Tag: review

Deep Sky Objects: Musiqa’s Season Opener

For more than a decade, Houston’s Musiqa has presented a sort of artistic cornucopia for its audience. Music, dance, and the spoken word come together with other art forms in dynamic multifaceted presentations that keep the audience engaged and on its toes. Their recent opening night featured a new commission supported by a major grant from Chamber Music America in the form of a collaborative work by composer Sebastian Currier and poet Sarah Manguso. Also featured were works by Lera Auerbach, Musiqa’s Pierre Jalbert, and the world premiere of choreographer Tina Bohnstedt’s work Divided and Scattered featuring music from Currier’s 1995 piece Quartetset.

Houston, like many large cities, is a work in progress and, as such, is regularly being torn apart and rebuilt in one way or another. After a slightly late start to accommodate an Escher-like parking situation, the evening began with several movements from Lera Auerbach’s Twenty-four Preludes for Violin and Piano. Using Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as a starting point, Auerbach’s piece explores a variety of styles and techniques that have been developed and become common since the composition of that seminal work. Violinist Lisa Burrell deftly negotiated the syncopated rhythms and chunky double stops of No. 9 in E major, trading hocketed figures with pianist Tali Morgulis. No. 3 in E major wandered in childlike, tonal, and innocent, lightly colored with dissonance around the edges. The stage was lit in bright swaths of red, blue, and green, which changed with each movement. I don’t suppose that there was any intention or suggestion of synesthesia here, but it was a nice visual reset between sections and pieces.

The Auerbach was followed by a reading by Sarah Manguso of selections of poetry from her book The Captain Lands in Paradise. Hearing a work delivered by its author has the potential to be either fantastic or terrible depending on the creator’s performance skills. Fortunately, Manguso’s understated delivery was captivating and provided an interesting change of perspective during the concert. Secret Alchemy by Pierre Jalbert received its Houston premiere and was prefaced by short descriptions and performance snippets of each movement. Violist James Dunham and cellist Lachezar Kostov joined Nelson and Morgulis for the four movement work. In the first movement, delicate appoggiaturas lead to repeated-note figures in the piano which when added to the close, oscillating harmonies in the violin and viola gave the impression of a breath held. A plaintive melody in the cello provided contrast to this texture, but it wasn’t until the appearance of a series of rapid ascending lines in the strings that the piece fully formed and really took off. Just as the motoric rhythms began to push it forward, it was pulled back by a return to the initial material and a wrapping up of the movement. It wasn’t unsatisfying or a tease, but rather provided a nice set up for the following movements. The second movement began with an agitated dynamic delivered by way of syncopated pizzicato accompanied by rumblings in the piano. A brief arco section gave way to a return of the pizzicato, this time reanimated with harmonics. High register piano skittered about as the harmonics and trills floated, coalesced, and dissipated, with added-value rhythms jumping the barline at every turn. The third movement started icy with the wide range in piano echoed in the strings, meaty fifths and unisons sounding larger than the personnel we saw on stage. The final movement was aggressive and explosive, with brutal attacks leading to rising waves in the strings plateauing in a static staccato figure. Crazy, angular parts for the cello fought for purchase while the violin and viola bickered in the background.

Currier’s Deep Sky Objects is described as “a cycle of love songs set in the distant future, exploring intergalactic longing and desire.” In ten movements and scored for soprano, electronics, and piano quintet, Currier manages to incorporate the electronics without being ruled by them. Each movement begins with an electronic incipit which created a “micro-composition” based on the title of each song, sort of an electronic calling card complete with a nonplussed female voice announcing the title, sounding ever so slightly like HAL from 2001:A Space Odyssey. Incorporating actual elements of signals generated by pulsars, man-made satellites, and Currier’s own creations suggestive of deep space, the electronic elements of the work serve for the most part a largely textural role; and they do it well. At times the incipits approached a suggestion of actual sci-fi fare, but never crossed the line and always set the stage acting as aural illuminations for the sound-text that followed. Soprano Karol Bennet delivered every syllable with finesse and passion, providing a perfect foil for the somewhat cold electronics of deep space.

Choreographer Tina Bohnstedt presented Divided and Scattered, a new work set to “Divided” and “Scatterbrained,”—two movements from Curriers Quartetset. Following a dramatic “Lowering of the String Quartet into the Pit” (by way of a motorized stage) Bohnstedt’s own quartet took the stage. Largely a three-against-one arrangement (and bearing in mind that my background in dance is…modest), Bohnstedt’s dancers from Houston Ballet II mirrored the music beautifully while presenting their own story on the stage.

I go to a fair number of new music concerts, and while I enjoy shows that feature exclusively recent fare, it’s also compelling to see presentations that combine the old and the new. The experience of seeing a concert programmed with music from a variety of eras is similar to seeing a concert programmed with a variety of arts. There is something refreshing about hearing everything all mixed together, and the combination resented by Musiqa on this and other concerts has a similar impact. Overall, the effect is one of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” and when the parts are this good by themselves, together they make for a particularly remarkable experience. The extremely high level of artistic presentation, the relaxed and welcoming attitude, and the diversity of programming come together to show why Musiqa plays such an important role in Houston’s new music scene.

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

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

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

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

Joyce playing the guitar in Trieste, 1915.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soli Plays ‘Til the End of Time

Premiere of Steven Mackey's Prelude to the End

Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End – Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

Austin’s central location puts me within just a few hours’ drive of most of the large Texas cities. Last fall I pointed my car east to check out Houston’s Musiqa, and so this spring I decided to head south to San Antonio. Known for the Riverwalk, the trail of Spanish missions, and the Alamo (though after more than a decade in Austin, it’s hard for me to think of anything but this when I think “Alamo”), San Antonio also has a vibrant musical community, and the chamber ensemble Soli is among the strongest proponents of new music in the region. Formed in 1994, Soli has commissioned 17 works in as many years, including the May 8 world premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End.

The McNay Art Museum was the setting for their final concert of the season. I arrived a bit early, and it looked as though it might turn out to be one of those old-school new music concerts where there are more people on stage than in the seats; a real bummer given the Mackey world premiere that was forthcoming. The handful of people who were there twenty minutes before curtain were dwarfed by the 100+ chairs, and as the 7:00 p.m. start arrived, Soli was joined on stage by Mackey, video director Mark DeChiazza, and dancer Kristin Clotfelter. However, as the casual pre-concert discussion led by pianist Carolyn True progressed, the rest of the audience came in by and by, eventually all but filling the room.

The concert began with la scène miniature quartet by Richard Carrick. I’ve never really tuned in to microtonality, so its mention in the program notes made me a bit wary, but Carrick’s spare use here was effective without descending into the sometimes painful, quasi-out-of-tune world which often develops. The microtonal lines in the violin played well against the piano, long loping phrases giving way to breathy bass clarinet and seagull harmonics in the cello, the latter sounding quite organic and natural in the texture and not like the special effect it typically is. These lines moved seamlessly between the bass clarinet and cello, which were rejoined shortly by a more consonant dance in the violin and piano, the former eventually returning to microtones. Finally, they were all together, syncopated germs bouncing about as a Bela Lugosi moment by way of Bartók showed up at the end of the work, tremolo and all, with big eyebrows in the piano.

An oldie but goodie, Stephen Hartke’s trio for piano, clarinet, and violin The Horse with The Lavender Eye (1997) followed the Carrick. Featuring left hand alone for all performers initially, piano rumbles, angular clarinet lines, and insectile pizz. arpeggios populate the first movement, the extreme quiet of the violin drawing the listener in as the piece shuffles forth. “The Servant Of Two Masters” was a fitting title, as listening to the movement almost seems like flipping back and forth between two television programs. True divided her time between Stephanie Key’s piercing clarinet part and Ertan Torgul’s contrasting gossamer violin lines. The peaceful wandering lines of “Cancel My Rumba Lesson” which followed contrasted with both the earlier manic material and the title itself. The communication on stage was tight and particularly notable during the fits and starts of the second movement.

The McNay was doing a big Warhol show, so Paul Moravec’s Andy Warhol Sez, originally for piano and bassoon, arranged here by Key for bass clarinet, seemed a particularly appropriate choice. Consisting of seven miniatures (some a bit bigger than others), the piece explored a variety of moods and textures and was quite attractive and approachable. The Moravec was followed by an arrangement of “Kashmir” performed by cellist David Mollenauer. [1] I would have to think at least twice before deciding not to do an impression of Robert Plant in a truly seminal Zeppelin track, but I have to say that Mollenauer pulled it off with aplomb. The arrangement was originally for cello ensemble, but Mollenauer recorded several backing tracks which he played along with live, complete with the occasional percussive thwack. The entire evening was quite well received, but the applause volume peaked at the end of this piece. It occurred to me afterward that there were likely a number of people in the audience who were not familiar with the source material and simply enjoyed the tune and the vitality of the performance. While I also enjoyed it, I did find myself wishing that I could hear this piece without the baggage of an entire high school life spent playing rock guitar. [2]

Speaking of misspent youth as it relates to guitars, the second half featured the premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End. Commissioned by Soli and featuring video by Mark DeChiazza of a performance by dancer Kristin Clotfelter, Prelude to the End was written not exactly as a response to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, but with the knowledge that any piece written for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano might be programmed along with the Quartet, or at least seen in light of it. No pressure. Initially populated with bright declamatory gestures among the ensemble, high moto perpetuo piano lines developed which were underscored by jagged phrases in the cello and bass clarinet. These phrases are picked up on by the violin, leading to an overall darker section. A brief return to the opening material acted as a bridge to new and highly syncopated lines, heavy chordal riffs in the piano accompanied by high, dramatic violin parts. This eventually spins itself out leading to somber, slower, and more reflective material which lasted through the end of the work.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.
Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

The concert was followed by a reception as casual as the opening of the show. Soli and their guest artists spent the better part of the next hour chatting with the audience in the lobby, and I found myself in a conversation with a recently retired art teacher who had just moved back to Texas after several decades teaching in New York. She and I briefly discussed the finer points of the evening’s music, but much of our discussion was about the concert experience itself. She was happily surprised at the broad demographic of the audience, the relaxed atmosphere, and the warmth and connectivity of the musicians both on and off the stage. She said it reminded her of shows she’d seen back east, but was not necessarily what she’d expected upon her return. I said that I thought the show was representative of my concert-going experience in the area, and that if she enjoyed this one, there were likely many more in store for her. She seemed heartened by that, and as she made her way over to mingle with the artists, I headed out to my car, the riff from “Kashmir” my accompaniment on the way home.


1. It occurs to me that I might need to mention that this piece is by Led Zeppelin, though I hope that goes without saying.

2. Including “Kashmir.” Lots of “Kashmir.”

New England’s Prospect: Space Is the Place

The Vela Molecular Cloud Ridge - Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Vela Molecular Cloud Ridge – Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

One of the most unexpectedly enjoyable things about Gérard Grisey’s Le Noir de l’Étoile is that the composer let the universe groove harder than the music. That suits the ecologically saturated air of the rustic hamlet of Putney, Vermont, where Grisey’s astronomical rumination had a rare performance on May 25, courtesy of Yellow Barn, the music festival and summer school that, after four decades, remains happily ensconced there. Both the piece and the place find gratification in the seeming middle of nowhere.

Pulsars were the inspiration for Grisey’s hour-long opus, those strange, super-dense objects left after a star goes supernova, the remains becoming a spinning beacon of powerful radio signals; the very sounds of those signals are woven into the piece as the cosmological accomplices of the six percussionist performers. The work’s celestial context was also the point around which orbited a week of community activities; Seth Knopp, Yellow Barn’s artistic director, brought astronomer Tom Geballe from the Gemini Observatory to give talks to Putney residents and students at the Greenwood School, where the performance also took place.

The background was interesting, but the performance was the thing. Yellow Barn has a program of artistic residencies, bringing musicians up to Putney during the non-summer months to pursue projects on a total immersion basis. Percussionists Greg Beyer and Doug Perkins, Yellow Barn alumni both, brought four younger percussionists with them (James Beauton, Amy Garapic, Jeff Stern, and Mari Yoshinaga); while Geballe primed the populace, the six drummers spent a week preparing for Grisey’s one-of-a-kind space opera.

Le Noir de l’Étoile is just the type of piece made for such a residency: big, challenging, logistically elaborate (it was composed for Le Percussions de Strasbourg, famous stockpilers of exotic instruments), best suited to a context where it can reign as the event that it is. The premiere put the six percussionists outdoors, on large platforms, in a ring surrounding the audience. That was the plan in Putney as well, but persistent forecasts of thunderstorms necessitated a move indoors—thunderstorms that never, in fact, materialized (New England Weather Forecasts: Utterly Useless Since 1620™). Still, the Greenwood School gymnasium, though more stuffy and less comfortable than a patch of Vermont lawn (those in the audience inclined to experience the music’s full grooviness sat on floor mats, the smell and grit of which provided instant transportation back to grade-school gym class), was not an altogether bad substitute, making for a more close-up, visceral experience of Grisey’s spatial effects.

Grisey had moved past spectralism by 1989, when he started composing Le Noir d’Étoile, but the music is still saturated with vibrations and series and cycles. The physical nature of pulsars—unimaginably heavy neutron stars, spinning around at unimaginably fast rates, radio signals pouring out of their poles like cosmic lighthouses—is always being reflected in some aspect of the score. Spin is important: most sections build up to an effect of a particular type of sound—bass thwacks, wood blocks, snare rolls—being transferred from percussionist to percussionist, swirling around the audience within. (At one point, the sound of snares spin in one direction, while the sound of gongs spin in the opposite direction, a terrific musical trick.) The signal rates of two particular pulsars, the Vela pulsar (an 11-pulse-per-second hi-hat) and 0329+54 (an 84 beats-per-minute bass drum) keys the rhythmic vocabulary.

But the point of the piece is not to imitate the pulsars—it’s to accompany them. The electronic recordings of both pulsars’ signals are framed like featured players. The percussionists might introduce both the slow and fast rates right at the beginning of the score, but they turn the ratios into waves of sound, amorphous and free-form; when the sound of the Vela pulsar enters, it turns the abstraction into a rave, holding the stage for a long, driving, blazingly metronomic solo. The sound of 0329+54 is delayed even longer, and set up even more palpably, with, of all things, a six-person-strong drumroll, the better to set off its insistent gravity. (In the original performance, 0329+54’s part was actually transmitted live, via a nearby observatory.)

It really is operatic in effect, a showcase for two cosmic prime donne. In fact, Le Noir de l’Étoile is a concentrated dose of Grisey’s customary dramaturgy. The composer might have insisted that music’s true concern should be “sound not theatre,” but few composers of the past quarter-century had Grisey’s knack for showcasing his sounds with such theatrical flair. In a sense, Grisey was forever a gimmicky composer; but the gimmicks are so good, so conceptually apposite, so perfectly suited to the sonic surroundings, that it transcends the epithet. Le Noir de l’Étoile touches on it all: Grisey’s ringmaster-like sense of physical space; his way with a programmatic framework; his Chekovian guns carefully introduced in the first act and going off in the third; his penchant for putting individual sounds and instruments in the spotlight—both acoustically and, on occasion, quite literally. I’m tempted to describe the very Grisey-like coup de théâtre at the end of Le Noir de l’Étoile, but I think I will leave it as a surprise for those who might not yet have experienced the piece. It is another bit of musical shtick, but perfect, in its way, and a punctuation that this particular performance, extroverted and accomplished in equal turn, more than earned.

Introducing the performance, and wryly acknowledging the bait-and-switch weather conditions, Knopp noted in passing that “we’re still hoping for rain”—but the skies remained stubbornly clear, and one exited the gymnasium to a black sky, dotted with stars, each one at some stage of its own life cycle, thermonuclear furnaces at mind-bendingly far remove. Grisey’s rendition brings that life cycle up close, the afterlife of stars channeled into a churning spectacle. There is a memento mori aspect to Le Noir de l’Étoile, not inappropriate for a Memorial Day weekend; after the introduction of the sound of 0329+54, especially, the six percussionists blanket the soundscape with a fine powder of cymbal rolls and wire brushes. Remember you are cosmic dust, and to cosmic dust you shall return. But the whirling snare rolls eventually return—Grisey, the master showman, always knows his best effects—and the piece ends in thrilling rather than melancholic fashion. The life cycle of another person can be as practically distant to us as that of a star; that is, until they suddenly intersect. Le Noir d’Étoile opens out the spark of contact.