Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 3/2/2012

Actually I wrote this review last week (after seeing the concert); my apologies to anyone who was expecting to read it sooner...

From the Seattle Composers' Salon website: “The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers.

The first piece was a string bass solo by John Teske. It consisted of a single note. A single note, that is, with infinite variations, and interplay with the ambient sound in the performance space. He began quietly. The single bowed note growled out of silence, then stopped, then resumed its growl, ever-so-slightly louder. It was the lowest open string on the instrument, tuned down a fifth. As it grew in volume, nuance, in seemingly in complexity, it began to take on something of a physical presence; one could feel it pulsating in the room from different directions. Sounds began to drift in from outside of the hall; there was a meeting of children or teens going on in another room in the building, and they were not aware of the concert. No problem – their voices mingled with the “live” sounds from the bass – now having peaked in volume and returning to the silence from whence it came – and provided an unpredictable counterpoint. Afterwards (there is always a question and answer session after each piece at a Composers’ Salon), Mr. Teske explained that he was not trying particularly to interact with the ambient sound, but the music was based on the sound and feel of the note on the instrument itself – he’d play the note, then wait until he could no longer hear it or feel it vibrating in the bass, then play it again, so the varying spaces between its iterations were a result of the physics of the instrument. Altogether a fascinating excursion into the variety available in a single note, and (along with Neal Meyers’ “Gradus” and lots of pieces by various drone-minimalists) ample proof that what would appear boring in theory is in reality anything but.

The second piece was by pianist and composer Terry Wergeland. Before beginning, he said that he didn’t need to explain the piece at all; since it came right after the John Teske piece, its intent should be obvious. It’s called “88”, he said. It joins two other pieces (“N” by Keith Eisenbrey and the supposed “World’s Ugliest Music”) as an exploration of the sonorities of each of the 88 notes available on a standard piano played only once. The aim of each of these pieces is different. Mr. Eisenbrey’s is something of a coda to Neal Meyer’s “Gradus”, which (over the course of years, apparently) explores each note in turn, then every possible combination of notes. Since Mr. Eisenbrey’s piece is a systematic presentation of the notes (beginning in the center of the keyboard and fanning out), interest comes from the repeated interactions of the notes and from unexpected differences in volume and duration. “The World’s Ugliest Music”, on the other hand, obviously attempts to create something unlistenable by using a mathematical formula to make sure that no patterns appear – and it fails utterly because parts of it are quite beautiful (the individual notes are sometimes reminiscent of cathedral bells), and, despite all the precautions, patters do appear. Mr. Wergeland’s “88” is somewhere between these two extremes. The notes are presented, with no discernible variation in timbre or volume, one at a time – but they add up, each appearing in an interesting and/or beautiful interval with the one before. It is as if it were a gigantic tone-row for an unusually meditative serialist composition. In the end, it (along with John Teske’s unnamed piece) presents theory that works beautifully in practice. Both are elegant statements of the beauty that can be coaxed out of what looks like dry academia; and both fly in the face of “mainstream” beautyphobia.

The Salon took a decidedly classical turn with the third piece. This was a trio by Clement Reid; I’d heard the violnist and violist practice it beforehand and made the comment that it sounded quite French. The observation stood when I heard it a second time (and all the way through) – beginning melodically with a theme that could have been my César Franck, it then proceeded through passages reminiscent of Debussy and Messiaen. It was as if I was hearing a century of French chamber music compressed into a luscious five minutes. Quite a feat! During the talkback session, however, it became obvious that Mr Reid’s intent had nothing whatsoever to do with French music (or music of any other particular country or region) – the piece had been written for students to play and he’d merely wanted to write something that was easy to understand but a little challenging to play. At this he’d succeeded, but of course it was a lot more than just easy to understand. The apparent “French” styles were probably a result of solving similar problems: French composers, from Franck through to Debussy to Messiaen, have often written music that is formally very difficult and esoteric but (on the surface) agreeable and easy to understand. I might add that some American composers, as different as Copland and Steve Reich, have done similar, though their harmonic language is somewhat different.

Extreme, austere minimalism, then lush classicism, what could follow? The answer came with the fourth (and longest) piece, a performance piece called “Who are you and how do you know?” by Jay Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton had played some of his homemade instruments in part of my “StormSound” cycle last year, and I’d heard him play a folk-inspired song cycle later in the year; this was closer to the latter. First, there were two “folk songs” with two guitars; one was actually in a jazz style and both included an improvised solo); then Mr. Hamilton sang and acted a capella (with a hand puppet) and a brief piano interlude (played by Anne Cummings). If that description sounds a little vague, I’ve left it so on purpose; much of the interest of the piece came from the stage presentation. The Mr. Hamilton dealt with deep religious and philosophical issues in the piece, presented under a veneer of comedy. One of the issues presented was how we (can) relate to God – though the character representing God refused to name Himself (he merely said he wasn’t this or that god – or God – from various religious traditions) – perhaps this was approaching the Hebrew scriptures of God merely saying “I Am Who I Am”. The character (represented by the hand puppet!) also stated that he God with neither an upper nor lower case “G”. This is a conundrum in writing (there is no “middle case G”, of course) and also in definition: God with an upper case “G” is of course a different concept than those various beings from various traditions that have a lower case “g”. And if this is neither… In the end, we (the audience) is left to decide what to make of the idea, and that is of course Mr. Hamiton’s intent. At any rate, he’s going to present the entire piece (with more performers) at the Chapel on April 7th.

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