Boston: SICPP’s Love and Geometry

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

A cynocephalus, from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

It was an angle of birds
directed toward
that latitude of iron and snow
along their rectilinear road:
with the devouring rectitude
of an evident arrow,
the airborne numbers voyaging
to procreate, formed
from imperative love and geometry.

—Pablo Neruda, “Migración”

I tend to assume that every concert, whether by conscious design or not, contains a coherent narrative of some kind. It might not be the most defensible assumption, but it is useful, to me at least; it gets me into a mode of listening that’s a little more engaged than it might otherwise be. That doesn’t mean the narrative is always plain, though. On paper, the June 17 concert presented by the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP, known to the faithful as “Sick Puppy”), part of the institute’s annual week of new music training, festivities, and shenanigans, made some piece-to-piece local connections but seemed more miscellaneous on a global scale. In performance, though, a theme kept peeking around the edges, hovering peripherally, receding but then coming back into view. It took me a while to get a sense of it; I’m still not sure I got it. But it concerned two concepts that I have long been obsessed with, and that have been more and more salient in recent times: civilization and citizenship.

* * *

Citizenship of a musical kind was prominent. SICPP director Stephen Drury led off with a trio of piano solo works—big and fingerbusting, all past and future beneficiaries of Drury’s committed advocacy. And the concert was SICPP’s most full-fledged (though, sadly, unplanned) memorial to Lee Hyla, who had been scheduled to be the institute’s composer-in-residence. Roger Reynolds stepped in after Hyla fell ill, and programs later in the week featured much of Reynolds’s music, but this concert was Hyla’s—three pieces interspersed with other music that, directly and indirectly, provided comment and complement.
Hyla’s art was that of a model musical citizen who, nonetheless, maintained a wary distance from the more civilized—or civilizing—aspects of music. The raison d’être of Basic Training is a celebration of citizenship: Drury asked Hyla to write it as a tribute to Drury’s teacher, Margaret Ott. The piece itself, though, is a furious, sometimes funny, but ultimately equivocal portrayal of civilization’s progress. From a single-note, deliberately clunky opening (“Neanderthal-like,” according to Hyla’s program note), the piece acquires and deploys increasingly frenetic technique—it’s learning, WarGames-style. (My favorite aspect was how Hyla’s facility with complicated, off-kilter rhythms recreates the kind of distortions that happen when you can almost play something, hesitations and tumbles turning into their own determined groove.) The music consumes itself in virtuosity, then melts into a simpler, orderly, triadic coda; but the triad is minor, and the return of that single opening note, now rounded and polished into a beautiful object, is suffused with melancholy.

Basic Training constructs a culture; John Zorn’s Carny pulverizes it. It is Zorn in his full-on, Carl-Stalling-cartoon-collage mode: not so much a piece as a hundred different pieces run together for maximum slapstick contrast. Quotations abound in motion-blurred plenitude; stylistic signifiers come and go with near-subliminal swiftness. Carny is one of Drury’s specialties (he was one of its dedicatees), and the initial effect was simple astonishment at his fierce precision and energy. But the single performer and instrument, perhaps, gives Carny, for all its information overload, a kind of narrative unity: a montage-based secret history of civilized culture. The piece delights in exposing just how thin the line is that separates comforting dichotomies: tonal and atonal, old and new, high and low—and, finally, comedy and horror. Carny is funny until it’s not, the nonstop cartoon violence turning suspiciously lifelike.

Zorn reaches his coda by way of an outburst of clusters that Drury has called a “nuclear holocaust…. Are we now paying dearly for the previous fun and games?” Drury provided one possible answer by making a segue directly from Zorn’s fade-out ending into Frederic Rzewski’s version of the anti-war spiritual “Down By the Riverside” from his North American Ballads. Rzewski portrays that most crucial responsibility of citizenship—righteous protest—as invitingly easy, then perhaps too easy, then hard-won and triumphant, but then, as the music dwindles away, exhausting as well. That, in turn, gave Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan the air of a cautionary tale. The title of Hyla’s 1994 duo for bass clarinet (Rane Moore) and baritone saxophone (Philipp Staeudlin) references a lost civilization and language; in this context, the music’s truly impressive channeling of the instruments’ capacity for guttural honking sounded like an apocalyptic klaxon, a drive-by warning to turn around before it’s too late. As with Basic Training, the tone was primarily funky and fiery, but shaded by passages of lyricism shot through with minor-mode regret. Part and parcel of the civilizing impulse, Hyla seemed to say, is a wistful nostalgia for anarchic wildness.

* * *

If the first half was all about civilization and its discontents, the concert’s second half opened in back-to-the-land fashion—or, maybe, under-the-land. Chaya Czernowin’s Wintersongs IV: Wounds/Mistletoe (a world premiere) was positively tectonic, slow-shifting, granitic textures heavy with friction. The 17-player ensemble (conducted by Drury) was pitched toward registral extremes, all low growls and high whines, with microtonal abrasions and lots of white noise: snares, cymbals, breath sounds from the winds and brass. Not all of Czernowin’s effects came off—having all the wind players whisper over the mouths of plastic and glass bottles, for instance, was a provocative visual but proved barely audible. But the piece arrived at some great, punishingly bright, skull-rattling sonorities. Like magma, Wintersongs IV moved slow but, eventually, burned hot.

Hyla’s Migración, one of his last pieces (it was premiered in February by the SICPP-affiliated Callithumpian Consort), seemed appropriately airy by comparison. The text is a long Pablo Neruda poem considering natural cycles, winter and spring, life and death. But a tension between the individual and the collective is ever-present. The migrating birds of the title are considered as a machine, a product of technology: “a squadron of feathers, / an ocean liner / fluttering in the air.” The “transparent ship / constructs unity from many wings.” Neruda’s “multiplied hungry heart,” in Hyla’s setting, becomes something like a crowd of strangers on the same ferry.

A mezzo-soprano (Thea Lobo) sings (and, at one point speaks) the text in an equable but relentlessly declamatory style, the nine-player ensemble (conducted, again, by Drury) quilting an accompaniment out of instrumental aphorisms. Neruda’s conflation of evolved and constructed has a timbral echo, an often-yoked trio of piano, harp, and cimbalom, feathery and discrete at the same time, a quiet purr of rivets. The trajectory of Migración felt less conventionally expressive than meditatively compulsory: a reflective commute rather than an adventurous voyage.

Like many a commute, Migración led into a teeming urban grid, Charles Ives’s Set for Theatre Orchestra, with even the ensemble arranged on stage as if by zoning committee: percussion on the north side, timpani on the south side, winds and strings ensconced on the east and west sides, the piano centrally parked. The middle movement, “In the Inn,” was saturated with volatile ragtime, anticipating and recapitulating that thread from Hyla and Zorn and Rzewski. And the third movement, “In the Night,” with the sound of extra instruments drifting in from offstage suburbs, was gorgeous. But it was the opening movement that resonated most with the second half’s town-and-country unease, and the program as a whole: “In the Cage,” brooding, stalking, its leopard in the zoo pacing its pen, and the boy outside wondering as to the nature and benefit of the civilizing bars.

* * *

Pablo Neruda himself had an attitude toward citizenship and civilization similar to Hyla’s, an acute sense of the gap between an artist’s individuality and an artistic movement within society. In a 1971 interview with Canadian radio, Neruda denied that he was a political poet:

I am the poet of the moon, I am the poet of the flowers, I am the poet of love. Meaning I have a very old conception of poetry, which does not contradict the possibility that I have written, and that I continue to write, poems that are dedicated to the development of society and to the power of progress and of peace.

In the end, the thread tying together the concert was that the music never contradicted the possibility, either. Civilization was regarded with skepticism, but still engaged with it energetically and even exultantly; the citizenship on display was constantly reaching out, expanding the network, reweaving the web. The evening’s music squared the circle of the contemporary avant-garde, how the often grim nature of the modern condition can yield such exuberant art, how encyclopedic determinations of style and craft can create the freest expression. The concert postulated its own conclusion—civilization is technique; citizenship is love.

The Mush Race of Boston: The SICPP 2013 Iditarod

How do you prepare for a concert presentation of over eight nearly continuous hours of new music? As a listener, it helps to read about the music, nap in advance, plan to get some fresh air, and pack a few good snacks. If you’re a performer, and the event is the Iditarod at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice, it involves nine intensive days of practice, rehearsal, workshopping, and bonding with other musicians. SICPP (pronounced “sick puppy”) takes place every summer at the New England Conservatory. As you may already know, the Iditarod, from which SICPP’s closing event borrows its name, is an annual sled dog race held over several weeks and many different types of terrain in Alaska. It is, I am sure, a test of commitment, knowledge, stamina, and concentration. It also involves teamwork and adjustment to shifting conditions, which makes it a more apt name than the more usual “marathon” for what we experienced last Saturday.

The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio's Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon

The closing piece of the whole event was a performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon.

But SICPP includes a lot more than just the culminating Iditarod. This year’s institute began on June 14th and ran through the 22nd, dipping half an hour into the 23rd. There were concerts every evening from the 16th onward, primarily featuring faculty and guests until the Iditarod, which was student-centered but frequently involved faculty in the chamber groups. Concurrent with the Iditarod was a set of installation pieces, which I unfortunately missed due to a planning error. There were also lunchtime concerts at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall, a co-presentation with Boston GuitarFest on Thursday afternoon, and an Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday afternoon. I attended the Friday and Saturday events. The Friday events, especially the evening concert, had an atmosphere more like a summer camp or a sporting event than—I think it’s safe to say—any other new music event I’ve experienced. There was a great deal of enthusiasm about the music and the performances, and it was evident that many new friendships among the players had formed over the preceding week. But the atmosphere on Saturday, though still friendly, was far from casual. All of the students were playing or having their works played that evening, and while there was still plenty of enthusiasm, it was tempered by a palpable sense of concentration.

Three performances during the Iditarod were remarkable in the artistry that the musicians brought to the pieces. At no moment did these feel like student performances. They were impeccably prepared, and transcended the requisite technical demands. Greg Jukes, percussion, Ryan McCullough, piano, and Jing Li, cello, played Rand Steiger’s Trio in Memoriam with a level of confidence and surety that allowed its emotional scope to come through with stunning clarity. McCullough was also part of the ensemble for Ives’s Piano Trio, along with Gabby Diaz, violin, and Stephen Marotto, cello. It was a full-on performance, richly conveying the wildness of the second movement and the unholy explosion of vibrant noise in the third. The closing piece of the whole event was an incredibly beautiful performance of Berio’s Folk Songs, featuring soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon, who switched seemingly effortlessly into an entirely different vocal delivery for the closing “Azerbaijan Love Song.”

Not all of the pieces called for or allowed such a no-holds-barred approach. Many of them required one very specific type of intensity. The driving pulses of Steve Reich’s Tehillim were a test of stamina that was very successfully met across the ensemble for over half an hour. In Feldman’s 2 pieces for 3 pianos, the holds were effectively, and appropriately, barred. Beth Karp, Valerie Ross, and Kyle Johnson brought great coolness, discipline, and rigor to the work.

That was also true of the two Feldman performances at the Friday lunchtime concert at the Gardner Museum: Voice, Violin and Piano by soprano Nina Guo, violinist Gabby Diaz, and pianist Angelique Po, and of Why Patterns? by flutist Jessi Rosinski, pianist Amy O’Dell, and Caleb Herron on glockenspiel. Xenakis’s Dikhthas, played with real vigor and commitment by pianist Mari Kawamura and violinist Micah Ringham, was an unrelenting volcanic eruption. Later at the Friday evening concert, Alan Sentman’s Patchwork provoked quite a lot of laughter, particularly in the third section, as Stuart Gerber very cleverly made use of the improvisational freedoms provided by the composer. Immediately after this piece he dove into the visceral discipline and tremendous energy demanded by Xenakis’s Rebonds. Adam Roberts’s Anakhtara was poised in a strange and beautiful stillness and distance, elegantly conveyed by its dedicatee, cellist Benjamin Schwartz. Schwartz followed with Ulrich Kreppein’s mysterious, oblique, and understated Abendlich auf schattenbegleiteten wegen. Xenakis’s Okho was a great closer, with its tight ensemble playing in the exploration of traditional and non-traditional djembe techniques. Mathias Spahlinger’s musica impura was the one piece to be performed both by faculty on Friday evening (Jen Ashe, soprano, Maarten Stragier, guitar, Nick Tolle, percussion) and then again during the Iditarod by student participants (Dino Georgeton, percussion, Katrina Leshan, guitar, Susanna Su, soprano). This piece presented ironically disjunct sections of material, which were both technically and aesthetically demanding. It’s to be expected that the faculty performance would be more assured. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would feel a greater interest in the piece following the student performance. It was a less performative, less extroverted performance, but the honest engagement with the problems presented by the work was invigorating.
In the Electronic Workshop Concert on Friday, Susanna Su, soprano, with Ian Headley, electronics, gave a deeply felt and richly evocative performance of Kaija Saariaho’s Lohn. Headley’s composition, Two Rules, for percussionist John Andress and live electronics by the composer, had a strikingly visceral, three-dimensional quality. David Stenson’s untitled alternated effectively between static and liquid states, while Ariane Miyasaki’s Hindsight used the electronics to sonically put the audience inside of Beth McDonald’s tuba. Asha Tamirisa’s Clark continued in this line of using electronics to reveal, rather than obscure, the physical impacts of John Andress’s performance. The concert closed with a collaboration by the participants in the Electronic Workshop and Susanna Su on Benjamin Bacon’s d’chromeo, described by Bacon as a framework for improvisation, in which dynamic shapes are given but other parameters are free.

Returning to the Iditarod performances, Scott Deal’s Goldstream Variations opened the event, with a maximal, inclusive style that provided a great set of playing opportunities for the whole ensemble. Roger Miller’s Vines for Music was an immediate stylistic contrast, and the musicians proved themselves totally ready for this pared down aesthetic. While Miller nods to Cage in the program notes because of the use of prepared piano, there is a more implicit resonance with Lucier and a piece like Still Lives in the use of shapes found around the house (in Miller’s case, vines attached to the garage door) as pitch contour. The transparent quality of the slow string glissandi and careful inside-the-piano work demanded a special kind of concentration from the players, which was beautifully met. In Rand Steiger’s 13 LOOPS, the strength of the ensemble playing continued, revealing itself as a very welcome theme of the evening. Originally dedicated to Dorothy Stone, the original flutist of the California E.A.R. Unit, in this performance the piece was a great vehicle for flutist Sarah Pyle, who really shone in this role. Taylor Long and Robin Hirshberg, percussion, and Angelique Po and Raquel Gorgojo (amplified pianos) carried the individual characters of each of the pieces of George Crumb’s Makrokosmos III. This performance was not about the many extended techniques involved, but about the states they evoked. These techniques were understood as resources, not as showcases in themselves.

Among the works by student composers (who are mostly, if not all, working at the graduate level), 27 also showed a real sensitivity in its use of extended techniques, both from the composer, Julio Zúñiga, and from Eve Boltax, viola, and Nicolas Loh, piano. It was an understated performance, deriving real intensity from the smallest actions. Later in that set, Ethan Braun’s Mud Doll displayed a far more overt intensity. In what Braun calls the “emotional centerpiece” of his chamber opera, soprano Amy Foote and saxophonist Phillipp Staeudlin invaded the stratosphere in one wonderfully terrible, indelible moment. Earlier in the evening, Clifton Ingram’s Thought Memory juxtaposed memory, represented by a tabletop guitar, with thought, articulated on a second, more conventionally held instrument. Both guitars were played by Katrina Leshan, who gave this piece a highly nuanced performance in all its dimensions. The diversity of these student works stretched in other directions, from the barely voiced and sometimes unvoiced ckifi/kn by Justin Murphy-Mancini, to the vibrant points of stasis and pulsations within a narrow band of Katherine Young’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, to the active pitch, rhythmic, and timbral cycles of Alex Huddleston’s Parallax, projected with masterly assurance by flutist Jessi Rosinski. In the next set, Onur Yildirim’s Mûş-ı Zamân II, influenced by the study of the physics of time, was rich with instrumental color and ornamental activity. José Manuel Serrano’s Breve was a work of a very different nature, made up of a series of inconclusive, yet very rich musical gestures. Aaron Jay Myers found an effective advocate for Leg and Skull in percussionist Taylor Long, who set the air ringing throughout the hall in these musical evocations of decay. The final student work of the evening was Emily Koh’s cycrotations for percussion quartet, which I remember for its haunting, ghostly, spacious quality.

Taken together, these ten works are a useful snapshot of the aesthetic diversity of composition occurring these days at the student level. In combination with Rand Steiger’s residency and the numerous other programmed works, participants and audience members, including myself, got a great view of the overwhelming breadth of this field. Most of all, it’s truly invigorating to see such capable musicians taking on the many demands of contemporary music with commitment.

One question was stirred for me in the wake of this event, however. With very few exceptions, the pieces performed by the students at SICPP were either by composers who were present or who are well established in the canon. Feldman, Berio, Xenakis, etc., are not names that a musician with an active interest in new music can (or should) miss. But there are any number of composers who might be of significant interest to performers who are neither canonized nor part of their academic institutions or local scenes. This is not so much a criticism of SICPP—I couldn’t imagine that one more piece could have been fit into those nine days—but more a question to performers such as the participants in SICPP, whose involvement in the program is proof of an active interest in new music. How do you go about finding the contemporary music that is not handed to you, either by peers, by faculty, or as recognized important literature? The argument could be made that there has never been such a promising time as the present to make your own musical maps, as you discover the work for which you can advocate the most effectively, and which brings you the most joy. So much of that joy came through during the two days of performance that I witnessed, and there is no good reason that it can’t continue to spin itself out with new musical discoveries, through the summer and into the years ahead.