Tag: chamber music

Sounds Heard: Ion Sound Project and the Music of Jeremy Beck

Ion Sound Project, the fourth Innova recording dedicated to the music of composer Jeremy Beck, takes its title from the Pittsburgh-based chamber group of the same name. Stemming from a friendship with pianist Robert Frankenberry, Beck’s collaboration with Ion Sound Project began in 2007 at the University of Pittsburgh with a performance of his September Music, the piece which also closes this album. Beck’s music is unabashedly tonal, rhythmically intricate, and makes nods to the past while sitting squarely in the present. He is a prizewinner in the 2010 National Opera Association’s New Chamber Opera Competition, Boston Chamber Orchestra’s 2011-2012 Commission Competition, and the 2012 Aliénor International Harpsichord Composition Competition. When he’s not releasing new recordings of his work or receiving accolades from national and international competitions, he practices intellectual property (copyright and trademark) law, entertainment law, and general business law in Louisville, Kentucky.

Ion Sound Project opens with its strongest piece, In Flight Until Mysterious Night. Pulsing, jazz-inflected rhythms propel the work forward, recalling Copland’s Three Latin American Sketches in spots. Bright shifting harmonies in tandem with those syncopated rhythms pull the music this way and that, occasionally giving the listener the feeling you get when you are walking up (or down) a flight of stairs in the dark and you think there is one more stair, but there isn’t. Held together by the fluid playing of Frankenberry, this juxtaposition of largely accessible and recognizable pitch and rhythmic material with the occasional sharp left makes for compelling and interesting listening. Up next is by Beck’s Cello Sonata No. 2. , performed by Elisa Kohanski. The delicate and understated first movement starts quietly and builds to its animato namesake before returning to its hushed beginnings. The second movement features long melancholic melodies with sparse accompaniment in the piano before perking up with rhythms and harmonic language akin to In Flight Until Mysterious Night.

Soprano Margaret Baube Andraso joins ISP for In February, a work written in 2002 with text by the composer. For soprano, clarinet, violin, and piano, this one-movement song of love lost opens with a slow ostinato in the piano into which the other instruments weave. The simple melodies, accompaniment, and pacing make this a piece that could be at home in theater or film as easily as on the concert stage. Gemini for flute, cello, and piano features independent lines leading to tutti accents on upbeats that could be (at least rhythmically) straight out of any number of rock tunes from the ‘80s and that betray a contemporary classical style that formed in that period without sounding dated or borrowed. The ironically titled Slow Motion for piano and vibraphone takes cues from the collaborative work of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. Percussionist Eliseo Rael deftly trades polyphonic strains with Frankenberry, parts winding around one another before briefly coalescing in chords and accents that stutter step around, dressed in colorful harmonies. A less active choral section provides a respite from this activity before returning to the manic, quasi-improvisatory material from the top.

Third Delphic Hymn is a showcase for the evocative playing of violinist Laura Motchalov. Her ability to cleanly perform multiple lines at once sounds at times like two distinct players and is quite effective. This brief work is the oldest on the album (the original version for viola was written in 1980), but it is nonetheless a highlight both in terms of performance and composition, and I’ll admit to being disappointed that it ended so soon. This is not to say it was an inappropriate length, but that I was left wanting more. The final work on the album, September Music, initially picks up on the melancholy of Third Delphic Hymn in its modest tempo and longing harmonic language, and these characteristics continue for the most part in the second movement. The insistent third movement eventually displays many of the characteristics of the other works on the recording. Tutti climaxes rebounded from duo and trio excursions. Colorful clashes in the clarinet and flute, performed by Kathleen Costello and Peggy Yoo respectively, are answered by dramatic responses in the strings.

Ion Sound Project is a thoroughly engaging CD from top to bottom. Ion Sound Project (the group!) does a great job of presenting Beck’s work here, whether in solo or ensemble settings. Though architecturally rigorous, Beck writes clearly and without pretense, and while one might listen for the technical elements of his work, I think that would be missing the point. Well-wrought music should be architecturally sound as a matter of course, but checking that compositional tick-box alone does not necessarily a great piece of music make. If you’re interested in music that is for the most part harmonically tonal and rhythmically diverse, you’re sure to find a great deal of satisfaction in the world of Jeremy Beck.

Bay Area Performances Celebrate Cage Legacy

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand

Amy X Neuburg tossed dice to select samples for the introduction to her piece Your Handsome Hand.

Composer and performer Pamela Z‘s entry into this month’s worldwide celebration of John Cage’s centenary was Voice Cage, a program featuring eight San Francisco Bay Area artists presenting works using the voice. Part of Z’s ROOM series, the concert took place in the Royce Gallery, an intimate performance space in a former welding shop located in the Mission district of San Francisco. The crowd that showed up on August 31 easily filled the space to capacity, and the show had to be delayed for 15 minutes so that additional seating could be brought in to accommodate the roughly 70 concertgoers.

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery

Pamela Z at the Royce Gallery.

Cage made both direct and less explicit appearances throughout the program, which included three vocal works by Cage (The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, Experiences No. 2, and Aria), new works by Pamela Z (which utilized recordings of Cage’s voice and texts about Cage), and other new compositions that introduced indeterminacy in a nod to Cage’s influence.

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Neuburg singing The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs.

Julie Queen‘s unaccompanied performance of Cage’s Experiences No. 2 was a straightforward interpretation of the work, whereas Amy X Neuburg took a more individual approach to The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, originally for voice (“without vibrato, as in folk singing”) and a closed piano to be struck in four particular spots with specific parts of the hand. Neuburg, whose work for voice and electronics have long made her a prominent member of San Francisco’s new music community, created an electronic arrangement of the piano part with samples of water, over which she sang expressively. Pamela Z’s performance of Cage’s Aria was an unintentional mixture of the two approaches: her performance began with the triggering of sampled noises and processing on her voice used to delineate some of the vocal “styles” that Cage calls for. About halfway through the performance, though, her computer crashed and we had the unexpected treat of hearing an un-effected Z, singing the rest of the piece operatically, suavely, gravelly, quietly.

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel

Chessa performing Hear What I Feel.

Luciano Chessa, a composer and performer who also occasionally delivers lively pre-performance lectures on Italian works at the San Francisco Opera, partnered with Z for two thoroughly entertaining and engaging pieces. In Duetto, which opened the second half of the concert and which was credited in the program to “Verdi/Z/Chessa,” the two sang sections of “Un dì felice” from La Traviata, but with the roles reversed, their voices processed with the appropriate octave displacements, accompanied by Chessa playing a toy piano in a voluminous black skirt. Prior to the concert, he had spent an hour with an eye mask on upstairs in Z’s studio, which was doubling as a sensory deprivation chamber, in preparation for a performance of Joan La Barbara’s Hear What I Feel. Z led him onstage, still blindfolded, and guided him into a seat in front of a table with six glass bowls, which contained a variety of objects such as a small balloon and a dried prickly plant. Chessa palpated each in turn and vocalized his responses with phonemes, growls, and laughter, revealing a surprising level of emotional reaction in the process.

Lee's performance piece The Cage

Lee’s performance piece The Cage.

The wide-ranging program also included a captivating solo performance by Oakland-based performance artist Dohee Lee, who will be one of the artists at the next Other Minds Festival in March 2013. Carrying a small box with a theremin-like antenna and a speaker strapped to her head, she danced throughout the space and among the audience while wordlessly moving through a range of characters, sometimes chirping along with the electronic sounds, at other points singing high whistle tones in an otherworldly duet with the box.


Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433

Christopher Jones performs Music of Changes at Old First Church, where Kelsey Walsh noticed that one of the hymns on the board was 433.

Meanwhile sfSound continued their year-long, 11-concert festival of Cage’s music with two concerts in August: one focused on Cage’s more experimental electronic and noise music at The Lab, a multi-use white box in the Mission, and one dedicated to acoustic works a couple miles north at Old First Church, in a more “uptown” setting.

Matt Ingalls and his colleagues in sfSound have to be commended for their tremendous efforts in preparing and presenting this wide-ranging, devoted, and exhaustive exploration of Cage’s work, in all media and from all points in his career. (I covered a previous concert in this festival here.) Each work programmed has revealed a different aspect of Cage’s music and personality; taken together, a multifaceted portrait of Cage has taken shape in a way that no single concert could achieve.

Matt Ingalls performing 0'00" (4'33" No. 2), in which his “disciplined action" was writing out paychecks for the evening's other performers.

Matt Ingalls performing 0’00” (4’33” No. 2), in which his “disciplined action” was writing out paychecks for the evening’s other performers.

The August 5 concert at The Lab featured works spanning nearly a half-century of Cage’s output, from Living Room Music (1940) to One3 (1988), which was performed by Jon Leidecker as entrance and intermission music. In Ingalls’ introductory remarks, he drew laughs when he said, “I don’t think it matters if you turn off your cell phones or not.” Indeed, a cell phone wouldn’t have even been audible during the performance of Cartridge Music, in which the audience was surrounded by seven musicians with an array of sound-makers that were dramatically amplified using turntable pickups and contact microphones. (sfSound will reprise Cartridge Music on September 6 at SFMOMA as part of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.)

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes

Tom Chiu performing selections from Freeman Etudes.

By contrast, a cell phone would have certainly be noticed at the August 17 performance at Old First Church, where the program included violinist Tom Chiu playing five of Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Cheap Imitation, and pianist Christopher Jones performing Books I and IV of Music of Changes. (The full sfSound ensemble also performed Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Solo for Voice 1 sung by Ken Ueno, and Atlas Eclipticalis, with Solo for Voice 48 sung by Hadley McCarroll.) As thrillingly cacophonous as Cartridge Music was, Chiu’s performance of Part II of Cheap Imitation was by contrast quietly introspective and personal, a beautiful expression of a simple melodic line. Old First Church is on one of the busiest streets in town and traffic noise is normally a drawback to the concerts there, but somehow during Cheap Imitation it was less an intrusion than a partner in dialogue. In Music of Changes, the outside noise became equal with the music: when Jones paused between the two sections for an extended period of time, waiting for the sirens and motorcycles to pass, he inadvertently allowed for an unplanned, improvisatory musical interlude by the sounds of the world outside.

Sounds Heard: Robert Carl—From Japan

I am already on record as an admirer of Hartford-based composer Robert Carl’s music. His compositional language, which to my ear mixes a nuanced experimentalism within organic phrasings, speaks to me on a deep and strangely (considering that all the pieces I’ve heard are wordless) philosophical level. It readily takes me to an existential thinking place. Given that, I admittedly approached his latest release on New World Records, From Japan, with high expectations.

The slow pacing of the opening composition, A Clean Sweep (2005), invites deep and careful listening to the tones of a single shakuhachi (played here with notable sensitivity by Elizabeth Brown), and it accomplishes this without ever inducing the feeling that the listener is trapped in an expensive hotel spa. This is attributable in part to the way the poetic breath of the instrument is held in sharp contrast against a metallic, whining drone of variable pitch, which keeps a steady twist of tension running through the work. The two elements tangle on equal sonic ground, the drone taking on the role of a dance partner rather than a chaperone. A second performance of the work closes the disc, for which the composer joins Brown in a shakuhachi duet of sorts, the two artists leaning into and away from each other over the drone, providing slight variations on a single melodic line. It makes for a naturally more complex and crowded reading, but also one filled with more warmth in the companionship of making it.

In between these neat bookends are three later works by Carl. In the course of its 16-minute run time, Bullet Cycle (2007) takes the listener on a journey that mixes recordings made inside Japan’s high-speed bullet trains with the sounds of acoustic musicians (two improvising soloists and a percussive time keeper, roles here performed by Katie Kennedy, cello; Bill Solomon, vibraphone; and Sayun Chang, percussion). The world Carl establishes drifts in more of a leisurely spiral than typical point-to-point travel, the music mimicking something more akin to a dozing passenger’s experience—uneasy sleep regularly interrupted by train announcements and noise, the passage of time and miles strangely difficult to quantify, personal thoughts mixed up with glimpses of passing scenery, yet always the rocking train encouraging the mind to drift until just before the destination is reached.

Carl incorporates recorded sounds from Japan even more concretely in his electronic installation Collapsible Mandala (2008-09), his sources ranging from chattering birds to aggressive explosions, from children at play to adults in prayer. Though designed to be expanded and collapsed to suit various programming situations, the piece is here presented in a 26-minute version. In addition to the various ambient sound sources—which are collaged into sections ranging from seconds to minutes in length—the work includes fast fades into significant periods of silence (sometimes more than a minute in duration) between scenes. My experience of this structure surprised me; rather than allowing me to sink deeply into the music, I felt it as an extreme surface tension, the image of the preceding section echoing in the suddenly enforced quiet while my ear strove to catch the beginning of the next; meanwhile, the noise of my own listening environment taunted me with distractions.

At the very heart of the disc is Brown Velvet (2009-10), a piece for bassoon and live electronics (performed for this recording by Ryan Hare with Aleksander Sternfeld-Dunn on laptop). Echoing elements of A Clean Sweep, the piece sets the woodwind against a deep drone of fluctuating pitch, its timbre this time more muted yet more ominous. Once again a deliberately paced dance plays out between the players, the drone supporting the movements of the bassoon, the bassoon made all the stronger in its ability to envelope the listener in the seductive richness of its tone. I never thought much about the dark beauty of the bassoon before, but this work makes it an unforgettable star.

Taken as a whole, the work included on From Japan may stand as a document to Carl’s multifaceted exploration of the intersection between American and Japanese musical culture. In much broader and perhaps simpler terms, however, it is evidence of how careful a listener Robert Carl is, and how generously he invites us all to listen with him.

Composer/Performer Cage Match: sfSound and Outsound Presents

Excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s letter to Disc Company of America

“From California to the New York island”: Excerpt from Woody Guthrie’s letter to Disc Company of America about their recording of John Cage’s Amores, I & IV for prepared piano, performed by Maro Ajemian (via The Stool Pigeon).

The centenary of Woody Guthrie’s birth on July 14 coincided with one of sfSound’s concerts celebrating the centenary of Guthrie’s almost exact contemporary, John Cage. Part of a year-long festival titled The Music of ChAnGEs, the full 11-concert series is itself conceived as a large-scale realization of Cage’s indeterminate Variations II, with performances taking place in a variety of Bay Area locations. (There are also a number of “unpublicized performances” of 4’33″, concert organizer and performer Matt Ingalls noted during his pre-concert remarks). This most recent concert featured works by Cage spanning over half a century, and included a new Cage-inspired piece by Monica Scott who, like the other members of sfSoundGroup, is both a composer and a performer.

sfSound often performs in the main theater on the ODC Dance Company’s campus in the Mission, but this concert took place in one of the large dance rehearsal studios across the street in the ODC Dance Commons, which opened in 2005. The capacity crowd had nearly filled the 100 or so seats by the time I arrived, and additional chairs had to be brought in.

Matt Ingalls performing Imaginary Landscape No. 1 on an iPad

Matt Ingalls performing Imaginary Landscape No. 1 on an iPad.

The evening’s program alternated between works for small groups or solo player, such as the microtonal Ten (1991) for ten instruments and Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed phono turntables (which were replaced in this performance with an iPad). Particularly memorable was a quietly virtuosic and mesmerizing performance of The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs (1942) by Hadley McCarroll, in which she both sang the simple, three-note, folksong-like vocal line and played the contrasting piano part, which involved tapping out complex rhythms at various places on a closed grand piano.

Hadley McCarroll during a performance of But what about the noise of crumpling paper

Hadley McCarroll during a performance of But what about the noise of crumpling paper.

Appropriately for Cage’s centenary, the full ensemble performed a piece Cage had written in honor of Jean Arp’s centenary, But what about the noise of crumpling paper which he used to do in order to paint the series of “Papiers froisses” or tearing up paper to make “Papiers dechires?” Arp was stimulated by water (sea, lake, and flowing waters like rivers), forests (1985). A work for three to ten percussionists who “may be stationed around the audience, or among them, or on stage,” this realization had ten players placed all around the dance space—standing, in chairs, and seated on the floor. Among the “slightly resonant instruments” selected for this performance were a trombone mute, a water cooler container, a coffee cup, and a pleasantly burbling bong. “Other unidentified sounds” came from a set of keys being tossed in the air, a newspaper being rustled, and water being poured from a pitcher. An oddly compelling and unexpected melody occasionally emerged from this amalgam of activity, and the unpredictability of where the next sound would emerge from given the spatial placement added to the effectiveness of the performance.

Reflection in dance studio mirror of sfSound performing But what about the noise of crumpling paper

Reflection in dance studio mirror of sfSound performing But what about the noise of crumpling paper.

The new work on the program, Scott’s (h)ear age:C, was in two movements, scored for six instruments in the first and a separate quartet in the second, with assistance from a corresponding quartet of audience members. Prior to the performance of the work, Scott went out into the audience and handed four people small placards, each with one letter written on it. When the quartet of violin, piano, clarinet, and trumpet emerged for the second movement, each musician was positioned so that one of the placards would be visible to him or her. The premise of the movement was simple: each instrumentalist improvised sounds and noises—putting air through the trumpet without playing notes, for example—until an audience member held up the corresponding placard, which spelled out C–A–G–E. The instrumentalist sustained the note indicated on the placard until the sign went down, and then returned to improvisation. Open fifths and triads revealed themselves from time to time amongst the “unidentified sounds” of the improvisation, and the work proved to be an entertaining and fitting counterpoint to Cage’s But what about the noise.


Performance of Benjamin Ethan Tinker’s Seems an Eternity at the Outsound New Music Summit

Performance of Benjamin Ethan Tinker’s Seems an Eternity at the Outsound New Music Summit.

The following week, the experimental music collective Outsound Presents, led by founder and saxophonist Rent Romus, took a break from presenting the weekly performance series at the Luggage Store Gallery (tagline: “We don’t sell luggage”) to come to the Mission’s Community Music Center for the annual Outsound New Music Summit. Now in its eleventh year, the festival spans a full week and includes four evening performances, as well as workshops, a symposium, artist discussions, and even a free gear expo for lovers of sound art and sonic exploration. (The full schedule can be found here.)

Jack Wright

Jack Wright

I was able to attend most of the final two performances on July 20 and 21, which highlighted percussion music and improvised music, respectively. The evening of improvisation began with eerily plangent, wailing solo works by saxophonist Jack Wright, using a wide array of extended techniques, from vocalizations while playing to pitch bending with the bell of the horn against his thigh and calf. The energy ramped up with increasingly larger ensembles: Dave Bryant’s piano trio, the Vinny Golia Sextet, and concluding with Tony Passarell’s Thin Air Orchestra).

Falkortet, performing Paul Heiman’s What are the odds

Falkortet, performing Paul Heiman’s What are the odds.

The highlight of the percussion evening for me was a young Oakland-based quartet called Falkortet, who began their set with Why Not Cross the Rubicon, a meditative, ritualistic procession from the courtyard into the hall, using a conch shell and Chinese cymbals to transform the space. The piece was composed by Lydia Martín, one of the members of the group; all of the works they performed were written by either current or former members. The players spoke from the stage about their common ties to percussionist William Winant and their shared aesthetic interest in Lou Harrison, gamelan, and instrument building. Falkortet’s set included solos, duos, and trios, but the most compelling music happened when all four came together: in Paul Heiman’s What are the odds, they all approached one vibraphone as though it were a communal table, each musician playing a melodic fragment on it with a mallet in one hand, and a rhythmic fragment on their own individual drum with the other hand. During the course of the piece, each player individually slowly came into relief, as some sounds came to the fore while others receded, but always present was a sense of the ensemble’s pulse beating in unison.

There are four more concerts in sfSound’s Cage series in the next couple of months; details can be found here. Outsound has weekly performances at the Luggage Store Gallery and a biweekly series at the Musicians Union Hall; the full calendar is at outsound.org.

Beat the Heat: Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival 2012

In a completely unnerving turn of events, by mid-July in Austin we have had an absolute ton of rain and only a handful of 100+ degree days. I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in California only to return to A-town on what turned out to be a record-breaking 109-degree June afternoon, but beyond that anomaly it’s been unseasonably lovely. Usually this time of year marks the beginning of relative cave-dwelling during much of the day; long strolls through books stores and experimental coffee houses dovetail with lunch on the lanai of a café, surrounded by a cadre of mister fans doing their best Wimbledon audience impression, forever sweeping back and forth. With the meteorological gods on our side (for now) however, I’m hard-pressed to be inside for anything less than spectacular, and the Austin Chamber Music Festival certainly qualified.

This annual three-week festival has developed over the years by taking its broad and general title quite literally. It’s not summer classics, new music, or jazz; it’s all that and more. Calling virtually all comers, the festival has something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Groups like avant jazz trio The Bad Plus rubbed shoulders with the Fine Arts Quartet. Local upstart Mother Falcon tore it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s while Richard Stoltzman and ACMC Director Michelle Schumann split their show into two sets, one classic and one new. The Brasil Guitar Duo performed music from several centuries, and Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley closed the festival with a stunning yet intimate duet concert presented to an absolutely drenched audience, one that certainly must have thought they were anywhere but Austin in July, not because of the music, but because water was falling out of the sky outside.

Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon tearing it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s.

Of course, there were many stellar performances during the festival, and among the highlights for me was the Mother Falcon show. Consisting of a rotating group of between 15 and 20 musicians, Mother Falcon’s quasi chamber orchestra/rock band had the look of the former but for the most part the sound of the latter. Ranging in age from late high school to early college, they packaged all the energy of a garage band at their first gig with the songwriting and performance level of seasoned professionals. There were no programs, so I’m not sure of the various titles that were occasionally announced from the stage (this was a rock show) but the opening tunes essentially had the formal bones of rock dressed sharply in a variety of attractive chamber arrangements. The Falcons were joined for a portion of their show by additional players (younger still, somehow) who were members of the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Summer Program. It was interesting to watch such a large group navigate the difficulties faced by rock bands since time immemorial. Dealing with on-stage communication among players, as well as the challenges inherent in performing with speakers and monitors (especially if you’re playing acoustic instruments which lend themselves to feedback issues and whose tone is often strangled when run through a P.A. system) are all part of “Live Rock 101.” Fortunately, there were virtually no issues, and Mother Falcon treated the nearly packed venue to a great show.

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Bates Concert Hall featured works by Reich and Cage, as well as two pieces written by the performers. Fractalia by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon was a perfect piece to start the show; a short, inviting amuse bouche to whet the appetite. Moto perpetuo figures echoed between marimbas, these figures complimented and set off by occasional accents on toms. The Condon was followed by Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which started off with many of the classic Reich tropes but showed some newer ideas in the second movement. Asymmetrical phrases populated symmetrical sections featuring two marimbas playing four bars figures followed by two vibraphones playing 16 bars, the entire form repeated several times. There was something of a music box texture in the vibes as their chords rang out above large structures in the bass register of the marimba, the latter sounding like strummed guitar chords. On the surface, Third Construction by Cage has a number of features that mark it as a precedent to groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group, whose bread and butter stems largely from creating compelling rhythmic constructions from unorthodox sources. The wide variety of instruments used here (including conch shell) have for the most part made their way into the “mainstream” of new concert music (okay, maybe not the conch), but the visual impact of watching a performer keen away on the shell as the other members of the group perform complex, driving, interlocking rhythms has at least some connection with BMG doing their PVC pipe bit. The couple sitting to my right looked to be straight out of an AARP commercial with the notable exception that they both grooved for the duration of the piece, heads bobbing like bizarre extras in a hip hop video. TCP’s performance of the piece was energetic and thoroughly engaging and the reaction of the audience would not have been out of place at the Mother Falcon show, whoops and hollers and all. The second half of the concert was devoted to David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. Consisting of six movements played without pause, the work appeared seamlessly at the end of the intermission by way of a prerecorded track. This quiet, sparse material served as a foundation for vibes and marimba figures rising and falling dynamically and building eventually to nearly painful heights, especially with hard mallets on the vibes at fff. The work moved through a variety of moods and textures, and at times had the audience looking around and behind to find other performers on wind chimes and other atmospheric instruments. Though contemplative in tone over all, Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Austin is not hurting for music festivals, and it’s no mistake that the behemoths SXSW and Austin City Limits are in spring and fall respectively to allow attendees to enjoy the nice weather during those periods. Doing anything in Austin in the summer can be a bit of a drag, but checking out week after week of top notch chamber players is a pretty spectacular way to pass the time. The variety and quality of performers and venues, coupled with extensive outreach including free concerts, kept it fresh and interesting throughout the festival. Director Michelle Schumann has worked tirelessly to retain legacy audiences while pushing far outside the boundaries of the traditional summer music fest, so if you find yourself in Austin in the middle of the summer do yourself a favor and check it out.

Moondrunk for a Century: A History of the Pierrot Ensemble

Hanns Eisler’s Palmström—for speaker, flute (doubling on piccolo), clarinet, violin (doubling on viola), and cello—is easily mistakable for a better-known work. Thirteen years after the premiere of Pierrot Lunaire, at the request of his teacher Arnold Schoenberg, Eisler composed a companion piece for the same instrumentation (minus piano) as that modernist masterpiece. Pierrot itself is a deeply ambiguous work, full of biting satire and mocking seriousness; Palmström takes this a step further, parodying the parody. The forty-five second “Notturno” mimics the bloodrush of Schoenberg’s “Galgenlied” (“Gallows Song”), but with comically low stakes:

Palmström takes paper from his drawer.
And spreads it artfully round the room.
And after he’s made pellets out of it.
And spread it artfully, and at night.
So that, when he suddenly awakes in the night,
He hears the pellets rustle and a secret terror
Strikes him
Of the spectre of wrapping-paper pellets.

Besides being a fine bit of Second Viennese School homage, Palmström is an early participant in a hundred-year musical heritage, one still unfolding today: the Pierrot ensemble. Composers from Philip Glass to Karlheinz Stockhausen to Missy Mazzoli have all written music utilizing slight variations on Schoenberg’s original Pierrot Lunaire instrumentation. Some grapple with the legacy of Pierrot Lunaire head-on; others creatively misread the work. Many ignore Schoenberg’s piece entirely and take the instrumentation as a given—a modern updating of the string quartet or piano trio.

As we approach the Pierrot Lunaire centennial, its instrumentation, once reflective of Viennese weltschmerz, has been internationalized, turned timeless, and endured both modernism and postmodernism. Briefly tracing its legacy, as this essay will do, reveals a story of artists grappling with modernism and tradition, but also with practical realities. The Pierrot ensemble acts as a panorama of the musical 20th century, and one that bridges us into the 21st—earlier this year, the Pierrot-derived group eighth blackbird took home their second Grammy.

Pierrot Lunaire Excerpt

This excerpt from the score of “Madonna,” the sixth song in Arnold Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire, shows the first occurrence of a quintet consisting of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. It has happened many times since then. (The public domain score of Pierrot Lunaire is downloadable from IMSLP.)

Let’s begin at the beginning. We traditionally think of the Pierrot ensemble as a miniature orchestra—the grand Romantic afflatus stripped down to its bare bones—but Schoenberg actually did the opposite in Pierrot Lunaire. He originally planned the work, a melodrama comprised of 21 short texts by Albert Giraud, for speaker and piano. In the process of composing, Schoenberg asked actress Albertine Zehme to add a clarinet—a reference back to Brahms’s chamber music, if anything—then a violin, a flute and, finally, a cello.

Maximizing the musicians’ potential, Schoenberg requires the flute to double on piccolo, the clarinet on bass clarinet, and the violin on viola. He utilizes the novel instrumentation in various, smaller groupings throughout the work, and the combinations match the spirit of each song—the hooting piccolo and clarinet of “Der Dandy,” the sickly, limpid solo flute of “Der Kranke Mond.” And if Pierrot Lunaire’s Pierrot ensemble is a miniature orchestra, it is a miniature cabaret orchestra, adding a populist snarl to Schoenberg’s hyper-chromaticism.

Pierrot Lunaire premiered on October 12, 1912, and immediately caused a sensation. Schoenberg knew he had a hit, and the work had a run in Berlin before the musicians embarked on a five-week tour of twelve cities. Artistic responses followed quickly. Sabine Feisst has documented the work’s impact in America, which was immediate: Universal Edition published a pocket score in 1914, which inspired Henry Cowell’s 1915 Red Silence, a Japanese-influenced monodrama for speaker, flute, violin, cello, and piano. Charles Griffes followed suit with the similarly exoticist Sho-jo and Kairn of Koridwen of 1917; evidently, when American composers heard sprechstimme, they thought druids and samurai.[1]

Back in Vienna, Schoenberg sought out companion pieces for the Pierrot instrumentation to fill out an evening concert: thus, Palmström, but also Anton Webern’s re-orchestration of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony for a Pierrot contingent (1922-23). With Webern’s piece, we see one of the earliest examples of an instrumental Pierrot ensemble, with the role of the speaker removed—a precedent (though a virtually unknown one) for many later works which would abstract the concept of the ensemble entirely, removing the elements of melodrama to focus strictly on the possibilities of the instrumental combinations.

For the next several decades, works for Pierrot ensemble pop up throughout Europe and America. The American premiere of Pierrot, in 1923, was a major event with a wide impact. Cowell felt the Schoenbergian influence again, leading to his 1924 Four Combinations for Three Instruments (playing off of Schoenberg’s shuffling of instruments); Carl Ruggles wrote his Vox Clamans in Deserto, for mezzo-soprano and a more expansive chamber ensemble than that of Pierrot Lunaire.

Then there are early examples of the Pierrot ensemble as a convenience, a choice made as much for financial practicalities and logistics as artistic vision. In a fascinating article published in the volume British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960, Christopher Dromey discusses re-discovering the Pierrot ensembles of a young Benjamin Britten, who apparently “reveled in the romanticism” of the original work, and scored several films for Britain’s General Post Office Film Unit for its instruments.[2] His 1936 score for the film Dinner Hour may be the first instance of what today is called the “Pierrot-Plus,” with Pierrot instruments augmented by percussion. The day-to-day reality of the Film Unit meant that Britten often gathered random assemblages of musicians—Pierrot as pick-up band.

Still, these are not the pieces you think of when you think Pierrot ensemble (if you even knew they existed). They remain outside the repertoires of the major Pierrot groups, like the Da Capo Chamber Players, eighth blackbird, and the Fires of London. The real cottage industry of Pierrot music would come with the codification of the ensemble, the transformation of an unusual instrumentation into an institution.

Fast-forward to 1967. In London, young composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies banded together with several instrumentalists to form the Pierrot Players. Their first concert consisted of Pierrot Lunaire, Maxwell Davies’s Antechrist, and Birtwistle’s Monodrama, with the new pieces scored for Schoenberg’s configuration as well as percussion (the true dawn of Pierrot-Plus). Reflecting back on the ensemble in 1987, Maxwell Davies said that:

The Pierrot Players were founded because the performances Harrison Birtwistle and I were receiving of our music in the sixties were less than satisfactory—under-rehearsed and uncommitted….There emerged a group of friends, willing to spend many hours of unpaid time with two inexperienced conductors, rehearsing difficult new works. Thanks to The Pierrot Players/Fires of London I learned the basics of instrumentation as never before, and the rudiments of theatrical craft—not to mention, out of frightening necessity, how to conduct….The group has been the most important music experience of my life to date. [3]

The founders felt that tying their legacy back to Schoenberg would also connect them to Schoenberg’s own tradition of new music concerts in Vienna’s short-lived Society for Private Musical Performances. Here, Pierrot becomes a kind of foundational text, the modern moment around which one can fashion an ensemble to progress Britain’s contemporary music scene.

The Pierrot Players’ seminal early work is Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King, a heaving gloss on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire swapping out moonstruck female reciter for crazed baritone (and adding percussion). Like that of Pierrot, the instrumental ensemble acts as a psychological manifestation of the work’s insane protagonist. Maxwell Davies takes it a step further, noting that the instrumentalists are “projections stemming from the King’s words and music, becoming incarnations of facets of the King’s own psyche.” (The musicians performed from within cages at the premiere.)

Where Pierrot Lunaire built upon the antiquated device of melodrama, Maxwell Davies crafts a full-on pastiche, juxtaposing several hundred years of historical references. The instrumentation becomes a kind of desiccated relic—the flute and clarinet mimic wind consorts, while the piano bangs out a “smoochy” country dance; the baritone quotes Handel’s Messiah over a Baroque harpsichord (yes, Maxwell Davies ups the ante on Schoenberg’s doubling, giving us a dual-duty keyboardist), singing alternately “in style” and “like a horse.” Figurative deconstruction, as the king’s madness reaches its forte, becomes literal destruction: Maxwell Davies indicates that the violin should “break apart.”

This maximalizing snapshot is only one aspect of the Pierrot ensemble’s grand postwar history. With the inception of the Pierrot Players (disbanded and reformed as The Fires of London under Maxwell Davies’s direction in 1970), as well as other groups around the same period—the Da Capo Chamber Players in 1970, Amsterdam’s Schoenberg Ensemble in 1972, the New York New Music Ensemble in 1975—the format is set in stone. As those groups actively commissioned and encouraged young composers, the Pierrot ensemble transitioned from a scattered tradition of Schoenberg-inspired works to a key player in new music.

With this shift, we see works emerge which tiptoe around Pierrot Lunaire while utilizing its core instrumentation—anyone writing for the ensemble was aware of Schoenberg’s piece, but many composers wished to avoid the association of Viennese modernism, abstracting the instruments from their Expressionist origins.

We see this in the slew of new works that accompanied the premiere of Eight Songs for a Mad King in 1969. For the 80th birthday of Alfred A. Kalmus, who ran the London wing of Universal Edition and championed contemporary music, twelve composers wrote pieces for the Pierrot Players in his honor. The result, A Garland for Dr. K, is a series of short, mostly pointillist experiments by Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Bernard Rands, and others for the Pierrot set-up. (Berio’s The Modification and Instrumentation of a Famous Hornpipe as a Merry and Altogether Sincere Homage to Uncle Alfred, a goofy riff on Purcell, stands out among the pack as sounding particularly not like post-war Pierrot ensemble music.)

That these works stood alongside the Maxwell Davies shows the burgeoning interest in music that took advantage of Pierrot Lunaire’s instrumentation without reprising Schoenbergian melodrama. (None utilize a vocalist.) This echoes, loosely, what Boulez wrote in his famous 1952 polemic “Schoenberg is Dead”: that the late composer’s music, despite its explorations of new musical languages, displayed “the most ostentatious and obsolete romanticism.”[4] A Garland scrubs Pierrot of its hyper-Expressionist roots, putting it in line with the pure, mathematical abstraction of the postwar generation.

Pierrot, of course, did not die. Works utilizing the ensemble to back a mad narrator coexist alongside ones that treat the instruments as a modern day string quartet. As we move towards the end of the century, this trend continues. Elliott Carter’s Triple Duo, a 1983 BBC commission for The Fires of London, is a classic example of Schoenberg avoidance. A review of the premiere noted that Carter “averred that Pierrot Lunaire and the legacy of expressionism had little importance for him as he was dreaming up fresh deployments of [Maxwell] Davies’s personalized, Schoenberg-inspired ensemble.”[5] Carter’s skittish instrumental writing is an entirely different kind of mania from Pierrot—it begins with a Haydn-esque joke, with the instrumentalists pretending to warm up. (His divisions of the sextet into duos, though, does echo Schoenberg’s chamber-groups-within-the-chamber-group concept.)

Carter seems to be deliberately stepping around Pierrot. Other composers forget it entirely, treating Pierrot’s ensemble just like any other. Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life 2 makes a Pierrot-Plus ensemble the miniature orchestral accompaniment to a solo viola.

Joan Tower, who co-founded the Da Capo Chamber Players and served as its original pianist, has written several Pierrot-scored works that have no particular connection back to Schoenberg. Tower re-arranged the 1977 Amazon for full orchestra (Amazon II), indicating that her original Pierrot instrumentation may have been merely a practical matter; her 1980 Petroushkates, another Da Capo work, pays homage not to Schoenberg but to Stravinsky (along with, strangely enough, ice skating).

These two pieces also demonstrate that there’s nothing odd about writing a tonal Pierrot piece—we shouldn’t forget about the Da Capo commissions of Philip Glass and John Harbison. Just because Schoenberg wasn’t terribly lush doesn’t mean that his ensemble can’t be.

The Pierrot parody genre, launched by Eisler, trudged on as well. Donald Martino, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Notturno is a classic example of postwar Pierrot ensemble music, ends his From The Other Side (for flute, piano, cello, and percussion) with a movement titled “Das magische Kabarett des Doktor Schönberg.” A tango slides into the opening piano lick of Pierrot Lunaire’s “Mondestrunken,” and a czardas erupts into a section titled “The Wrath of A.S.” with shouts of “Nein!” under the piccolo trumpet solo from Petroushka. In The Death of Klinghoffer, John Adams mocks an Austrian woman by accompanying her sprechstimme testimonial with a Pierrot-esque subgroup in the orchestra.

Perhaps the best bookend to the Pierrot tradition is Martin Bresnick’s 2002 My Twentieth Century. Another Da Capo commission, My Twentieth Century is what Bresnick calls a “descendant of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire—without the chanteuse and in a more vernacular musical and poetic idiom.”[6] Its title is a sly annexation of musical modernism, utilizing the Schoenbergian ensemble for an alternate history of the past hundred years. A laid-back series of piano chords opens the piece, soon joined by gauzy strings repeating short, postminimalist patterns. The musicians themselves alternately intone Tom Andrews’s text: “I played hopscotch in the twentieth century. I lived in a country of fireflies in the twentieth century.” Just as the music steps around modernism, the text transforms the 20th century from world-historical to personal, giving weight to individual actions instead of grand narratives. Pierrot Lunaire is a piece of extreme economy and brevity, doing the maximum with the minimum; Bresnick transforms economy into expanse, suggesting in his open harmonies the sparse lyricism of Appalachian Spring. The instruments blend, rather than prick.

And where is the Pierrot ensemble today? Its most famous proponent is, of course, eighth blackbird. Timothy Weiss, who heads the Contemporary Music Ensemble at Oberlin, brought together several conservatory students in 1996 to tackle the more difficult works of the Pierrot lineage—pieces like Martino’s Notturno or Charles Wuorinen’s New York Notes. The repertoire of eighth blackbird quickly expanded to include pieces like Joan Tower’s Noon Dance, Wendell Logan’s Moments, and Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Bairns of Brugh. The blackbirds even tackled one of the earliest Pierrot configurations—Webern’s arrangement of the Schoenberg Chamber Symphony.

This origin story points out a crucial aspect of today’s Pierrot tradition: the ensemble did not perform Pierrot Lunaire for the first five years of its existence. Whereas the Pierrot Players centered their repertory around Schoenberg’s piece, by the end of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s ensemble stood on its own, independent of the work that launched it into existence. Asked why the Pierrot configuration has endured so long, eighth blackbird’s flutist Nicholas Photinos wrote in an email:

Many reasons: it’s a great, small, economical mini-orchestra. It can have the sweep of an orchestra, the groove of a rock band, yet is small enough to be a finely tuned sports car like a string quartet. I think one of that orchestration’s greatest assets, and what sets it apart from other standard small ensembles like string quartets and woodwind and brass quintets, is that there is so much variety of timbre, so the ear never gets bored. Though of course, a composer can also write in a way to achieve a great blend across the group.

Today, eighth blackbird tours Pierrot Lunaire regularly in a theatrical production with soprano Lucy Shelton.

Their commissions include works as varied as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Steve Mackey’s Slide, and Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire—a concerto for Pierrot-Plus plus orchestra.

Most of these new Pierrot works don’t tackle the historical legacy directly, and many have that rock-band groove. In 2012, the burden of Schoenberg’s status as founding father seems to have been lifted. Not every string quartet needs to refer back to Haydn; not every Pierrot ensemble needs to refer back to the Second Viennese School. Instead, Pierrot Lunaire hovers in the background—in its centennial year, the moonstruck clown has taken a back seat in that finely tuned sports car.



1. See Sabine Feisst, “Echoes of Pierrot Lunaire in American Music,” in James K. Wright and Alan M. Gillmor, eds., Schoenberg’s Chamber Music, Schoenberg’s World (Hillsdale: Pendragon Press, 2009), pp. 173-192.

2. Christopher Dromey, “Benjamin Britten’s ‘Pierrot Ensembles,” in Matthew Riley, ed., British Music and Modernism, 1895-1960 (London: Ashgate, 2010), p. 230. Dromey has written a full-length study of the Pierrot ensemble tradition, which will be published later this year by Plubago.

3. Peter Maxwell Davies, quoted in Grenvile Hacox, “The composer-performer relationship in the music of Peter Maxwell Davies,” in Kenneth Gloag and Nicholas Jones ed., Peter Maxwell Davies Studies (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 200.

4. Pierre Boulez, quoted in Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007), p. 394.

5. Paul Driver, “‘Triple Duo’ and ‘Image, Reflection, Shadow,’” Tempo 146 (September, 1983): p. 53.

6. Martin Bresnick, Program Notes for My Twentieth Century” accessed from Martin Bresnick’s website on May 4, 2012.

Many thanks to Frank J. Oteri, who has taken on the herculean task of compiling a massive and comprehensive list of works which utilize the Pierrot ensemble or its variations.

Sounds Heard: John Luther Adams—songbirdsongs

Quite a number of years ago now, I spent a summer working for the Chicago Park District, which meant that I got to wear a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the Chicago Park District seal, including its motto—hortus in urbe, a garden in a city. Which is itself a clever inversion of the Chicago city motto, urbs in horto, a city in a garden. Which I loved: a civilized tussle over whether civilization itself is the insider or the outsider, whether the machinery of nature only acquires meaning if it has an empire of more obvious machinery to compare it with.

I mention this because it might go some small way toward explaining why I was almost constitutionally incapable of experiencing John Luther Adams’s songbirdsongs, in its recent recording by the Boston-based Callithumpian Consort, purely as a piece of music. Written between 1974 and 1980, songbirdsongs is very much a nature piece: birdcalls and the rustling ambience of their customary surroundings paraphrased into a nine-movement suite for two piccolos and three percussionists. But the simulation of nature is so particular, so intent on being perceived as faithful, that songbirdsongs becomes one of those nature pieces that gets me wondering whether the end result is supposed to be the aural equivalent of conservation land, or something more—which, depending on your point of view, might actually mean something less.

This is the third recording of songbirdsongs, following its original 1982 release on Opus One Records (with Adams himself among the percussionists) and a 1996 reading by The Armstrong Duo. The Callithumpian Consort’s version, directed by Stephen Drury, is bright and energetic, and, not surprisingly, sounds better than its predecessors: detailed and clear, even managing to conjure up a sense of acoustic space. But the piece was designed for big-room, scattered-about-the-perimeter spatial performance—and, even on headphones, that full-immersion, lost-in-a-forest experience is left to the imagination.

The music’s grammar might best be described as kaleidoscopically imitative: drums and winds aping each other, the layers building up to a static, busy landscape, melodic tweaks to each movement’s motives spreading from instrument to instrument. The transliteration of the birdcalls tends toward the diatonic, but then they pile up in competing, polytonal profusion, falling somewhere between Messaien’s chromaticism and the more poppy triads of other strains of minimalism. (It’s more far out than a lot of Adams’s later, more gently contoured music—such as Strange Birds Passing, which, in a performance by the NEC Contemporary Ensemble, makes a dulcet pendant to this recording.)

In the notes for that 1982 recording, Adams wondered if he had “abdicated the position of Composer (with a capital ‘C’),” but, flattened from a spatial experience to a recorded one, songbirdsongs shows a notable amount of usable space between capital and lower-case composing. All the compositional decisions, the design of the rhetoric, if not exactly of the structure, seem to come to the fore when filtered through the microphone—and it was those sections in which the composer’s hand was most noticeable that I found the most arresting: the bright, Martinů-like busyness of “Apple Blossom Round,” or the bass-drum thwacks and furious twittering of “Joyful Noise,” the aviary having a go at a Sousa march. The marimba-roll drones behind “Mourning Dove” were such lovely sounds in themselves that I found myself wishing that the simulated doves, plangent as they were in their ocarina guise, would take a break.

It’s the complicated nature of such loveliness that is the source of most of the work’s drama, at least for me. The musical motion is constant—motives and sounds never quite come back or combine in the same way twice—but it is movement without a strong musical direction, except forward in time. But there’s a tension between the natural world songbirdsongs is meant to evoke and the artificial means of the evocation that gives the music an interesting texture. Lovely things happen in every movement of the piece, but in a way that is meant to feel accidental and found, rather than designed and anticipated. At the same time, while the natural sounds are presented in a more organic way than, say, Ravel’s pre-dawn Daphnis birds or even Messiaen’s collections, the translation into instruments is palpably inescapable. In the grand scheme of life on earth, flutes and vibraphones and even ocarinas are, after all, pretty advanced technology. I kept thinking back to another warhorse, Respighi’s Pines of Rome, with its obbligato of nightingale-on-phonograph-record, and the more I thought about it, the less I could say whether one captured birdsong was more “real” or more “fake” than the other. Had the garden invaded the city, or the city the garden? The more songbirdsongs left that an open question, the more I got lost in it.

Sounds Heard: Due East—drawn only once

I have been especially attracted to music that has a visual component of late. I get excited when concerts include film projections, and I often find myself reaching for the recordings packaged with DVDs first. I know there are those who would say that this reflects a childish inability to focus on recorded sound without fiddling with my cell phone. Admittedly, this may not be entirely off base, and visual presentations that accompany music can run the risk of simultaneously adding and subtracting (or sometimes only subtracting) from the experience. More often, however, I find that they provide a banister into certain new works on first listen and a kind of bonus poetry to music that is already familiar.

I got to thinking about all this again while listening to Due East’s drawn only once (late to the game, seven months after its release date—my apologies), a recording from the duo of flutist Erin Lesser and percussionist Greg Beyer, produced with a small cast of additional players. The album comes packaged as both an audio-only CD recording of two works by John Supko, as well as a 5.1 surround sound DVD which features accompanying videos by Kristine Marx and Don Sheehy.

To my eye, I couldn’t divorce the quick-cut style of abstract and processed imagery used in both video pieces from the way a feed of Instagram snapshots offers snatches of experience, shared and made romantic through filters and reinterpretation at a remove, half-glimpsed understandings of the intimate experiences of others.

This fit neatly with the push and pull of the music itself while leaving plenty of air in the room and sidestepping the idea that there was any sort of direct soundtracking occurring. Both pieces ride a disquiet of rapid motion that contrasts with a simultaneously delivered deeper meditative and exploratory spirit. (See liner notes for Supko’s discussion of his use of “tuned randomness” in the works, and a deeper analysis of how and why these aural images are created.)

The opening track, This Window Makes Me Feel, begins with a kind of inability to start, the closely mic’d shuffling pages and the stammer of breath the only sounds accompanying the visual images caught through (appropriately) windows, first bucolic and then urban in flavor (Hello, NYC pedestrians!). The narrator is hesitant to begin, apologetic even, and then she finally lets loose her rapid whisper of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, only some of the words and phrases coming to the surface clearly—again, as with the visual, more of a half-grasped overheard confession than a message intended for the listener directly.

Beneath and around this 15-minute vocal bed, the breathing flutter of flute, the spare piano (David Broome) and percussion tones, the long pure notes sung by Hai-Ting Chinn (who makes an incantation out the work’s title) and plenty of ambient bits from the city streets ground the piece, anchoring the fidgeting admissions in the embrace of the wider, heavier world.

While the opening work carries a decidedly personal, perhaps even voyeuristic, and urban flavor, the latter, Littoral, feels both more outward looking and more expansive in scope (and not just because it clocks in at a lengthier 35 minutes). Here again the momentum to begin is slow to gain speed, the flute the most aggressive player in the fight to get free of the lethargy, though the percussion keeps at her heels. The tension ratchets up one notch at a time, and it’s not until more than eight minutes in that the first of the piece’s two text sources enters, recited by the author: Cees Nooteboom’s poem “Cartography (for Christina Barrosa)”. The flute and percussion weave in and around the language, reaching up and out until, in the middle of the poem, they suddenly fall, and the line goes fuzzy as if the listener has slipped out of signal range and a much stranger message in a bottle has drifted in to take its place. Up to this point in the work, the listener has been hearing (and seeing, for those watching along at home) allusions to large bodies of water, riding the sway of the current both by ear and by eye, but now a processed voice (the composer’s) narrates an excerpt from Richard Hakluyt’s The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (2nd edition, 1598-1600). As this glimpse of an historical ghost fades back into the spray. Nooteboom’s poetry returns, the pulse is up, the character sharper and more insistent. By the piece’s concluding moments, the pace may have cooled down again, but it’s been a tough voyage and we are all dirty and out of breath, a little older than when we embarked.

Adams, Nixon, and New Music Excitement in California

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Joy! Joy! Joy!: Hye Jung Lee as Madame Mao in San Francisco Opera’s Nixon in China. Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

The Spirit of ’76 finally touched down at the San Francisco Opera with the first local performances of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a quarter century after the work’s creation. Just prior to the work’s 1987 premiere in Houston, there had been a reading in San Francisco with piano accompaniment at the Herbst Theater, a recital hall, but this marks the first time it has been staged in the Bay Area, which has been Adams’s home for more than 40 years. The work was commissioned by David Gockley when he was general director of the Houston Grand Opera. With Gockley now at the helm of the San Francisco Opera, co-commissioners of Adams’s Doctor Atomic and The Death of Klinghoffer, this appearance of Nixon in China feels like a missing puzzle piece being put into its proper place.

Most followers of contemporary American music are probably familiar with the basic background behind Nixon, which has received multiple productions and two recordings. The opera—conceived by director Peter Sellars, librettist Alice Goodman, and Adams—is inspired by Nixon’s 1972 trip to Beijing to meet with Mao Tse-tung and China’s Premier Chou En-lai. In the course of three acts during which the line between reality and fantasy becomes increasingly blurred, five distinct character portraits emerge: of Nixon, Mao, Chou, Pat Nixon, and Chiang Ch’ing, or Madame Mao.

The opera contains some of the most memorable, charming, propulsive, lyrical, witty, and fresh writing of Adams’s career but, even so, 25 years is enough time to have passed that it does have the sound of a different era. Adams recently said in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, “I was surprised by how minimalist the music is. When I started opening the score again, I hadn’t really looked at it or conducted it in 10 or 15 years—and compared to what I now do, I was shocked by all those bald arpeggios, bar after bar! It’s a kind of writing I would never do now.”

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/SF Opera

But for those who haven’t heard Nixon before, the music itself remains surprising and shocking. I had the great fortune of seeing it with a group of traditional opera-goers who had never heard a note of the piece and was reminded that, despite our easy access to recorded material nowadays, live performances of major works like this are essential if they are to have an impact on a local audience. As is my custom, I attended the June 17 performance on a standing-room ticket; just before the start of the performance, a stranger generously offered me an empty seat in her box. My box-mates were in their 50s, more or less contemporaries of Adams, Sellars, and Goodman, and knew very little in advance about what they had come to hear. But it was particularly gratifying to me that, at the first intermission, it was immediately apparent that no explanations or apologias were necessary: these first-time listeners were thrilled by the energy of the landing of Air Force One in the first scene; they grasped the banal yet complex portrayal of Nixon that develops from him singing “News” twelve times in a row; they accepted the ambiguities of the language and the action. Nixon was in a language that was immediately comprehensible to them, and by the time Madame Mao sang her final “Book!” my hostess declared that she could see herself becoming a Nixon groupie.

Of course this reaction wouldn’t have been triggered without strong performances by all the principals and the orchestra and chorus, under Lawrence Renes’s baton. (The short preview video above gives a sampling of the cast singing all the greatest hits.) Baritone Brian Mulligan’s Nixon was physically and vocally youthful and vibrant, sung with a warmth and lyricism that prevented the character from ever slipping into caricature. The punishingly high part of Mao was sung securely and admirably by tenor Simon O’Neill, with a stridency entirely appropriate to the figure he was portraying. But the person that everyone will likely remember when they recall this performance is the petite 29-year-old Hye Jung Lee, just two years out of the SF Opera’s Merola young artists program, who completely took over the stage from the moment she declared, “That is your cue!” and shot Kissinger. “I am the Wife of Mao Tse-tung,” she fearlessly announced, and one could easily see how millions of people would “hang/ Upon her words” through Lee’s powerful and astonishingly precise performance.

* * *
That same weekend, across the bay in Berkeley was another performance of a John Adams work in a much more modest venue. The Friction Quartet, a group of young musicians who have all studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, performed the second movement of Adams’s String Quartet as part of a triple-bill at the Subterranean Arthouse, a small (above-ground) “community art space” near the UC Berkeley campus. (You can hear part of the Friction Quartet’s performance of the Adams quartet at the conservatory’s Hot Air Music Festival on YouTube.)

Living Earth

The concert was organized by composer Brendon Randall-Myers, who was leaving the next day to move to the East Coast, and was a manifestation of the enthusiasm for new music that is coming out of the conservatory right now. The other performers, guitar/percussion duo The Living Earth Show and members of the chamber ensemble Nonsemble 6, are all recent graduates of SFCM and approached this program of contemporary music—which also included two works by Randall-Myers, a piece by Timo Andres that was also performed at this year’s Switchboard Festival, and works by Adrian Knight, Kevin Villalta, and Frederic Rzewski—with exuberance and a complete lack of pretense.

Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge

This was best exemplified by Nonsemble 6’s performance of a section of Rzewski’s Les Moutons de Panurge, which is “for any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” According to Rzewski’s performance instructions, “nonmusicians are invited to make sound, any sound, preferably very loud, and if possible are provided with percussive or other instruments.” Nonsemble 6’s solution for this was to write out their cell phone numbers and tape the papers to their stands. They then encouraged the audience members, many of whom seemed to be friends and colleagues, to call and text the numbers during the performance so that the rings would allow the nonmusicians to participate.

As it turned out, the ringtones weren’t loud enough to register, so the audience switched to other methods of making very loud sounds, including, but not limited to: stomping on the ground; snapping a leather belt; taking shoes off and pounding them on the walls; clapping; and making vocalizations that started as good-humored “boo”s, which then transformed into “baa”s. In the end it felt more like a raucous jam session than an actual performance of Moutons, but one couldn’t deny the infectiousness of the joyful abandon in their music-making.

Writing Over: The Intimacy of Creativity / The Bright Sheng Partnership

In Mong Kok, tenements and market streets surround a five-star hotel and its Michelin-starred restaurant. In Kowloon City, landscape-architected Walled City Park eerily reminds you of the chaotic district that it replaced. In the city parks, locals practice Tai Chi in small groups. Evenings, expats teem into the streets of Lan Kwai Fong, and laze around Cameron Road in Tsim Sha Tsui. This is Hong Kong, begging you in every gaze to compare the old and the new.

Bright Sheng reaching for the stars.

Bright Sheng reaching for the stars.

I traveled here to participate in a contemporary music festival now in its second year called “The Intimacy of Creativity,” arriving two days early to explore the city, and to recover from jet lag. The program, the brainchild of composer Bright Sheng, aims to bring a workshopping culture to chamber music. It takes place at the astonishing Clearwater Bay campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), and it is organized around a course of rehearsals, discussions, and performances of music by invited composers (and of Beethoven—but more on that later). On the whole it was a fantastic experience, though not without its imperfections.

I should start by stating that my own compositional lineage is one probably familiar to readers of this site: a well-worn path through universities, degrees, and new music concerts. In the last few years, though, I have discovered joy in writing for musical theater, the workshopping process of which was a surprising revelation. As a member of the BMI Musical Theater writing workshops, I have seen writers’ works benefit immensely from constructive criticism. So it was exciting for me to see a chamber music program using this approach. Apart from opera, revision based on public feedback is generally eschewed in the world of classical music. Why?

Violin and violist Ara Gregorian holds court.

Violin and violist Ara Gregorian holds court.

For Bright Sheng, this question was a motivator for the festival itself. The other was to repair what he perceives as rift between composers and performers. To explore these ideas, he brought together seasoned composers Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor; as well as younger composers including myself, and a host of performers. Most of the composers doubled as performers during the festival as well.

For the composers, the open discussion and rehearsal of our music compelled us to see our own works more objectively, opening the door to revision. For the performers, it was an opportunity to engage and connect with the works, and to pass along that excitement to the audience.

Jonathan Wong and Ji-Hye practice their licks.

Jonathan Wong and Ji-Hye Jung practice their licks.

On the whole, the festival achieved these goals. But talking about instrumental music can be difficult, so the conversation frequently became mired in unspecific talk and interactions bordering on interrogation. The proceedings were protocol-less, and even further confused by the presence of hundreds of the university’s music theory and music appreciation students attending the open discussions in lieu of their regular lectures.

The Intimacy of Creativity, or IC as its architects are starting to call it, has the additional goal of the enrichment of HKUST students, and indeed, much of the profoundly generous funding for the program arises from the fulfillment of this purpose. Only a small minority of the students seemed engaged with the discussions, though. Others chatted with each other, or else stared into the glowing screens in their laps.

But on to the music. The trio I presented there was designed as a sort of puzzle; I wanted the music both to interrupt itself and maintain a narrative. I imagined myself as the director of a baseball game, switching between camera angles, but always staying with the flow of the game. So I called the piece Control Room. Through spirited discussion, we discovered that both the title and the music itself were working against its concept. The performers understood my description of the puzzle, but it didn’t give them any sort of direction. Flutist Adrian Spence discovered that a slight change in perspective could shed a different light on performing the piece: really, the piece is about distraction. Seizing upon this idea made my revisions and the performers’ interpretation much clearer. I extended a section, rewrote a few measures, altered rhythms, changed some registrations, and cut a page. And the new title became something that the performers, composer and audience could all rally behind: You are always distracted by something.

Emma-Ruth Richards confirming harmonies with Michael Djupstrom (left); Raman Ramakrishnan considers the discussion (right)

Emma-Ruth Richards confirming harmonies with Michael Djupstrom (left); Raman Ramakrishnan considers the discussion (right)

All the composers at IC identified aspects of their pieces to improve: smoothing out a blip in pacing, making a bona fide ending, lengthening lines without adding measures, spacing out beautiful passages, reigning in too-oblique variations, or making ingenious cuts.

In addition to the new works, the festival also included two early pieces of Beethoven—the Op. 11 Piano Trio and the C Major Piano Quartet. Since these works were receiving the same open discussion treatment as the newer compositions, I was hoping to witness some entertainingly blasphemous performance decisions or cuts, but they didn’t materialize. I suppose these pieces offered a crowd-pleasing way to end two concerts of contemporary music. Frank J. Oteri, who attended one of the concerts, wrote about how jarring this was for him, but I would propose the programming worked on a conceptual level after all.

The rather unhip full title of the festival is “The Intimacy of Creativity / The Bright Sheng Partnership: Composers meet Performers in Hong Kong.” Verbose, yes, but it actually describes the success of the festival. Over its two weeks, a dialog developed among all of the participating composers and musicians, simultaneously offering HKUST students a window into the artists’ creative and collaborative processes. Attempts to include the students themselves in the conversation played out awkwardly, but still, involving the students represents a compelling aspect of the project.

IC was very generous to us, with numerous events, classy dinners, and the gift of time to explore Hong Kong, even on concert days. So with a few hours off after sound check on May Day, I set out walking again. On Upper Lascar Row in SoHo, wunderkammern antique shops mingle with chintzy tourist versions full of knick-knacks and Mao-kitsch. On the side streets, there’s a different sort of antique inventory: dirty rotary phones, plastic toys orphaned from their sets, bygone electronics, fancy decanters, and piles of books and LPs. Down the hill then, past reeking streets of inscrutable dried fish. Past steaming noodle shops, dingy, but not hurting for customers. Doubling back now, walking toward Admiralty’s impressive modernist skyscrapers, and past the scores of Filipino maids on a day off, lunching, relaxing, singing, and dancing in the shade under HSBC, along the outside walls of City Hall, in the Star Ferry tunnels, and next to the barricades to the ongoing land reclamation into Victoria Harbor.

Adrian Spence, Trey Lee, and Haochen Zhang in performance.

Adrian Spence, Trey Lee, and Haochen Zhang in performance.

The original City Hall used to sit on the other side of Queen’s Road where I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower now stands. The current, blocky, 1950s City Hall rests on reclaimed land. But not far off, Asia Society Hong Kong boasts a new take on building over the past, namely by building magnificently around it. There, on a hilly plot, historic constructions mingle vibrantly with modern design. So finally stepping back into City Hall’s chilled echoing foyer, and ascending the stairs to the theater, I wonder if by presenting Beethoven amid modern music, we’re giving him the same treatment.


Author Matt Van Brink considering changing the title of his piece.

Author Matt Van Brink considering changing the title of his piece.

Along with Joan Tower and Mark O’Connor, Bright Sheng invited younger composers Michael Djupstrom, Emma-Ruth Richards, Austin Yip, Pedro Faria Gomes, Matthew Tommasini, and myself; Canto-pop singer-songwriter Jonathan Wong; pianist Haochen Zhang, cellists Trey Lee and Raman Ramakrishnan, violin and violist Ara Gregorian, violist Sophie Stanley, and Pacifica Camerata members flutist Adrian Spence, violinist Catherine Leonard, and marimbist Ji-Hye Jung. Matthew Tommasini doubled as the associate director of the festival. Both he, Pedro Faria Gomes and Sophie Stanley currently teach at HKUST.