s mastery of and comfort with the scores was evident, though his voice didn’t always have enough power to sell the dramatic intent. He was at his best in his reconstruction of the earliest, voice-and-adapted-guitar version of Barstow—settings of highway graffiti, probably the most famous of Partch’s hobo-inspired works—a milieu more congruent with Schneider’s understated, wry-troubadour mien.

But Barstow, too, stayed in the memory more as a collective experience than as any sequence of musical events. And that, I think, is what Partch was after for the rest of his life. The corporeality, the extravagant instruments, the ever-more-epic folkloric mash-ups: what they all have in common with those early pieces is the extent to which they go in constantly, inescapably keeping the audience aware that they are witnessing a performance, a rite, a ritual. The effort in bringing the music to life is not only made an inseparable part of the experience of it, it’s made paramount—which is why Partch guaranteed that the realization of the music would require more effort than most. It was, maybe, an echo of his days on the rails, the hobo’s pride in taking jobs that no one else would, the faith that the nature of the work was never as important as the simple fact of working.

New England’s Prospect: The Long, Long Trailer

Remember us in your wills, and enjoy the noise.

—Stephen Drury, SICPP artistic director, kicking off the 2012 Iditarod

Leave it to technology, that indifferent god, to make even John Cage seem sentimental. Cage’s Cartridge Music, which opened last Saturday’s final, marathon concert of the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), is classic Cagean find-the-beauty noise, but as Zachary Hale, Simon Hanes, Ariane Miyasaki, and electronic music faculty John Mallia scraped and caressed a table full of electrified phonograph needles and old stereo wiring, at least this pre-digital vintage listener felt a wave of nostalgia: the familiar, anticipatory scratches and pops preceding a record’s opening track, stretched out into their own blessed plot.

The SICPP's Cage Centennial t-shirt. Designed by Aaron Dana.

The SICPP’s Cage Centennial t-shirt. Designed by Aaron Dana.

As it happened, Cartridge Music was just about a proportional lead-in to the LP of the 2012 Iditarod, as the SICPP (“Sick Puppy”) finale has come to be called; this year’s trek clocked in at more than eleven hours—the longest since I’ve been going. As with the whole of this year’s Institute—taking over New England Conservatory for a week of workshops, masterclasses, and concerts (the first of which I reviewed here—Cage, in his centenary year, was a particular focus of the Iditarod (seven works), as was composer-in-residence Christian Wolff (six works). It seemed to give this Iditarod a more free-form, laid-back ambience than in years past.

Wolff’s music was a big part of that, a mix of old and new (from 1957’s Sonata for Three Pianos to 2000’s Berlin Exercises) all using his characteristic, loosely coordinated heterophony, centripetal motion restrained by a subterranean network of connections. The most compelling was 1993’s Merce, for eight percussionists under the direction of Scott Deal, in which an almost formal intrada evolves into scattered signaling between players, a rousing entrance to what proves a meditative game with mysterious rules. Berlin Exercises, its German text spoken and sung (by Sara Perez) while an instrumental septet comments, seemed to alternate between riffing on the Austro-German common-practice inheritance and pulling away its veneer to reveal an abyss. The inheritance echoed in other works, too: three of the Exercises (1973-74) (performed here by a trio of pianists—Aki Otake, Karl Larson, and David O’Dette—along with flutist Forrest Ransberg and violist Benjamin Wu) mixed prominent triadic arpeggios into its passed-around vocabulary; so did Tilbury Pieces, from 1970 (another three pianists—Ingrid Lee, Eugene Kim, and Monika Haar, along with harpist Adrienne Bassett), with its tonal echoes scattered throughout the score like recognizable bits of rubble; and the melodic cells passed around a mixed quartet in Pieces for Julius (1995) were almost Straussian. (Flutist Laura Cocks, Neil Godwin on horn, Ethan Wood on viola, and cellist Helen Newby made the rounds.)

Strauss himself turned up in George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, grandly blatant Also Sprach Zarathustra quotations boiled down to three players (Ransburg, Newby, and pianist Kathryn Norring). Given SICPP’s heavy contingent of percussion and piano—those instruments made up more than half of this year’s regular and guest faculty—Crumb, with his multitude of theatrical opportunities for those instruments, is one of the composers who turn up year after year, parallel-universe warhorses. (There were also a couple movements from Makrokosmos, Vol. III: Music for a Summer Evening, pianists Karl Larson and David O’Dette and percussionists Tyler Cameron Bragg and Jeffrey Kolega handling the stop-and-go scintillation; and book IV of the Madrigals, with soprano Farah Lewis fronting the finely etched opulence.)

Morton Feldman is another constant—this year, it was False Relationships and the Extended Ending, three pianos (Kristin Elgersma, Kathryn Norring, and Adrienne Varner), three instruments (violinist Charlotte Munn-Wood, cellist David Wasilko, and trombonist Christopher Moore) gently exhaling in response to Nick Tolle’s chimes. The Iditarod also has a more recent pattern of including a large-scale Steve Reich opus; on Saturday, it was one of Reich’s most genial, Drumming, with its third-act glockenspiel-and-whistling rolling in like a Wagnerian ice cream truck.

The Cage programming tilted early, with a deep selection of his music from the 1940s. She Is Asleep, from 1943, combined a percussion quartet (Evan Bowen, Bragg, Hale, and guest Jeffrey Means, one of a number of Callithumpian Consort ringers joining the student performers)—which, coming right after Drumming, sounded an awful lot like Reich in between phases—with a duet between Lewis and Shen Bing, rapping on the piano lid like a woodblock, circling through constricted but ever-more-decorated phrases. Forever and Sunsmell (1942) forewent the piano altogether, just Perez singing and Kolega and Cassandra McClellan drumming, a pentatonic ritual. Experiences I, for un-prepared pianos (Varner and Laura Ventemiglia), was also in that invented folklore vein, a kind of southwestern pavane. It was the prepared piano piece, part II of A Book of Music, that felt both the most abstract and the most cosmopolitan, its angled ostinati brittle, jazzy, Stravinskian, a flight of a bumblebee through a machine shop. (Performances throughout the Iditarod were never less than solid, but this one was a standout for me, Aaron Likness and Daniel Walden coursing through with effortless elegance.)

Crumb, Cage, Feldman, and Wolff made for a lot of quiet, sparse, long-spun chunks of experience. Composers in the SICPP New Works Program provided a measure of variety. Even those works that at least nominally could be grouped in with that quartet varied the diet—Daniel Lewis’s Things Were Heightened, for alto flute (Cocks), viola (Benjamin Wu), and bass (Anthony D’Amico), Feldman-like dovetailed whispers, but arranged less intuitively, more formally, deterministically; Ryan Krause’s Current Affairs, for clarinet (Amy Advocat) and tuba (Beth McDonald), Wolff-like in its approximate back-and-forth, but adapted into a more explicit, Ives-ish argumentative program; or Alex Pozniak’s Tower of Erosion, in which piano (Likness) and drums (Tolle) don’t so much duet as reinforce each other into a single instrument, like Crumb, if Crumb had a prog-rock sensibility.

There was neo-Romanticism, both Benjamin Irwin’s Strange Alchemy, an accomplished and polished mercurial, cadenza-like essay for violin (Ethan Wood) and piano (Elgersma), and Seunghee Lee’s Nostromo, for piano trio (violinist Stephanie Skor, cellist Michael Unterman, and pianist Tanya Blaich), a memorial for a Conrad-scholar uncle, appropriately grim, oracular, and lovely. Scott Scharf’s clairaudience, a long string of rocking dyads for voice (Lewis) and flute (Emily McPherson), was quietly obsessive; tress/burl, a sextet by Marek Poliks, played its obsessions loud, making its single point with the harsh, entertainingly maddening insistence of a conspiracy theorist.

Kevin Church’s …Poetically, Man Dwells… decorated slow-harmony lyricism with percussion effects (from Laura Jordan) and extended techniques (from Walden and bass clarinetist Medina). Robert Wolk’s Petrichor Will Pass Fireflies Virga by Blue Summer (Ransburg on flute, Christian Smith on vibraphone, glockenspiel, and gongs) tangled its lyricism into an atonal blur. That combination—solo instrument plus percussion—was a popular one: there was also Jason Huffman’s Ear, Nose and Throat, for clarinet (Rane Moore) and percussion (Sean Dowgray) worked in tight, efficient, deliberately limited vocabularies; Haley Shaw’s Diva, for flute (Leia Slosburg) and percussion duo (David Tarantino and Chia-Ying Wu), felt more like a free-range catalog of found sounds, metallic scrapes, drumhead growls, and a two-woodblock simulacrum of a Dr. Beat metronome. D. Edward Davis made room for electronics—the slowed down warble of an ultrasonic deer repellant—among violin (Kaitlin Moreno), viola (Karina Fox), and cello (Benjamin Schwartz) in deer, a study in soft keeining. And Sid Richardson’s Synergie seemed to try it all, tied together timbrally (Munn-Wood’s violin and Wasilko’s cello matched by Phillipp Stäudlin’s soprano sax) but seeming to change styles and even eras as if via remote control. (Nicholas Vines, director of the New Works Program, was represented by two movements from his guitar suite Les Effaceurs, a razor-wire collection of prepared guitar bells, scurrying runs, and virtuosic excursions that guitarist Maarten Stragier realized with uncanny ease.)

SICPP’s Electonic Workshop produced new works of its own: Digital Landscapes (Études for the Internet), a separate-room installation by Elizabeth Aubert (which I missed, stupidly, leaving it until later in the evening, forgetting that Iditarod intermissions gradually shrink as the marathon wears on); Ariane Miyasaki’s The House My Grandfather Built, for violin (Wood), percussion (Means), and electronics, which flipped the usual instrument/computer relationship on its head, Miyasaki beginning with recorded, ambient nature sounds which the live instruments then pushed into something more mechanical and manufactured; and a terrific collaborative effort, Dead Ringers, with Hale on percussion and McClellan on handbells, their sounds processed and recombined by Miyasaki and Simon Hanes, each layer of sound transformed into a backdrop for a subsequent idea, like infinite, ringing mirrors within mirrors.

Hanes’s solo piece was the evening’s most unapologetic nod to performance art: the punningly titled I Reckon, in which Hanes wired an acoustic guitar for high-gain quadrophonic amplification, then proceeded to destroy it, crunching and cracking and snapping strings in surround sound close-up. As music, it was hit-and-miss; as theater, it was grand. (It’s hard to go wrong with a performance that begins with the performer donning safety goggles.) Electronic music performance can sometimes feel like eavesdropping on Mission Control, but Hanes worked his laptops with the showy flair of a 19th-century virtuoso, also teaming with Hale on percussion for Per Bloland’s Solis-EA, a combination of gongs, real-time processing, and some nice old-school synth sounds. (“Tangerine Dream run down by a train,” my notes say.)

And what else? Linda Dusman’s aphoristic Magnificat 1 (with flutist Cocks, clarinetist Medina, and marimbist Bowen, in a more decorous version of Crumb’s extended technique constellations); Lee Hyla’s brooding, jazzy Neruda setting House of Flowers (mezzo P. Lucy McVeigh, with Benjamin Irwin, this time as clarinetist, D’Amico on bass, and pianist Sid Samberg); a pair of works by John Zorn (the fiercely bouncy Music for Children, Moreno, Kim and Smith in grim hijinks; and Amour fou, which, the best efforts of Skor, Schwartz, and Haar and a dollop of ’70s soundtrack notwithstanding, wore out its welcome, the sort of piece that spends two minutes showing you around the room and fifteen minutes looking for the exit.) Luciano Berio’s piano-percussion quartet Linea (pianists Bing and Otake, percussionists Jordan and Wu) kicked off the seventh and final section of the concert, starting off in Wolff’s lair—fluctuating subdivisions and in-and-out ensemble—before moving into Berio’s more customary fistfuls of exuberance.

Is that everything? The SICPP Iditarod might be a challenge more of tabulation than endurance. Because, in the end, eleven hours wasn’t all that bad—the sheer bulk of time encouraging a get-comfortable attitude that made every piece feel a little more generous than it might on a regular concert. (Though I would not be surprised if logistics forced a change in the schedule for next year—throughout most of the last two hours, farewells could be observed in between pieces, as students were forced to catch planes and trains.) Well into Sunday morning came the finale, Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Samberg at the keyboard and McVeigh taking the clock-hands place on the podium, with the simultaneous addition of Cage’s Aria (a terrific, committedly absurd rendition by Perez), like a hidden track tucked away at the end of side two. In a way, it’s preaching to the choir—SICPP and its audience is, by definition, a like-minded bunch on at least a basic musical level. But, as in Cage’s music, and Wolff’s music, and the Iditarod itself, it’s the chaos of agreement that’s so much fun.

New England’s Prospect: Yard Work

Image courtesy Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Image courtesy Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng,
And with blessings surrender thee o’er
By these festival rites, from the age that is past,
To the age that is waiting before.

Harvard University is inextricably associated with the Boston Area, yet is also just a bit oblique to it, like a secular Vatican City maintaining its sovereignty within a Hub version of Rome. The musical orthodoxies it hands down at a roughly generational pace, too, manage to track compositional trends while still standing apart from them, be it the idiosyncratically academic modernism of Mario Davidovsky et al.; or the European-designed but American-built neo-Classicism passed on from Walter Piston to a clutch of unusually gifted students; or the common-practice-in-excelsis scrupulousness of Archibald T. Davison, the traditional proprieties given a particularly Crimsonian refinement.

The latest school spirit, to judge from the May 12 Fromm Concert featuring the work of Harvard graduate student composers, is noise, the sound at the boundary between musical pitch and the physical effort needed to produce it. The composer biographies in the program book included mentions of “the spectrum of dynamics, movements, and contradictive forces” and “tactile sound” and “underlying impulses in the grain of everyday events” and “the microscopic but violent space between a finger and a string,” among other evocations; all six works on the program spun variations on that theme. (It’s a stylistic proclivity that can be heard in the music of current composition faculty: Chaya Czernowin—whom Frank J. Oteri interviewed for this magazine last year—and Hans Tutschku, who helped curate the Sound in SPACE festival I reviewed last November.)

Harvard being its affluent self, the performers were not students, but rather a nine-person delegation of the excellent Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik. (Because of a schedule conflict—see below—the group was kind enough to let me listen to their dress rehearsal on Saturday afternoon.) Being a former graduate composition student who can still not-so-fondly remember mad scrambles for sometimes unenthusiastic players, I indulged in some well-earned envy, and had fun imagining a crack professional new music ensemble being tasked with the sort of thrown-together sorts of things I recalled composition students being liable to produce when faced with a deadline.

And, by gum, someone was willing to make that image real, in the guise of Ian Power’s “For every human being who looks up at the moon will know”—a defiantly odd combination of sound sketchbook and spoken-word performance art. The text drew on political speechmaking about the American space program in the 1960s—from JFK’s “put a man on the moon” provocation to the alternate-draft statement prepared for Richard Nixon just in case Neil and Buzz didn’t make it back. The players switched between reading out these excerpts and providing them with a somewhat severe, stop-and-go underscore, starting with a spectral-ish deconstruction of a single note and building from there.

In actuality, the piece didn’t work terribly well—it was hard to hear the text, the musical content wasn’t compelling enough to stand on its own, and the recitation never really amplified the weird poetry of either boilerplate political rhetoric or—in the streams of budgetary numbers and timetables—bureaucratese at its most potent. Still, there were a couple of memorable sections: at one point, pianist Benjamin Kobler broke into rolling octaves of Romantic bravado as clarinetist Carl Rosman upped the ante from recitation to some pretty good sung, faux-operatic grandeur; that section was followed by a nifty bit of undulating sprechstimme, the entire ensemble sending off the Apollo astronauts with comically spooky glissando voices. If, in the end, the piece came off as something between a first draft and a lark, those moments at least made one hopeful for a revision.

The rest of the pieces were certainly accomplished, if less gonzo. Justin Hoke’s Pantomime-Aria was an edge-of-audibility exercise (breath sounds, key clicks, the rustle of bow hair) which attractively settled into hints of very faraway grooves. Timothy McCormack’s Nous-Apparatus was the sonic opposite: dense, loud, and harsh, thick, glinting layers bleeding into one another. The sound was great, like living inside a giant, creaky hinge; but the piece went on far too long.

Sivan Cohen-Elias’s Where Is There—mini creature no. I was the most front-and-center with the physicality of performance, using both sound (Kobler and percussionist Dirk Rothbrust working the resonant thunk of piano and vibraphone pedals, respectively, for instance) and choreography (the players all prescribed with stiff, jerky movements—conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov included—an animatronic layer of visual form added to the music). Covering the vibraphone with bubble wrap proved a mostly visual effect as well, despite the amplification of every sound. Sabrina Schroeder’s Spuler combined sparseness with a kind of grim, almost drone-ish atmosphere (here, Kobler and Rothbrust kept piano strings and drums in continuous buzz using pen-sized vibrators) and the result was harsh and meditative at the same time. And both Where Is There and Spuler displayed the virtue of a sure sense of timing, both in their unfolding and their confidently compact dimensions.

Given the similarities in idea and sound world—Hoke, Cohen-Elias, and Schroeder all used slow bowed-near-the-bridge string glissandi to signal formal boundaries at one point or another, and the soft-noise aesthetic was so prevalent that I swear flutist Helen Bledsoe ended up producing more puffs and whistles and key-clicks than actual notes—it was indicative of the composers’ talent and technique that their personalities remained at least somewhat distinct. The finale, Edgar Barroso’s Over-Proximity, worked the far ends of the room: saturated, boisterous bustle, keyed by Bruce Collings’s trombone and Christine Chapman’s horn, giving way to the familiar desaturated rustles, empty air, barely there sounds, Rothbrust tickling the snares of his drum (the piece verged on a mini-concerto for snare drum) while Kobler ran a credit card up and down the keys. Barroso seemed to gather up the concert’s strands into a single, all-or-nothing shebang.


While musikFabrik was abetting the latest generation of Harvard students, the Cantata Singers and director David Hoose were at Jordan Hall, saluting an older Harvard cohort and their musical progeny, composers fueled, directly or indirectly, by Walter Piston’s years of tutelage. Like most such categorizations, the exact roster of the resulting “Boston School” was always a little bit vague—still, the general outlines of the style remain recognizable: an essentially triadic harmony bouncing through chromatic blocks of keys, a taut, jazzy-but-not-jazz rhythmic sense, a Stravinskian neo-Classicism pared down into something a little more immediately exoteric.

It wasn’t the only kind of music going on in Boston at the time, but it was, perhaps, the music that best matched the city’s cultural reputation, the sort of thing summed up as early as 1726, in the words of minister (and witch-hunter) Cotton Mather, Harvard class of 1678:

There is a way of writing wherein the author endeavors that the reader may have something to the purpose in every paragraph. There is not only a vigor sensible in every sentence, but the paragraph is embellished with profitable references, even to something beyond what is directly spoken. Formal and painful quotations are not studied, yet all that could be learnt from them is insinuated.

For sure, the concert’s most pure expression of the Boston School, Harold Shapero’s 1941 Sonata for Piano Four Hands, written while the composer was himself a Harvard undergraduate, fit Mather’s recommendations to a tee. Shapero out-Stravinskys Stravinsky and out-Coplands Copland, but still throws in enough precise quirks of harmony and rhythm to make the Sonata sound less like an imitation and more like a piquantly clear distillation of the various and sometimes competing energies of modernism, populism, and intellectualism swirling about at the time. (The performance, by David Kopp and Rodney Lister, was superbly sympathetic, though more genial than driving. Shapero, 92, was there to receive enthusiastic applause.)

The bulk of the program was, of course, choral music, and most of it, not surprisingly, sounded great—the basis of the Boston School, even among those second- and third-generation adherents with increasingly indirect connections to Harvard, was always the Harvard style, and the Harvard style always had a substantial choral foundation. (A. T. Davison, after all, was also the director of the Glee Club.) The concert opened with Charles Fussell’s 1996 Invocation, arranged by Hoose for chorus and two pianos (Kopp and Lister again). Setting a May Sarton poem, Fussell’s music was tonally rich but also crisp, Romanticism with the excess burned away. Florid textures in the accompaniment were always quickly subsumed into choral straightforwardness; full-harmony drama was frequently translated into more austere two-part counterpoint, shifting trenchantly between major and minor intervals. Lister’s own W. H. Auden setting, The Annunciation, had a similar harmonic cast, making efficient use of the implications of enharmonic changes from sharps to flats, a venerable trick in the British pastoral tradition (Holst was a master of it), but here filed into sharper angles. The result was lean, lithe, and exceptionally lovely.

Two works by Earl Kim, the late Harvard professor, leaned to both sides of the tricky line his music often walked. The basis of Kim’s harmonic language was even more unabashedly Romantic and old-fashioned, but in the best of his works, his meditative intensity could transform the old tropes into something startlingly unfamiliar. Some Thoughts on Keats and Coleridge, an a capella anthology dating from 1990, rather erred on the side of pastiche (though very skillful pastiche, in an Elgar/Finzi manner); it was only in the final movement, a fragment of Keats’s “To Autumn,” that Kim’s own quirkiness began to peek through, the altos rocking sweetly and ominously between ti and do in the midst of the gnats “bourne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies,” the chorus reprising the entire movement, and then circling around for another pass at its opening.

It was the other piece, Scenes from a Movie, Part 3: The Twenty-Sixth Dream, that presented Kim at his most characteristic. Composed in 1995, the work sets a long Rilke story for baritone (Mark-Andrew Cleveland), chorus, and piano duo in a lush, peripatetic style, a kind of continuous arioso in which flowing melody is constantly undermined by quick shifts of harmony, elegant and disconnected at the same time. Kim was drawing not only on 19th-century practice, but the translation of that practice into golden-age Hollywood; but the emotive gestures of film scoring are boiled down to the point where the straighforwardness of the emotional signaling is itself artifice, a distant theatrical relative of the way the phrase “to be perfectly frank” is a sure sign that what’s to follow will hardly be frank at all. It’s mysterious, a little bit silly, a little bit unsettling, a prime late example of Kim’s love-it-or-hate-it musical dramaturgy. Me, I love it—and the performance was superb.

The concert closed with Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, that composer’s only extended a cappella work, written for Harvard to boot. (It was specially commissioned for a conference on music criticism, of all things.) Both mezzo-soprano soloist Janna Baty (who sounded somewhat under the weather, but still communicated the music’s exhortatory mien) and the chorus gave their full-blooded all—and nothing fires up Hoose like an interpretive challenge—but, in the end, In the Beginning is a piece mannered in its formality, the clanging, oracular harmonies never quite ringing the way they naturally would on a piano or in an orchestra. In the Beginning might be most successful as an object lesson for a foolproof if impractical method of ensuring a long life for a piece of middling choral music: 1) be a world-famous composer, and 2) compose little if any other music for choir. Translating the style was better left to the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Fine—probably not coincidentally, Harvard men both. Old Archibald Davison would be proud.

New England’s Prospect: Echolocation

Burr Van Nostrand’s Voyage in a White Building I

Lautaro Mantilla (speaker) and Andy Fordyce (drums) performing Burr Van Nostrand’s Voyage in a White Building I, April 22, 2012.

The trope of the Forgotten-and-Rediscovered Genius is a powerful one in American culture, sitting, as it does, at the intersection of Rugged Individualism and Democratic Validation. It also, quite often, enables the typically (though most definitely not exclusively) American pattern of an artist’s biographical narrative eclipsing the actual worth of their art. But the April 22 concert of music by Burr Van Nostrand in New England Conservatory’s Brown Hall didn’t include any explanation as to why Nostrand hadn’t composed any music since the early ’90s, nor why the music he had composed had lain unperformed for the same amount of time. Which was really something of a gift: this was music that simply seemed to reappear, pristine, unencumbered by the accumulated residue of a zigzag career.

And it was pristine, in its way—a time capsule so perfectly preserved that its intrusion into the 21st century could make an unusually sharp mark. Van Nostrand, a maestro of aleatory and graphic notation, made waves as a master’s student at NEC in the late ’60s and early ’70s, then moved to California, where only a handful of further pieces emerged over another couple of decades. Jason Belcher, an NEC grad composer, heard a tape of Van Nostrand’s Voyage from a White Building I and was, as he put it, “wonderfully freaked out,” which led to him retrieving other scores from the American Composers Alliance’s archives and organizing this concert.

Each half of the program paired a shorter solo work with a more extended ensemble piece. Phaedra Antomines, a violin solo from 1968, started off by laying out, piece by piece, a familiar box of extended techniques: bowing behind the bridge, rapping on the soundboard, and so forth. But the music instead settled into a half-remembered version of the ersatz-Gypsy fiddling so favored by Romantic virtuosi, the swooning double-stops, the fusillades of left-hand pizzicato, here woozy with glissando and growling, heavy bow pressure: the historical gears sticking on their own rust. (Violinist Tara Mueller gave an excellent account, her casual mien belying a wholehearted technical absorption.)

If Phaedra Antomines was selective in its sound-world, Van Nostrand’s Fantasy Manual for Urban Survival, from 1972, was encyclopedic. Over a long, five-movement arc, flute (Lisa Husseini), cello (Jason Coleman), and prepared piano (Alex Zhu) cataloged variations: individual sonorities were collected into lists, recombined and redistributed among the instruments, or else repeated into jagged ostinato patterns that, perhaps, bowed toward early minimalism before vanishing in swirls of harmonics, bow hair, and buzzing piano strings. The fourth movement had Husseini and Coleman trading sprechstimme as well, a setting of Frederich Hölderlin’s “Hälfte des Lebens,” a looking-at-summer-and-imagining-winter bit of Romantic brooding. That was the mood, overcast and rustling. The piece, at times, seemed to retreat into private rumination; it certainly ran the temporal gamut, from initially going by too fast, to stretching into protraction, to feeling too long, to feeling just long enough.

Van Nostrand’s TUBA-TUBA (1973), which opened the second half, shifted the proceedings from theatricality into Fluxus-style silliness. Tubist Beth McDonald played sonorous phrases, but also rattled the instrument’s keys in comic determination, obsessively polished its metal, used its capacious bore to filter a flight attendant’s indications of geographically impossible out-window sights, and finished by turning it into an unlikely version of a magician’s hat. It was more funny than not, though its comedy felt almost decadently slight.

The performance-art japes of TUBA-TUBA set up the vocabulary of Voyage in a White Building I, but didn’t really prepare one for its impact. Dating from 1969, Voyage is big in every way: a setting of Hart Crane’s “Voyages I” for speaker and an ensemble of 19 players (conducted/refereed by Anthony Coleman), some amplified, some not, stretching over some 25 minutes. It is wild, goofy, fierce, impulsive, fully entertaining ambitions to both iconoclasm and grandeur. And it is brilliant—a swarmingly disorienting experience, a piece of the Vietnam-era post-serial avant-garde that actually delivers on its radical, politically charged promise.

Crane’s text is cut up into its constituent sounds, broken down to the edge of intelligibility; speaker Lautaro Mantilla, his performance an absolute tour de force, donned Walter Cronkite horn rims and tie, only to render the text as an unbroken cadenza of giggles, screams, and gasps, half-toddler, half-madman. The poem, a dense, florid warning to children the poet sees playing on the beach, becomes unwitting commentary on the era of protests and happenings; the graphic score, aleatoric in pitch and rhythm but in may other ways fanatically detailed, sometimes goads the text on, sometimes is a story the speaker is reporting. The amplification connects with pop and rock, though often in a critical way: Crane’s description of the children crumbling “fragments of baked weed / Gaily digging and scattering” gave way to a trio of saxophone (Derek Beckvold), electric guitar (Andrew Clinkman), and drums (Andy Fordyce)—a rock group, but, in this instance, one that has lost the beat, that can’t agree, scribbles of noise splayed out. As Crane’s poem directly addressed “you brilliant kids,” Beckvold and Husseini rolled in with the sound of sirens, advice in the form of coercion. After a final explosion of violence, a sitar (Sonny Lalchandani) serenely twanged as the rest of the ensemble descended into heavy, gray rumbles, countercultural fiddling while the city is reduced to ash.

On the one hand, Voyage in a White Building I is very much a period piece. But there’s plenty in it that feels all too contemporary: the generational divide, the glut of simultaneous experience, the underlying information atomized and amplified into sensational nonsense. It’s like landing on a world that seems vaguely familiar, only to realize, Charlton-Heston-style, that we maniacs blew it up after all, even if the explosion came in extreme slow-motion. Van Nostrand, slight and smiling, basked in the applause with the curious happiness of a jester who, unexpectedly, finds that he has become a bit of a prophet.

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.

Sounds Heard: Curtis K. Hughes—Danger Garden

Curtis K. Hughes has been a fixture of the Boston-area new music scene for over a decade. He’s taught at Boston Conservatory, MIT, and NEC. He’s been responsible for fascinating local concert series. But above all, he has composed a unique body of works which demonstrates both the depth of his listening and his ability to synthesize an extremely wide range of influences into an extremely personal and deeply moving sound world.

Danger Garden (2006), the composition which opens a new disc devoted to Hughes’s music and also lends its name to the CD’s title, is an extraordinary aural rendering of the zeitgeist, an era offering more opportunities than any other heretofore albeit at the risk of information overload and attention deficit. The first movement (“excitedly burgeoning”) begins with a confrontational freneticism reminiscent of some of Michael Gordon’s early pieces, but within thirty seconds it completely morphs into something very different. While in the ensuing minute it clearly suggests what was once-upon-a-time the official sonic vocabulary of contemporary music (the piece is even scored for the ubiquitous Pierrot plus percussion configuration), it also hints at free jazz in its not-so-careful interplay of solo lines, each one seeming to vie for center stage. Then a gong is struck that seems to come straight out of Peking Opera, but it’s in a context that has nothing to do with Chinese music. From time to time thereafter it returns to its initial stance of aggressive post-minimalism, but it never quite allows you to get comfortable even with a regular dose of discomfort. A seeming calm ushers in the second movement, despite percussive eruptions filled with quiet desperation. Hughes has appropriately titled the movement “with repressed intensity.” Halfway through, however, the percussion takes over and propels the music forward with an insistent rock groove. But, similarly to the way that the Peking opera gong came totally out of context, the music that groove is supporting has nothing to do with rock. Then a couple of minutes before the piece ends, the other instruments gradually find grooves as well that not only evoke rock but also disco and other dance music. But don’t assume it ever becomes steady-state; Hughes’s aesthetic is too restless for that. It’s a totalism for the 21st century and it’s arguably an even more inclusive melding of styles than the kinds of pieces that have been seeping out of New York City and Los Angeles since the early 1990s. That such a style feels natural and effortless might be the best proof yet that the paradigms of web browsing and channel surfing have become internalized for many of us.

That said, in contrast, Myopia 2 (2003) comes across as far less schizophrenic. In part that’s because of its timbral homogeneity, because beneath its immediate surface it too is constantly changing textures by stratifying ranges and contrasting the density of instruments used at any given point. The work is scored for an ensemble of 12 saxophones evenly parsed with three each of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone. (The overall impact of such an ensemble is quite different from the trio of clarinet, viola and cello that was brought together for Hughes’s earlier Myopia 1 (2001), a work which appears on Hughes’s previous portrait CD released in 2003, Avoidance Tactics.) If the saxophone quartet is something of a contemporary wind parallel to the string quartet (both of which ensembles Hughes also put to great use in compositions featured on Avoidance Tactics), this larger amalgam of saxophones functions somewhat like a string orchestra. While individual voices jump out of the thicket from time to time, this ensemble is at its most exciting when all twelve players sound in tandem.

National Insecurity explores what is perhaps the most heterogeneous instrumentation herein—flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, vibraphone, violin, cello, and bass. It is strikingly similar to the ensemble that Eric Dolphy assembled for his final American studio date as a leader (which resulted in Out To Lunch), wherein Dolphy’s multi-winds (including flute and bass clarinet) are accompanied by trumpet, vibes, bass and drums. But while the sonorities occasionally echo that landmark Blue Note album, the music that Hughes fashions for this group is by far the least jazz-like music on the present collection. Composed in 2002, and according to Hughes’s extensive notes on his website inspired by the “anxiety and uncertainty of the time and place it was written in,” despite his “aversion to writing music that purports to carry any sort of political message,” National Insecurity evokes the general malaise of our collective consciousness as we progressed from fear and shock to knee-jerk jingoism in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The concluding measures of the piece, which Hughes has described as “a ghastly passage of pure parallel motion (‘united we stand’), a final confrontation and a disintegration” capture that strange time—now a full ten years into the past—far more viscerally than words ever can.

Sandwiched between these three instrumental pieces, nevertheless, are two very effective vocal works, the two volumes of The Beck Journals composed in 2005 and 2006 for a group of four singers and a solo soprano respectively. Never resorting to lyricism, Hughes finds an alternative path to crystalline prosody in the settings of entries from the journals of the figurative painter Rosemarie Beck (1923-2003) who attempted to carve a place for herself in the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1950s. A memorable precedent for Hughes’s approach to text setting is the kind of melodic shard Charles Dodge created back in the 1970s around the poetry of Mark Strand. But Dodge was writing for music performed by a computer made to sing. An amazing feat no doubt. But the fact that Hughes can get a similarly crisp accuracy from real singers in real time is an equally formidable accomplishment, one that is further enhanced by the stellar performances of the singers, in particular soprano Jennifer Ashe who navigates the second volume, with the assured instrumental accompaniment of the Firebird Ensemble who shine throughout the entire disc.

Simultaneous with the release of this CD of chamber music is the release of Hughes’s 2009 chamber opera Say It Ain’t So, Joe (available both on Amazon and from iTunes.) It’s an entertaining and irreverent take on the 2008 Vice Presidential debate in which the singer portraying Joe Biden also appears briefly as another Joe, the Plumber. ‘Tis the season.

New England’s Prospect: Alma Mater Studiorum

Full disclosure: Edward Cohen once gave me a job. This does not make me particularly special, actually. The number of grad and post-grad composers and pianists who have made rent teaching keyboard harmony in MIT’s room 4-070—a grid of digital pianos, tucked in a corner of the basement of Building 4, down a long hallway of fabrication labs—is not small. When I signed on, several careers ago, Cohen, longtime MIT senior lecturer (and before that, longtime faculty member at Brandeis), was the gatekeeper.

Edward Cohen

Edward Cohen

Cohen died ten years ago, at the age of 61, composing right up until the end—having, it was reported, outfitted his hospital room with an electric piano. In the intervening decade, opportunities to hear the results have been rare, so the February 18 memorial concert presented by MIT and the Radius Ensemble was not only an appropriate commemoration, but at least a small correction as well.

The concert wasn’t only Cohen’s music. There was a 2009 piano trio, Echo, by Cohen’s widow, Marjorie Merryman—a deceptively simple remembrance, E-D-C motives woven into lots of lyrical octave violin-cello lines punctuated by pianistic comment, but the music sneaks up on you; by the time it winds down into its unorthodox horn-call cadence (think Monk playing Les Adieux, an apt evocation of Cohen’s redoubtable jazz piano skills), Echo achieves unassuming, captivating poise. (Violinist Charles Dimmick, cellist Miriam Bolkosky, and pianist Sarah Bob gave the music a clear account.)

There was also a commissioned premiere, MIT alumnus Andrew McPherson’s After the Rains, for mixed sextet (flutist Sarah Brady, clarinetist Rane Moore, and percussionist Aaron Trant joining the trio’s players). The title and the piece are a take-off on Cohen’s own Acid Rain, for percussion ensemble, in which Cohen ventured into minimalist waters in his own idiosyncratic way. After the Rains wasn’t very minimalistic, but rather aimed for long builds and splashes of color. The trajectory had a stronger profile than the melodic material; everything ended up sounding like the introduction for a big theme that never quite materialized.

But it was Cohen’s compositions that provided the program’s impetus and lion’s share: a Suite for solo flute, a Capriccio for solo piano, and one of his major statements, his Quintet for Clarinet and Strings.

Cohen’s music has not traveled much beyond Cambridge. (Only two of his works—Acid Rain and the Clarinet Quintet—are available on recordings; I never heard any of his music until I moved east.) That it is not better known is both a crime and frustratingly understandable. The music, plausibly (but also misleadingly) characterized as academic, is not flashy or easily packaged—even his deep knowledge of jazz tends to be sensed only fleetingly, indirectly. As the euphemism goes, it requires close listening. But that close listening is constantly, generously rewarded.

He was a virtuoso of the varied repeat, rotating short motives into illusions of depth and dimension. The first movement of the Clarinet Quintet revels in such tiny shifts of intervallic demeanor, gently curt phrases that turn unexpected corners. Towards the end of the movement, the clarinet reassembles all the motives into a single, long, angular line, a seeming culmination, But no, it’s merely the end of a long development, and a brief recapitulation of the opening rounds the essay off with disorienting grace. To pull off such Haydnesque misdirection in a fully chromatic context takes real technique; Cohen made it seem easy. (The performance, with Dimmick and Bolkosky joined by clarinetist Eran Egozy, violinist Katherine Winterstein, and violist Noriko Herndon, was a little rough around the edges but captured the music’s sustained, long arc.)

The programmed pieces showed a penchant for non-sequitur endings that nevertheless recast everything that’s come before. (A Poulenc-esque token of his Francophilia, perhaps.) The Flute Suite (played by Brady) has a barbed “Finale” that slowly winds down, only to finish in a whiffling burst of notes, the tape suddenly spinning in furious rewind. The Capriccio (Sarah Bob giving the evening’s most confident and fluid performance) turns suddenly oracular in its last bars, the wit giving way to a serious backbone; something similar happens in the Quintet’s second movement, a scherzo that dissolves into a slow, muted finish, the melancholy lurking behind the joke.

The essence of Cohen’s craft is, I think, staying just one step ahead of the listener. The Suite works a daisy-chain of ideas: an increasingly complex compound melody in the Prelude sets up the monophonic counterpoint of the Fugue; the fugue subject’s two-note, stepwise motive turns into a hangdog glissando in the Pastorale. But as soon as the listener begins to perceive that movement-to-movement process, the music moves away from it to a counterpoint of mood; the “Song” turns out to be an ersatz fife tune that dissolves into dissonant qualifiers, the “Finale” sums everything up with oblique contrast. The closing Andante of the Clarinet Quintet works this vein, too, seeming to set up a sharp dialogue between contrasting materials—consonant-but-disjunct vs. dissonant-but-smooth—but again, as soon as the rules of the game become perceptible, the game changes, the boundaries begin to blur, the harmonies turn rich and ambiguous.

It would be a pity if such music only turned up on periodic memorials like this one. But composers, through their work, get to leave their own monuments, and Cohen’s music is a discriminating bequest—smart, dry of wit, precise about even modest moods, not afraid to be oblique and understated, but, then again, not afraid to be suddenly exquisite, either. Nice work if you can get it, really.


On February 28, Alvin Curran gave the annual Louis C. Elson lecture at Harvard University, a talk called “The New Common Practice—A Life in Unpopular Music.” Curran is a composer of compulsive eclecticism, and his talk was largely a celebration of that; “The New Common Practice,” an idea he has been playing with since 1994 (and which Benjamin Piekut explored on this site back in 2004). If the old common practice, the system of tonality and counterpoint and form bequeathed by the last millennium’s European tradition, represents “the entrenched models of the past,” as Curran put it, his ideal new common practice is an exuberant anarchism—”no common practice,” the field of musical research expanding to include “walls of noise and… its near-total absence,” the boundaries between high and low “all but wiped out.”

On the one hand, the “growing omnidirectionality” of music Curran sensed back in 1994 has only accelerated, the explosion of digital information and access shrinking distance (both geographical and temporal), flattening hierarchies. (In digital fashion, Curran dropped long lists into his talk like drum breaks, not only the contradictory census of styles and tendencies that opened his original 1994 essay, but also similarly catholic tallies of qualities and composers, like reveling in the streaming results of a broad, general web search.) But there was a kind of cheerful tension between that and Curran’s acknowledgement of his own personal history as a practical source. He opened by recognizing his indirect Harvard connections, from teachers (Elliott Carter, Harvard ’32) and partners-in-crime (Frederic Rzewski, Harvard ’58), to visits—Curran told of playing at Harvard Stadium as part of the Brown University Band then having the Harvard Band impress him as a horde of “spectral Vikings.”

Curran opened with a curio, a recording of him playing trombone in the 1958 edition of The Brunotes, a Brown dixieland group. “Essentially, you have everything right there,” he joked, “I’ve been making that sort of music ever since.” Or maybe he wasn’t joking: he followed with an excerpt from Erat Verbum John, an electronic fantasy on a recording of John Cage laughing (as brilliant a concept as I’ve run into lately), and, in the context, it did sound a lot like Dixieland: a snippet of laugh looped into a little trap-set pattern, another snippet sped up to a clarinet-like squeal, another snippet slowed down and sliding around the bass like a trombone.

The longest excerpt Curran played was a series of video clips from his 2006 Oh Brass on the Grass Alas, a grand, outdoor fantasia for multiple marching bands, moving all the way from aleatoric, process-driven clusters and wandering field formations to a final, Ivesian use of Bach’s “Es ist genug” chorale—as giddy an example imaginable of the “theme park” aspect Curran posits as part of the New Common Practice. It hearkened back to Curran’s own college day memories; it also emphasized the political thinking behind much of his music. At its premiere, at the Donaueschinger Musiktage, it was played by a host of local, amateur bands: not only breaching the walls of the professional festival, but bringing together groups that “normally only play against each other” in competitions, Curran pointed out. “It was a social and political success.”

In every piece Curran played, one could sense a discipline, an order that kept the seeming chaos from turning truly and boringly chaotic. It’s the relationship between form and rhetoric; no matter the sound-world—minimalist or maximalist, melodic or noisy, instrumentally compact or musique-concrète anything-goes—you always know at any given moment whether the music is on its way somewhere or already arrived. Where does that skill come from? Can you develop it without a grounding in some sort of common practice? The question provocatively percolated beneath the manifesto. At one point, Curran spoke of “the endless remix of all time and space—the fusion of memory and amnesia.” Do you keep all of musical history in play, or let the contradictory forces cancel each other, and everything, out? Curran would probably say “both” and then generate an idea for a piece from it.

It’s captivating to surrender to Curran’s creativity, his enthusiasm—and frankly, his ear for sheer beauty. But I also still had Ed Cohen’s exacting consistency in my ear. Curran’s music was, on the surface, the opposite of Cohen’s, but the effectiveness of both composers’ works springs from their relationship to the common practice, to rules, to limitations: Cohen was exhilarated by the challenge of staying within boundaries, Curran is exhilarated by tossing them aside.

Elson's Pocket Music Doctionary

There was one final irony, left unspoken. Louis C. Elson, the lecture’s namesake, was a codifier of the common practice, the author of Elson’s Pocket Music Dictionary. (“For practical and immediate use in the class-room,” Elson wrote of his effort, “I believe that the little volume will be found sufficient to the needs of the teacher.”) Elson also had a regular column in The Etude, answering readers’ questions about music; the first of the columns (from the May 1910 issue) had a question on that eternal bane of common-practice voice-leading students—parallel fifths. “[G]reat composers use them when desired,” Elson allowed. “Puccini has a whole series of them in the beginning of the third act of ‘La Boheme.’ But the young composer will do well to avoid them, at least until he has won as much fame as Puccini.”

New England’s Prospect: Storyboarding

New music seemed to explode out of the ground around Boston in the beginning of February like the tripods in the Spielberg remake of War of the Worlds. Something like this happens the same time most years, a sign, maybe, of how deep the academic calendar has wormed its way into the city’s general pace: it all feels like the natural life cycle of projects too complex to face in the rush of the new school year, so it has to happen now, now that everybody’s back from winter break, but before everybody gets sucked into the accelerating crunch of second semester.

So in the first two weeks of February, one was faced with, among other things,

—An Alea III concert featuring Boston University faculty composers, as well as a concert by Time’s Arrow, BU’s student new music group

—John Cage celebrations from piano students at New England Conservatory and So Percussion at Longy

—Cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Christopher O’Riley playing their “Shuffle.Play.Listen.” anything-goes repertoire at Regattabar

—A Collage New Music concert featuring four world premieres

—A chamber music Club Concert by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project at Oberon

—A recital by NEC composer and pianist Anthony Coleman

—A collaboration between pianist Vijay Iyer and George Lewis’s “Voyager” digital improvisation system at Wellesley College

Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse

Reader, I missed them. Thanks to an out-of-town venture, an all-day choral festival, the usual demands of part-time church and teaching and writing jobs, and a spousal demand that I watch the Super Bowl, I did not catch a single one of these events. I hang my head in new music shame.


Georg Friedrich Haas

Georg Friedrich Haas – Photo by Philippe Gontier

In my defense, I did manage to get myself to a couple of unusually interesting concerts. The first was one of the more anticipated dates on the local new music calendar this season: the Boston premiere of Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, performed by the group Sound Icon at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Groundhog Day.

Haas’s hour-plus opus, composed in 2000, is already on a lot of people’s short list for the first great masterpiece of the millenium, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s technically impressive, a spectral-like microtonal vocabulary handled with absolute assurance, both harmonically and orchestrationally. (Among in vain’s 23 instruments is an accordion; as someone who, in my former composer life, often tried to integrate the accordion into ensembles large and small, the subtlety and seamlessness with which Haas does it was particularly jealousy-inducing.) It is a Serious Piece, with a serious theme (it was written in response to a resurgence of right-wing nationalism in Haas’s native Austria), and serious length and breadth. And it has a great existential hook: the lights in the hall fade in and out throughout the piece, and there’s a long stretch near the end that takes place in total darkness.

Sound Icon (I previously wrote about the group back in November) did what is becoming their customarily magisterial job, conductor Jeffrey Means keeping everything balanced and lively, the group’s stamina admirable. And the setting was terrific—the ICA’s sharp, uncluttered auditorium provided a space to match the music’s drama. (The ICA has only rarely programmed avant-garde music, turning over much of their performance calendar to the more mainstream presentations of World Music/CRASHarts, but their Public Programs Coordinator, John Andress, is also a percussionist and a new music stalwart, so maybe more hardcore repertoire might be coming to the place. It really is a great venue for it.)

Still, there was something about in vain that kept its distance. The main material is almost deliberately naïve, scales winding down in seeming perpetual motion, lush chorales, gong strikes of deafening, claustrophobic volume. A lot of the impact of in vain is in its length—it seems to justify the demands it makes on your time and concentration by making those demands.

When it works, it’s marvelous. In the final section, Haas brings back those opening scales, gradually getting faster, then looping back around to the original speed, only to begin the process again. The first time, it was deeply satisfying; when he did it a second time, it got to be a little annoying. But it was the third time through that sold it, the expected ending and the avoided ending somehow coming together in convincing ambiguity.

Other repetitions in the piece delivered far more diminishing returns—those gongs, for instance, so thrilling on first strike, drifted into a white-noise barrier; and a strobe-like flash illumination, detonating away the darkness, was similarly potent the first couple times, but as it came back again and again, the shock wore off, and its use as a coordinating device became distractingly apparent.

Then again, maybe all that was intentional; the music does seem intent on cultivating the gray area between process and expression. The most interesting thing about in vain, at least for me (and, really, the experience of in vain is a highly personal thing, a by-product of so much alone-in-the-dark listening), was how little of the music stayed with me. As it is happening, the piece is often overwhelming in the insistent way it envelops the ear; and yet, once it ends, so much of it seems to just vanish, a practically tangible dream-world dissolved in the light.

In mood and ambition, its boldfaced effects and sensual bleakness, in vain has something of the same tenor—if not the political implications—of the art of Anselm Kiefer, another virtuoso of grim landscapes. I thought of Kiefer’s artist’s books in particular: Cauterization of the Rural District of Buchen, for instance, a bound volume of the charred remains of painted canvases, or his massive sculptural books with pages of lead. But where Kiefer hints at a Hegelian view of historical progress—the past burned away, or sunk into the ground, so something new can grow from the wreckage—in vain posits something more cyclical, those descending scales forever chasing each other down, each acceleration encasing a glacial seed of its own repetition: light and darkness, in perpetual orbit, palpable and unremitting, yet transient and equivocal.


On February 11, I made it to a free-jazz improv show at the Lily Pad in Cambridge, performed by a group of local players: David G. Haas (piano), Jeff Platz (guitar), Scott Getchell (trumpet), Kit Demos (bass), and Luther Gray (drums). The Lily Pad doesn’t seem like much: a tiny storefront (late-arriving concertgoers can fill the entire place with their open-door draft), a few chairs, a shoebox stage space surrounded by hanging carpets. But the sound is excellent, and the disposition is adventurous.

Platz has fronted various groups—a band called Skull Session, which also featured Gray, as well as another band called Bright Light Group, featuring Getchell and Demos—and all four have recorded for Germany-based Skycap Records. Haas was nominally the outsider, but he had played with the late, great Joe Maneri for a time, and in the Boston improv/free-jazz world, a connection with Maneri is pretty much congruous with a connection to the scene.

And the quintet settled into musical conversation like they’d been doing it forever. Here’s a sequence I particularly liked, from their first set: Demos (by far the most far-out of the group, never meeting an extended technique he didn’t like) set up a strange ostinato, slapping his bass with dull thumps while bending the pitch with a whammy pedal; Platz layered some keening electric guitar sustain over it. With Gray and Getchell having temporarily dropped out, Haas added some whimsical percussion, tapping on the piano lid and music rack, John Cage-style. As Haas shifted back to the keys, tossing off bright sparks up high, Platz took over the percussive tapping, stopping the strings at the high end of the neck. This led into a full-band free-for-all, Getchell uncorking tight wails, Gray’s scattered attacks drifting in and out of a solid beat—which then morphed into fast, driving swing. Getchell then took over with a skittering solo—Gray’s energetic ride cymbal seemingly translated into trumpet terms, while Gray pulled back to sparse, ominous tom-toms.

For the next number, Demos moved over to modular synthesizer—a homebrew MFOS Ultimate—and, for a while, the rest of the band simply took in the resulting old-school analog chirrups and yowls with bemused interest. When they did start playing, I wasn’t sure what to expect; but the result was a surprisingly coherent Art-Ensemble-of-Chicago-meets-Doctor-Who vibe. That improv eventually returned to where the first one started, a moody, modal, minor-key ballad atmosphere.

The group’s second set was at once more mercurial—new tempos and rhythms and textures seeming to take off out of nowhere—and more straight-ahead, an anthology of more familiar jazz styles. But this one, too, arrived at exotic locales, winding up with a long colloquy between Demos and Platz that managed to feel both serene and cheekily stubborn (especially since the crowd for the next show was already filtering in).

In his book Primacy of the Ear, local jazz legend Ran Blake talks about “storyboarding” solos or interpretations or reinterpretations of repertoire:

I find a version of storyboarding to be a useful tool in composing or recomposing a piece as I prepare it for performance. It is a way to move beyond the spine of a piece without simply abandoning it, and it is a creative alternative to a sketch based simply on theory or abstract motivic development.

This quintet seemed to have that sense of scene, of musical setting; as the texture and mood would shift, everybody was quick and perceptive enough to lock into the new surroundings and start working with the scenery, and loose enough to immediately be casting an eye towards the next possible edit. It was provocative to compare this storyboard—fluid, moving, shifting the spotlight, lighting on details—with the storyboard for in vain, all long, carefully composed, slow-changing landscapes. It pointed up, for one thing, how much the construction of in vain is engineered for grandeur, even as the saturnine cast undermines it. The quintet’s improvisations were, by nature, closer to a road trip, the landscapes glimpsed from a moving vehicle. But sometimes, a glimpse can be as mesmerizing as a full immersion.

New England’s Prospect: The Haunted Mansion

Allow me to walk between the tall pillars
And find the beginning of one vine leaf there,
Though I arrive too late for the last spring

—James Wright, “Entering the Temple in Nîmes”

Symphony Hall in Boston is a temple, and proud of it, from the plaster casts of Greek and Roman statuary keeping classical watch to the cold-comfort design of the seats. But, like many temples, Symphony Hall is now part sacred space, part museum, harboring gods both potent and obsolete. At its best, John Harbison’s Symphony No. 6, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s only world premiere this season, also captured something of that dance between the spark of immediacy and the accumulation of history.

Diana of Versailles

Diana of Versailles – Photo by Peter Vanderwarker

The performances last week (I went Saturday night, January 14) were conducted by David Zinman, one-time music director in Baltimore, now settled in Zurich, but there was another conductor palpably absent: James Levine, the symphony’s dedicatee, and, as Harbison indicated in interviews, in many ways its subject. Levine has always been one of Harbison’s champions; the symphony was commissioned on his watch (as was Harbison’s 5th) and he would have conducted it had not health problems forced him from the BSO podium last year. But apart from its portrait of Levine, Harbison’s 6th also seems to be a reflection on the symphony itself, the form, and the idea of writing one, adding to a considerable, even burdensome repertoire.

It was the culmination of a two-season survey of Harbison’s symphonies. “The hardest thing to win back for the big genres of symphony and string quartet,” Harbison wrote in the program book, “is some kind of naturalness, some escape from the self-consciousness of our artistic time.” But consciousness of time was present in this Sixth from the start. It opened with a setting of James Wright’s poem “Entering the Temple in Nîmes” for mezzo-soprano (Paula Murrihy, in rich, sharp-faceted voice). The Temple of Diana becomes the focal point for a multitude of eras and traditions, as Wright, from his modern vantage, regards the “young Romans”:

Though they learned her name from the dark rock,
Among bearded Greeks,
It was here in the South of Gaul they found her true
To her own solitude.

That’s a lot of transfers on one ticket. Harbison’s setting oriented the traffic around the voice, starting with a leaping, unaccompanied mezzo line; the leap became the seed of much of the symphony’s motivic grillwork. The voice turned more recitative-like as the orchestra moved in, the focus shifting to the architecture of the temple. The shift was punctuated by an interloper, a cimbalom, whose jangle Harbison would return to throughout the symphony, rounding off passages while, sonically, remaining outside them.

The second movement was built around a long string line. The line itself, winding, full of angular leaps and variable speeds, was almost reminiscent of Elliott Carter, but the musical habitat was more traditionally Mahlerian—where Carter might playfully interrupt and jump-cut his way along such a wire, Harbison gradually added orchestral and harmonic mass in a way that started to feel dutiful, like a debater affirming the possibility of the Great American Symphony with ever more orotund rhetoric.

The last two movements, though, struck out into intriguing backcountry. Both started off with material strongly echoing (consciously or subconsciously, I don’t know) the one inarguably Great American Symphony, Copland’s Third, but both played off standard ideas of symphonic greatness as much as they pursued them. The scherzo-like third movement began by carving a grid of triplets into all manner of off-kilter syncopation, but in the middle, things got seriously interesting, contrasting implications coexisting—straight rhythms vs. swing, busy contrapuntal chatter vs. glacial background-radiation harmonies—as Harbison divided the ensemble into ever-more-unorthodox chamber combinations. (A sudden garnish of stately harmonics from two solo violas—later reprised by two cellos—was particularly bewitching, like a shape-note echo.)

The fourth movement was more imposing, the sound in large blocks. (Much of it was in a particular vein that Harbison has mined before: imagine isolating the tallest, most dissonant harmonies from a big band chart and then quilting them together.) But here, too, the music seemed to surprise even itself. At one point, the granitic procession shuddered to a stop, suddenly seeming to backtrack, retracing its steps, looking for the path. The ending, too, was more an abreaction than a catharsis, ruminating to a halt rather than emphatically sending itself off; the cimbalom came back, but as part of a final inventory, the music taking one last look around the house before closing the door.

Harbison is, on the one hand, a composer of symphonies with a technique to match: the bend-but-don’t-break tonality, the chain-of-custody working out of ideas, the cultivation of a monumental austerity in his orchestration. But he also seemed, in this symphony, to be more comfortable weighing musical options than flat-out asserting them. Those points in the symphony that seemed to spin off into a kind of considered ambivalence were not only the most engaging, but also cast the rest of the piece in a more fertile light. Maybe it was a reflection of the overwhelming sense of unfinished business surrounding Levine’s tenure and departure, or maybe of something in the composer’s own temperament, but Harbison’s Sixth was hard to put a finger on in a most interesting way.

Zinman, throughout the concert, projected structure more than mood. Having suffered through enough concerts where that calculus was inverted, I can’t say it was a bad thing; still, there was a cut-and-dried sense to the whole evening. Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe Overture was bracing and chipper. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, was similarly clean and straightforward; Andsnes’s firm clarity of touch was commendable, and it was nice to hear a Beethoven interpretation unburdened with a need to foreshadow the entire Romantic era, but the overall temperature stayed low.

The performance of the Harbison was solid and admirable, but the ghost at the banquet loomed; Levine would probably have stretched those ambiguities out to wondrous effect. The concert closed with Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, where Zinman’s direct approach yielded the fewest dividends, countless delicious details of the piece subsumed. The ensemble and virtuosity were impeccable, but the pranks themselves had the slapstick energy of a news report.


The previous week’s BSO concerts were to have been the subscription series coming-out party for conductor Andris Nelsons, the odds-on favorite to take over Levine’s music directorship. Nelsons instead begged off to stay at home with his wife and newborn daughter, and BSO Assistant Conductor Marcelo Lehninger stepped in to lead the concerts. (I heard the January 7 performance.)

The original program largely remained, though, including the American premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s From the Wreckage, a trumpet concerto written for Håkan Hardenberger, who was the soloist for these performances. (Nelsons started out as a trumpeter as well, hence the programming.) Why it took seven years for From the Wreckage to make it across the Atlantic, I’m not sure—the piece turned out to be a fine entertainment.

Turnage’s jazz influences are apparent, but it’s the space between influence and appropriation where the action really happens in his music. At its best, Turnage’s music is more like a still life of jazz, pinned and painted with full memento mori overtones, decay and spoil rendered with exuberant brushwork. From the Wreckage, jump-started by string harmonics and Hardenberger’s het-up flugelhorn, unfolded in waves of noir alternatives: sultry and suspicious, then grim, brittle, and Brechtian, then a fractious, Rite of Spring-style assault. Even the piece’s gimmicks paid off, whether it was having Hardenberger move from flugelhorn to trumpet to piccolo trumpet over the course of the concerto, or scattering four percussionists among the orchestra in order to pass around clockwork ticks, a surround-sound time bomb. From the Wreckage was rich, dark fun.

Lehninger (who stepped in at the last minute to conduct the premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s Violin Concerto last season) was awfully impressive, though he started slow: the opener—Haydn’s Symphony No. 88, swapped in for the originally scheduled No. 90—was secure but one-dimensional, full of the sort of high-contrast subito-this-and-that engendered by Haydn’s reputation for humor, the elbows to the ribs outnumbering the actual witticisms. But the rest of the concert was superb. The Turnage was bold and lush. And the finale, a stop-pulling tour of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, was terrific, cogently argued, sweepingly grand, big-boned and brash.

I had a great time, but, then again, I am an incurable Richard Strauss fan. But it was the sort of performance that recalled how far-out Strauss’s music really was and is, a facet dulled by his post-Schoenberg last-Romantic reputation, his political dealings, and, perhaps, his personal diffidence. Lehninger and the BSO, though, got it, how confrontational, how unapologetic, how punk the tone poems are, and how good performances of them depend on pushing those aspects to the fore, wallowing in the attitude. Put it this way: it is a credit to conductor and orchestra that those in the audience who aren’t Richard Strauss fans must have been absolutely miserable.

That might be wishful thinking, but this season at the BSO, one has had to take any such line-in-the-sand musical verve where one can get it; the spark of novelty has been in short supply. Living composers can be counted on one hand; the only piece left on the slate that Boston hasn’t already heard is Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto (scheduled to be conducted by him in April). It’s been a long time since the BSO was a hothouse of new music, and whatever energy James Levine was able to inject in that regard is petering out. The temple is feeling ancient.