Thursday, May 24, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Modern Orchestra plays Dufourt and Feldman; 5/19/2012

This concert presented two pieces based on visual art. The idea is familiar from Mussorgsky and Respighi and more recent pieces; I have used it myself (see the note at the end of this post).

The first half of the program was “L'Asie d'aprés Tiepolo” by Hugues Dufourt. This was my first chance to hear a French spectralist work “live”; the effect of the timbre-based music was nearly overwhelming. The piece was based on a chaotic depiction of “Asia” by Baroque painter Tiepolo. The first movement was indeed very chaotic, though chaotic in a familiar (if organized) way – the use of multiple layers of extreme complexity to give the impression of chaos is a frequent feature of various other European “modernisms” including works of Ligeti, Xenakis and Messiaen. All of those achieve their complexity/chaos in different manners (mathematical formulae and birdsong, among others); Dufourt’s use of timbre to “cause” composition was another twist on the concept, but in the end, the “newness” is purely academic. The overall effect, like that of Ligeti’s piano concerto or the wilder parts of Messiaen’s “Turangalila Symphony”, is mostly excitement; a driving force (like an action movie) beneath (or above) layers of noise. Whatever; it was fun and interesting music.

A sudden moment of silence and a piano cadenza led into the longer second section, which consisted mostly of unstable clusters of notes (too slow and quiet to be “chaotic” anymore) that faded into silence. It resembled music by Feldman, and of course set up the expectations for the next piece on the program.

Feldman’s “Rothko Chapel” (for chorus and small ensemble) is one of the seminal pieces of late twentieth-century music. Ambiguous “cluster chords” float above nothingness, blank sounds in imitation of Rothko’s “blank” canvasses. Through its several connected sections, the music gradually brings out melodic material: beginning nebulous, then with the barest hints of a “tune” in a simple timpani ostinato, then a soprano solo that keeps attempting to be diatonic but is foiled by stubborn off-key intervals, and finally with a modal (and very recognizable) melisma for viola. In the end, however, there is that ambiguity – the choral “cluster chords” return and the modality is obliterated. This use of sound symbolism and “traditional” melody is at odds with much of Feldman’s music; it may represent the ambiguity of the Rothko Chapel itself – if it is about all (or no) religions, and the paintings (and architecture) avoid any recognizable religious iconography, then who is the God at the center?

The playing of both pieces was excellent, both in technique and interpretation. Oddly, however, the performance space was less suitable for the Feldman than one would expect; the high ceilings create wonderful echoes for small instrumental ensembles, but somehow the chorus didn’t sound resonant enough. This was no fault of theirs; it may have been only because of where I was sitting (in the middle of the large audience) but it surprised me anyway. I’ll have to hear another Seattle Modern Orchestra concert with a chorus to see if this is the case.

Now for that comment about music based on art: I’ve often used the same idea in my own pieces, such as the Ukiyo-è piano pieces, and my set of “SoundScrolls” – both of which will be played in my concert tonight, 8:00, at Good Shepherd Center. The Seattle Weekly has already called one of the pieces “gorgeous”. I had to get in a plug there before I signed off…

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Concert Review: New Music from the West Coast – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 5/5/2012

A varied concert, though generally tranquil; by three different composers.

Music for qin, by Christopher Roberts

The Chinese music for this ancient stringed instrument often emphasizes its twanging bass notes, which sound oddly akin to Mississippi delta blues, and save the airy, ringing harmonics for special moments of surprising beauty – something of an ethereal special effect. Christopher’s music was the inverse. He created most of the (freeform) melodic material from the overtones, with only occasionally venturing into the bass reverberations. The result was deeply affecting, meditative sounds that revealed their Chinese and “new music” roots equally. He played four pieces that seemed to form a set (they are also together on a CD), lasting a little longer than thirty minutes, and this half of the concert was far too short.

(...not played by Christopher Roberts in this picture.)

Trombones, found objects and found sound by Nat Evans

After the intermission, Jeremiah Cawley and Ken Pendergrass (both on trombones) played the only ensemble piece in the concert, Nat Evans’ “Still Life with Transmigration”. Nat had provided prerecorded electronic ambience: peaceful nature sounds mixed with unidentifiable, mysterious drones – both akin to my “StormSound” music – over which they began the piece with summonings on two conch shells. These had microtonal intonations, which set up harmonic beats throughout the hall – a portentous introduction to the trombones. The trombone music itself was melodic, tranquil, and overlapped heterophonically, furthering the “otherworldly but of this world” atmosphere. For the last third of the piece, they set down their trombones and played the various natural objects scattered around the stage as percussion instruments: sticks, stones, and leafy branches all became part of an orchestra of organic sounds. One can of course rub stones together to make a sound, as well as striking them, and breaking sticks provides a percussion sound somewhat different from striking them as well. My only negative reaction to the piece was that Nat has scooped me; my piece “Four Places on Planet Earth” (to be played in my May 24th concert) also uses prerecorded nature sounds and mysterious drones (derived electronically from the same nature sounds), and “live” percussionists playing natural objects – but of course this kind of thing has been done before (it seems to be part of a possible “greening” of music) so I can’t really complain. It was a beautiful piece anyway…

Jim Fox's Pleasure of Being Lost

The last piece was a piano solo, “The pleasure of being lost” by Jim Fox, as played by Cristina Valdes. This was in several movements played right together; however, none of them were complete by themselves so they formed a single, longer movement with pauses between sections. I described the piece later as “the melodic language of Peter Garland, the harmonic language or Takemitsu, and the time extension of Morton Feldman” – something of a fusion of the triumvirate of piano music of the late 20th century brought into the 21st. Cristina commented that Jim Fox had said it was something like Bill Evans as played by Feldman, which is much the same idea stylistically. Simple melodic figures with complex, ambiguous harmonies, floated dreamily over silence; each seemed “lost” by itself but lead inexorably forward into the next one – and for the duration of the piece, time was suspended. It was around ten minutes long, but seemed both far longer and far shorter. I am looking forward to hearing more music by this composer (and want to hear more of the delicate touch of this pianist as well).

Monday, May 7, 2012

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon – Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 5/4/2012

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

First up: Five one-minute pieces by Emily Doolittle, played by Keith Eisenbrey. These were little character pieces with a wide variety, including a Debussyesque haze of open fifths, a humorous start-and-stop cluster of “wrong notes”, and a birdchirpy dance in irregular meters. A fun opener.

Next, the Rubaiyat of Greek poet Stavros Melissinos as set to music by Yvonne Hoar. For baritone soloist and piano, this was difficult music that stretched monody into borderline atonality. A rubaiyat is a Persian poem where the poet discusses (at considerable length) his/her views of life, love, and philosophy. This particular setting was not particularly long (it was the shortest piece on the program) because Ms. Hoar had only set a couple of verses; I personally was just starting to like piece when it ended, and I’m waiting for another couple of verses.

The third piece was the last work with piano: a set of three pieces by Anne Cummings. Ann is a familiar performer at the Composers’ Salons; here she made her Salon debut as a composer (but still a performer; the piece was more performance art than piano solo). She announced beforehand that the piece was based on a deeply abstract concept, but she wouldn’t reveal what that concept was until after the performance so she could judge the audience’s reaction. “Broken and Not Broken” began with a sparkling minimalist figure, then its inversion, then the two of them in harmony – and was abruptly cut off as Ms. Cummings removed her hands from the keyboard and clapped a rhythm. Keyboard and clapping alternated until both were cut off by a third sound – dull thudding (with echoes) from the inside of the piano, bass strings (same rhythm). “Sound Reveals My Existence” began with a series of overtones, then presented (vocally) the philosophical conundrum that “I have already not existed before”, i.e., before one’s birth. What was my experience then? Shouting into the piano strings (for sympathetic vibrations) failed to answer the existential question, so the final piece (“Present Absent Time”) was entirely instrumental. A dissonant chord alternated with quick, running, pianistic figures in 7/8 time and then suddenly resolved into an unrelated key. The piece did not come to an end; an end came to it. It seems that we are left with the question and even the possibility that we can’t even really ask the question.

Last up: my own work-in-progress “SoundScrolls VII”; one of my few pieces that use no piano. Having not practiced it beforehand, Bruce Greeley (bass clarinet), Mike Sentkewitz (string bass), and Natalie Mai Hall (‘cello) showed up about an hour early and we went over it before the show. I made a couple of adjustments to the concept of the piece (my score said to repeat the melodic fragments up to three times, but this was far too long so I ditched the repeats) and then we gave it a shot. The Salons welcome “works in progress” (I’ve heard some unrehearsed pieces before) so it wasn’t really a problem, though I did announce beforehand that we’d only played through it once…

We did the first and third movements; both are graphic scores (the first looks like a landscape on “music paper” that only has four lines per staff – one for each string of a stringed instrument; the second is a set of melodic fragments to be played in order at one’s own pace). The first came off quite well as free jazz with a lot of spaces for silence and contemplation. I thought the third needed more work (Bruce, who played the bass clarinet, was with me on this); a lugubrious tonal mud – but audience members found it otherwise (such adjectives as “lovely” and “sensual” were tossed around). At any rate, I’m going to slightly revise it and it’ll be ready for the concert on the 24th.