Tag: marathon

New England’s Prospect: Output and Gain

Exit through the gift shop.

Exit through the gift shop.

Maybe I’m just getting old. Maybe I was too enervated from the long drive through the Berkshires. Maybe, on the job or not, I should have availed myself of the bar set up just outside of the auditorium. But for whatever reason, I spent a good third of this year’s Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival marathon concert thinking: Wow, this is loud.

Amplification, it turns out, is a fine line, and the amplification of this particular concert left me in the position of feeling critical towards a program on which, paradoxically, I actually liked a lot of the music itself. I mean, I like loud music. Punk rock, big bands, Richard Strauss: I grew up on the stuff. It’s like musical comfort food to me. And it’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into—Bang on a Can concerts are always amplified. Everyone and everything gets a microphone. The music tends to positively revel in volume.

But maybe I am getting old. The marathon, the finale to BoaC’s 11th summer of musical training and camaraderie at MASS MoCA, in the former factory town of North Adams, Massachusetts, was on July 28, which happened to be the same week as a turnover of my personal odometer. Perhaps that’s why I was more attuned to how much opportunity the concert provided to indulge one’s inner cranky old man: the constant social murmur of the come-and-go-as-you-please audience, the determinedly casual concert attire (untucked rounded-hem dress shirts were out in force). There was even manna for a music-history curmudgeon, as when conductor Brad Lubman, introducing the marathon’s opener, George Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children, called forth that hoary old spectre, the serialist hegemony, insisting that composers writing music with emotionally expressive content in 1970 were either outsiders or “not taken seriously.” Coming in justification of Crumb (who, by 1970, had a Pulitzer prize, Rockefeller and Guggenheim grants, and commissions from the Koussevitzky and Coolidge foundations, which, you have to admit, is pretty good for an outsider that nobody took seriously), the invocation was dissonant enough to make the most hardcore modernist salivate.

Still, the joys of contrarianism aside, the actual performance of Ancient Voices of Children was very good indeed, sharp and fervent. But the amplification was assertive, levels set unseasonably hot. The resonance of mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen singing into the mouth of the piano hung in front of the proscenium like a heavy fog. The aural difference between onstage and offstage performers was negligible. Everything sounded brightly pressed up against a window, flattened and edgy.

And that sense permeated much of the evening. The amplification inherent to so much of the music turned into a barrier, an extra layer, a mediation; next to none of the music sounded like it was actually in the physical space that it was in. (The one exception was Pauline Oliveros’s The New Sound Meditation, in which all the festival students ringed the audience, lobbing vocal sounds back and forth—while some of the choices came off as a little too self-consciously outré, the sudden sense of a full three aural dimensions was startling.) Even music intended for acoustic performance was filtered through microphones. Lou Harrison’s Alban-Berg-visits-a-sweat-lodge Violin Concerto—a terrific performance, violinist Todd Reynolds in bountiful control, the percussion quintet rock-solid—was nevertheless punched up, with a sheen of artificial reverb skimming over the sound’s surface. The amplification of the Harrison merely felt odd; but to actually muster eight cellists for a fully live rendition of Steve Reich’s Cello Counterpoint (led by eighth blackbird’s Nick Photinos, anchored by Bang on a Can All-Star Ashley Bathgate) and then process it into a harsh, mid-range-heavy, over-compressed pool of sonic mud was downright criminal.

The crescendo peaked just over two hours in, with Ken Thomson’s Incoming, a premiere, in which Thomson—the leader of Asphalt Orchestra, BoaC’s “extreme street band”—was (according to his introduction) encouraged by Michael Gordon to channel the spirit of his other band, Gutbucket. Punkish pugnacity was in ample supply, but to curiously stagnant effect; solo turns for harpist Jennifer Ellis and guitarist Travis Andrews were, by necessity, amplified to the point that the individual instrumental qualities were dulled, the overall sound was an eye-rattling buzz, impressive from the point of stamina but almost dutifully massive—strepitus gratia strepitūs.

It was an import that turned the evening around for me: “Canon 2B,” a movement from Schnee, Hans Abrahamsen’s 2006-08 magnum opus, in a crack performance conducted by Lubman. If the music’s mechanisms are basic—canonic imitation, but with the rhythmic and harmonic ratios in constant flux—the effect was inebriating: somehow skittish and meditative at the same time, the score’s difficult intricacies resulting in an atmosphere of concentration that seemed to wrap around the listener like a blanket. And: it was quiet.

Giacinto Scelsi’s equally meditative Okanagon followed, though here, too, the microphone got in the way—passing timbral congruences between Jennifer Ellis’s harp and Andy Miller’s tam-tam and Gregg August’s bass ended up more perfunctorily laminated together. But the tryptich—Abrahamsen, Scelsi, Oliveros—was enough to reset the ears. Whether the levels were lower or the brain less on guard, the rest of the marathon felt like a chance to consider the place of amplification in the music, rather than a need to withstand it.

Amplification is, after all, a baseline feature of the BoaC style. Introducing his own Four Kings Fight Five, Michael Gordon proudly noted that the performing nonet, under the direction of Lubman, had, in backstage banter, decided to characterize themselves as “a battering ram of sound,” a goal the audience approved. Among those works on the marathon that originated within the BoaC orbit (via founders, former students, or commissions), they were all amplified, they were all designed around amplification—the aggression and saturation of amplified musical sounds is, inherently, one of the starting compositional ideas. And it does change the end result. For one thing, the value of individual instrumental expression correspondingly decreases; the expressive content comes out of ensemble precision, or endurance, or the surprise of an unusual sound. Compare, for instance, the string parts in Four Kings Fight Five, how they interact with the electrified organ and guitar of the ensemble as a kind of floating, flat layer—like a contrasting color plate in woodblock printing—with the strings in Reich’s Eight Lines which, even in their simple contours, and even run through microphones, still came off as orchestrationally spaced and framed such that the subtle shading common to more Classical/Romantic styles of playing can still work its effect. (Reynolds, as de facto concertmaster, again led the way in a spot-on performance.)

Part of this, I think, is an absorption of dominant modes of musical consumption: the rock band, the radio, the recording, the soundtrack. Missy Mazzoli’s Shy Girl Shouting Music, which recostumes a Cathy-Berberian-style vocal psychodrama as Bond-theme lounge-pop (Ihnen again was the soloist), garners much of its effect from the way it takes the margins of microphone-enabled pop singing—the glissandi, the vowel modifications, the vulnerable-seductive crackle of vocal fry—and moves it to the center. Dan Becker’s quintet S.T.I.C. might borrow its processes from dynamic systems theory (Sensitivity To Initial Conditions), but its sound, bouncy and swaggering, riveted with off-balance punctuating motives, was like a THX-enabled music cue in search of an action sequence to underscore. In some ways, this sort of intellectual glance off of popular culture worked better the more fully the composer dressed the part. After the Treewatcher, a world premiere from composer Jeffrey Brooks, unabashed in its semiotic signaling—Middle Eastern pop and British orchestral prog-rock cylinders pumping in a Reichian engine block—was also one of the most engaging pieces of the night, bright, clear, and confident in its rhetoric. (The one more-or-less universal influence was, of course, minimalism, though filtered in various ways; apart from the marathon’s mini-anthology of works by Reich—who blessed the marathon with his presence for the full six-and-a-half hours—only David Crowell’s Waiting in the Rain for Snow seemed to fully embrace popular minimalism in an unalloyed way, gracefully channeling Philip Glass and Reich on a section-by-section basis.)

But another part of the amplification was the primacy of rhythm in so much of the music. For all its pitch-based fascination, great swaths of Four Kings Fight Five, predicated on looping circles of polyrhythmic friction, could plausibly be transcribed for an ensemble of unpitched percussion. Julia Wolfe’s Lick, too, is more about where and when the instruments hit their marks, and with how much force they can muster doing it; the result was both giddily cathartic primal-thump therapy and ultimately wearying, a two-minute punk explosion poured into a ten-minute bottle. But, like Gordon’s and Brooks’s essays, Lick displayed the way rhythm and amplification were entwined in the music’s DNA by design, everything optimized for punch and power, the music attuned to the point of attack and the power of impact. Even David Lang’s Sunray—like Lick, originally written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars—though starting off with a long, bewitching section of hazy, slow-shifting tangles, eventually came around to a more customary BoaC steel-toed groove.

Which, in and of itself, can be a rewardingly potent thing—even Incoming and Lick, each of which I ultimately found to be too much of a muchness, still had sections to warm the safety-pinned cockles of my punk-rock heart. But, in such quantity and volume, the music on the program revealed a certain predictability: two-fisted accents, slightly fractured grooves, minimalist and pop influences proudly worn, all insistent and vigorous. Even though a fair amount of the music was unfamiliar to me, only Abrahmsen’s Schnee and the opening of Lang’s Sunray felt surprising. Caveat: the works by the BoaC triumverate themselves—Wolfe, Gordon, Lang—were old ones, either slightly old (Sunray dates from 2006) or, by Internet-accelerated-mass-media standards, quite old (1988 and 1994 for the Gordon and Wolfe, respectively); their more recent music that I’ve heard has started to expand the circle of the style. By the end of the marathon, I was trying to imagine what the Bang on a Can version of a really hard stylistic turn, of a Stravinsky Threni, or a Copland Connotations, or a Stockhausen Mantra, or even a Clash Combat Rock, might sound like.

The marathon finished with the same Reich one-two combination that was on the Bang on a Can All-Stars concert I heard back in March: Clapping Music, here with Reich and All-Star David Cossin heading two three-clapper teams, and then 2×5, Reich’s big, loud rock-and-roll stew. Even Clapping Music was filtered through microphones, the claps taking on an odd metronome-like quality, but the performance was enthusiastic and, maybe because of the comparative lack of technological mediation, even charming. I had to leave before 2×5—my ride was waiting—but I didn’t mind: the anytime-anywhere ethos of Clapping Music, in good-natured counterpoint to the previous six hours of set-ups and speakers and processed sound, made a perfect finale, the marathon’s stylistic proclivities reduced to the why-not spirit at its core. Besides, in the context of a Bang on a Can marathon, to finish up quiet and understated? That’s pretty punk.

In the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes

Jaroba and Keith Cary

Welcome to Garden of Memory 2012 – Jaroba (playing the reed instrument) and instrument maker Keith Cary (pedaling) at the entrance to the Chapel of the Chimes.

The Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland bills itself as a “Columbarium, Crematorium, Mausoleum and Funeral Home,” but on the summer solstice each year it comes alive as a concert venue as well, with a four-hour celebration of experimental sound and music-making called Garden of Memory.

Sarah Cahill (standing) and Regina Schaffer performing a work by Terry Riley in the Chimes Chapel

Sarah Cahill (standing) and Regina Schaffer performing Terry Riley’s Cinco de Mayo, in the Chimes Chapel.

The brainchild of organizer Sarah Cahill, this inimitable event, which is presented by New Music Bay Area and the chapel, features several dozen Bay Area artists scattered throughout the labyrinthine and photogenic facility, which was designed in 1926 by Berkeley architect Julia Morgan (with additions added by other architects through the years).

Taken as a whole, Garden of Memory can be seen almost as a site-specific sound installation. Cahill places the performers in rooms large and small on all three floors of the building, and even outside on terraces and at the entrance. Since the event lasts from 5 to 9 p.m., most performers do sets intermittently throughout the evening. Some share their allotted space, taking turns with other musicians.

Motoko Honda

Keyboardist Motoko Honda in the Garden of Ages, working with sampled toy sounds.

The performances are generally isolated from each other, but not entirely; there is always an awareness of more music happening nearby. The ambient electronic music of Wobbly and Thomas DiMuzio mixed with the Cornelius Cardew Choir intoning Pauline Oliveros’s Heart Chant in a chamber one floor above.


Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) in the Chapel of Tenderness, with a mic set up for audience members to use as they wished.

While a burbling fountain triggered pitches from a Morpheus synthesizer in Maggi Payne’s installation, Laurie Amat’s soprano voice drifted down the hall like a siren call.

Laurie Amat in the Chapel of St. Luke

Laurie Amat in the Chapel of St. Luke.

As an audience member moving through the spaces, there is a constant sense of discovery. With so many performers, there’s no chance of running out of new things to hear, and with the enormous diversity of artistic styles among the musicians, it’s impossible to anticipate what you’ll find upon rounding the next corner.

Stephen Kent and Beth Custer, in the Sanctuary of Dawn

Stephen Kent and Beth Custer, in the Sanctuary of Dawn.

Expectations are continually confounded: walking down the stairs from the room where Beth Custer is playing a slow groove on clarinet with Stephen Kent, who’s playing a didjeridu with a cello strung over his shoulder like a guitar, you happen upon Albert Behar introducing through a megaphone the premiere of his Book of Five Waltzes on accordion. It’s a joyful evening, celebrating the multifarious ways that people can play with sound.

Albert Behar, in Benevolence West

Albert Behar, in Benevolence West

There are a few larger rooms that can accommodate some of the more well-known performers taking part. Paul Dresher and Amy X Neuburg traded sets throughout the evening in the Julia Morgan Chapel, as they do every year. (This year was notable, though, in that their set-up time in the chapel was delayed because an open-casket viewing ran long. “That’s what happens when you take over a mausoleum,” Cahill noted.)

In the main chapel, one could hear the Del Sol String Quartet, or Cahill and Regina Schaffer performing a four-hand piano piece by Terry Riley, or the eight-voice women’s vocal ensemble Kitka singing Bulgarian love songs. These larger spaces have rows of seating and allow for a more concert-like atmosphere, removed from the milling in the passageways.

Kitka with guest Tzvetanka Varimezova, in the Chimes Chapel

Kitka with guest Tzvetanka Varimezova, in the Chimes Chapel

But the social interaction in the common areas is also an essential part of the Garden of Memory experience. Friends run into each other and share their musical discoveries, before heading off to peer into another room.

Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs, in the Garden of St. Matthew

Miya Masaoka and Larry Ochs, in the Garden of St. Matthew.

And the smaller rooms provide audiences a rare sense of intimacy with the performers. Sitting on the floor or leaning on a wall, it has the feel of listening to someone make music in his or her living room—in a crazy house with three dozen living rooms.

Theresa Wong, in the Chapel of Palms behind gauze on which images were projected

Theresa Wong, in the Chapel of Palms behind gauze on which images were projected.

While some performers left the fourth wall intact between them and the audience, others casually interacted with them or invited participation in the performance. As a result there’s a real sense of a musical community, gathering to take pleasure in making and listening to sounds.

The Cardew Choir

The Cardew Choir, which invited audience members to participate in the performance of Oliveros’s Heart Chant: Place your right hand over your heart and place your left hand on top of the left hand of a person in the circle. That person will open the circle and place her/his left hand on your back behind your heart.

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.

Broad Ambition: Hartford New Music Festival 2012

This year’s Hartford New Music Festival (HNMF)—an annual event founded in 2011 by percussionist/composer Bill Solomon and composer Matt Sargent—consisted of a marathon concert on Saturday staged at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford.  As director, Solomon explained that his goals were to “present a mixture of local composers/performers/ensembles and more internationally recognized composers…to present newer work in a historical context.”  Though this may seem like an ambitious programming objective, it succinctly captures the primary characteristic of Saturday’s four-hour long concert.

Embroidery for small ensemble

Embroidery for small ensemble played by Ben Klein, tuba; Nathan Bontrager, cello, Libby van Cleve, oboe; Maura Valenti, harp; Carl Testa, bass, Bill Solomon, percussion; Anne Rhodes, voice

In an era when the term “music” has become so all-encompassing, we often find art categorized into complicated frameworks of sub-subgenres.  To make sense of the expansive repertoire, we become hyper-specialized listeners; organizers limit events in scope, aesthetic, media, and artistic pedigree to the most conservatively curated set of similar (if experimental) works.  But this was refreshingly not the case at HNMF.  By including everything from electronic works and acoustic ensemble performances, to a sound art installation for amplified table, and even an eight-foot long embroidered score, this festival was a testament to the area’s artistic diversity.

In Alvin Lucier’s Charles Curtis, cellist Jessie Marino insinuated her slow, vibrato-less tones into a haunting soundscape of electronic drones.  The work unfolded as a study of timbre, without deviations in gesture that might overshadow the colors. The patient insistence of the repeated gestures allowed us to experience each harmonically rich sonority as a discreet “object.”  The room quieted to hear the subtle timbral shifts in the otherwise static material of each gesture.


EXILKABARETT (Darren Chase, tenor; Jessica Goldring, soprano, Lauretta Pope, soprano; Bill Solomon, piano) performing Peppermill Songs by Kirsten Volness

Only minutes later, the mood changed drastically.  The ensemble EXILKABARETT unleashed a furious burst of acoustic energy in Kirsten Volness’s Peppermill Songs.  These pieces, performed without break, set WWII-era protest writings by cabaret performer Erika Mann.  In keeping with cabaret tradition, an exaggerated performance invited the audience into the piece, though it did not read as musical protest.  Tenor Darren Chase spat out lyrics while unceremoniously dropping the oversized pages of his score down to the two sopranos sitting at his feet.  The women picked up each, holding the caricatured portraits that were sketched on the backs of the pages high for the audience’s benefit. Volness’s satirical cabaret merely hinted at the musical chaos to come, however.  In John Cage’s Musicircus later on the program, all were invited to move throughout the space as seven of his works were performed simultaneously.  This fanciful piece—part performance, part installation, and part social event—seemed to illustrate the breadth of the festival’s stylistic ambitions.

Owen Weaver presented two movements from Memory Palace by Chris Cerrone.  In the first, he plucked a quirky diatonic melody on piano strings to an electronic background of crickets and drones.  The second was performed on a “homemade marimba” of wooden planks, from which Weaver elicited a fluid melody in controlled rolls.  The dry attacks of the mallets grew more pitched and resonant as the electronics amplified the inherent tones of the wood.  This simple, but elegant, process continued for several minutes, undermined only by the conspicuous placement of a kick drum at the performer’s feet.  The waiting instrument evoked questions of how the piece’s gradual development could accommodate this disparate object.  Those questions were resolved abruptly; Weaver struck skin and wood simultaneously and the melody, with its ghosted electronic resonance, was suddenly gone in a percussive snap.

Robert Carl’s Woodwind Quintet No. 2, “Bird of Guandu,” addressed ideas of anticipation and space through the observation of nature.  The quintet began with simple chorale-style progressions separated by brief silences.  For the second movement, the players moved from a traditional centered formation to separate corners and donned headphones.  Each responded in imitation to his/her personal birdsong recording, creating sparse eruptions of instrumental warbles and coos.  This movement acted more as installation than linear composition, disregarding the conventions of form and development.  We could not anticipate the moments of silence, changes in texture, or the progression of sounds—we simply observed the Taiwanese birds through the filter of the quintet.  The final movement acted as resolution, combining a variation on the first movement’s material with the introduction of a sparse electronic background of birdsongs.

Embroidery for small ensemble by Anne Rhodes

Embroidery for small ensemble by Anne Rhodes

The festival commissioned the final piece on the concert, a work by Anne Rhodes titled Embroidery for small ensemble.  Rhodes’s embroidered graphic score (measuring 2’x8’) acted as a map for the improvising musicians who premiered it.  Though she did not limit the performers in their ranges of sound, Rhodes gave specific instructions for interpreting the score: rhythms and contours in squares were to be interpreted literally; figures contained in circles were to inspire the performers to explore extended techniques; musicians were to stay roughly together in the score by listening to one another; they could leave off anywhere in the form to play either the square in the bottom left corner or to perform an interpretation of the background texture.  Rhodes described how the varying textures, colors, distortions of the fabric weave when stretched, and imperfectly realized shapes could elicit varied and surprising responses from musicians.  This lovely artifact did seem to inspire the musicians, and the structures imposed helped to create more formal coherency in the performing group’s improvised music.

A display of Anne Rhodes score and artwork at the entrance to the festival

A display of Anne Rhodes score and artwork at the entrance to the festival.

Beyond the concert in the main room, works of sound art were installed throughout the Cultural Center.  Most notable among these was a piece by Ken Steen and Gene Gort, two artists collaborating under the name New Music New Media New England (NMNMNE).  Their project randomly paired 60 videos with 60 compositions, all of 60-second duration.  They explained that 60x60x60 began as an exercise for students; it was a means of exploring complex relationships between audio and video beyond those of the common “predictable, illustrative, cinematic” combinations.  NMNMNE referred to themselves as “curators/participants” in “a generative process,” not authors.  The minute-long works were often compelling in their own right, but it was the experience of watching them in succession that evoked the strongest response.  It drew attention to the roles and relationships of sound and video, but also to those of the observer; knowing that these were random pairings, one had to acknowledge the inevitable compulsion to “make sense” of the two elements as a unified whole.  60x60x60 is ongoing, with another call for submissions and an interactive version of the project on their website.

Anne Rhodes, soprano; Johnny Rogers, wineglasses; Maura Valenti, Harp playing Anthony Braxton's Compositions 256 and 307

Anne Rhodes, soprano; Johnny Rogers, wineglasses; Maura Valenti, Harp playing Anthony Braxton’s Compositions 256 and 307

There were many more works to experience on Saturday, including an imaginative electronic installation by Brian Cook that used a wooden table as its physical interface; thoughtful installations by Lief Ellis and Scott Comanzo for audiences of one; a trio by Anthony Braxton with monomaniacal numeric text; Marc Burns’s composition combining chance, through-composition, graphic notation, and a kitchen clock; and a mix of acoustic and electronic pieces by Feng-Hsu Lee, Cenk Ergün, Todd Merrell, and Matt Sargent. Indeed, this was a festival of unpredictable and often incongruous works, but therein lay its charm.  Larger cities have so many artists and performances that one can almost always find his/her musical “clique,” but the scenes in smaller cities are often organized as much by geography as aesthetic.  And while it’s exciting to know you can find nearly any kind of a performance (no matter how specialized your tastes) in large urban markets, it’s also exciting that such wide range of artists come together in places like Hartford to create and promote work.  The strengths of these collaborative communities reside in their eclecticism: diverse events make room for varied perspectives and, perhaps, an even more complex musical dialogue.