Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part Three) – Seattle Composers’ Salon, Good Shepherd Center, 9/7/2012

"The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress."

First up: “Blankets and Bioluminescence” for violin, cello, piano, drum kit, and prerecorded sound, by Matthew James Briggs. Vaguely similar to some of my own “StormSound” music, this was a gigantic minimalist polyrhythm over a recording of crickets and other night sounds. The prerecorded sound started, and the piano added a rumbling bass chord (not really harmonious, but not really dissonant either). This repeated several times before the violin entered with a two-note melody. The ‘cello followed, with another two-note melody. The result was beautiful modal harmonies. Soon it became apparent that these three parts were actually on different rhythms, and gradually moving toward synchronization. (Another composition in a similar vein, though without the prerecorded nature sounds, is Steve Peters’ “Circular lullaby”.) Once the rhythms met up, they locked together in a repetitive phrase supported by the drums. The overall effect was quiet lovely – something of a mellow bit of techno/electronica (think Bonobo or FourTet) taken into a different genre (minimalism) and played on acoustic instruments. I would like to hear more of this.

Next: Eight of the 24 Preludes by Keith Eisenbrey (the composer at the piano). I’ve heard some of these before. The 19th (and early 20th) century references continue; these are brief melodic pieces in a tonal idiom, full of references to Chopin, Scriabin, and (somewhat less so) Debussy. These references do not “take over” the pieces, each is clearly original (not a copy or imitation) with mere hints of the older works. What Keith has created here is a brilliant continuation to the tradition of piano preludes. Each is in a different key. He stated beforehand that, in trying to figure out exactly what piano preludes were “about”, he eventually decided that it was nothing more – or less – than the key that they were written in (this is a much broader concept than it would appear at first; each key spreads out via various intervals into all other keys so that every key is merely a point on a continuum; working with keys in this light produces a sort of atonality-within-tonality or vice-versa). Added to this, each of these short pieces had a one-word title descriptive of its musical essence: “curvy”, “rapt”, “turbulent”, “bubbly”, etc. Each piece takes the ideas of its title and of its key, and crafts them (with, of course, melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic material) into a brief masterpiece, a brilliantly cut gem of sound. It makes me think that I should also work on composing some tonal miniatures, though my own compositional forays into this territory have not been nearly so successful…

[Between composers there was a raffle for CDs. I seldom win anything at raffles, though this time I won a recording of the Emerson String Quartet playing the three Mozart “Prussian” quartets. Turns out this is quite a CD, though I probably wouldn’t have picked it given a choice – and I’ll have to review it the next time I review of couple of CDs in this blog…!]

The last new piece: a scaled-down and mostly improvised version of a much longer (40-minute or so) piece for large ensemble, by John Teske. John is rapidly becoming something of a fixture in the thriving Seattle new-music scene, and this piece showed why. Generally of the “quiet music” genre (as opposed to “mellow”) and full of texturing vaguely reminiscent of the aleatory sections of early Takemitsu pieces, it was nonetheless strikingly original. Strings and wind instruments produced a constantly shifting web of barely-audible sound. In the afore-mentioned early Takemitsu (see, for example, the “Arc” for piano and orchestra), similar textures were used to create ever denser layers which reach a climax of unbearable intensity and then collapse into silence – here, in contrast, the silence was taken as a given. It didn’t need to be created (or collapsed into); it was already there, part of the fabric of the music itself. At the same time, it was not there because the instrumental haze obscured it. Part of the brilliance of the piece lay in this tension between implied and actual silence. For their part, the instrumental sounds were never those of “conventional” music, and consisted mostly of strange bowing techniques such as playing “extra” strings attached to the main strings of the instruments, or (for the winds) equally otherworldly overtone-blowing and taking the French horn apart and playing small parts of it as a whole instrument. The piece was about ten minutes long, but it could have been much longer – too bad I will not be able to attend the concert later this month where John and his ensemble will play the entire, long version.

Now, what about Cage? Continuing with the Cage centenary, Tom Baker (curator of the Composers’ Salons) had composed a performance-art piece in the manner of John Cage, which, like a lot of Cage’s work, was both profound and silly (in a good way) at the same time. Or, perhaps, profoundly silly. (Remember that the German word selig is directly related to the English word “silly” but translates as “blessed”…) It consisted of three singers singing “Happy Birthday John Cage”, a random number of times at their own speed, but silently, to themselves – and the audience members supposedly doing the same. The result was, of course, no audible music, so one could call it a birthday version of Cage’s (in)famous “4’33””. …And that’s about all that needs to be said.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part Two) – Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet @ Good Shepherd Center, 9/5/2012

The second of the series of John Cage tribute concerts was the Pacific Rims Percussion Quartet performance at Good Shepherd Center, 9/5-2012. I missed the first part of the concert – concerts here usually start at 8:00 so I waited in the car until about 7:45 (listening to the Ravel string quartet on the radio) and when I walked in they were wrapping up the first piece. The concert had started at 7:30…

At any rate, the first piece was the (supposedly satirical) “Credo in US”, for percussion (including coffee cans), piano (slightly modified, with a piece of metal laid across the strings to give it a more percussive sound) and a radio (static turned off and on to provide another texture). Mostly the piece was about rhythms, with a frenetic drive toward the climax. The title refers to both the U.S. and to “us”, and provides an ironic comment on American society (“I believe in US – forget anybody else!”, or “I believe in my country, not any higher purpose or goal, or even God…”) These are certainly damning statements, though nothing in the music itself indicates this level of venom. Whatever, it’s a fun piece to listen to (and, I’m sure, to perform, though like a lot of “modernist” music it takes intense concentration to get all of the counts right).

The much longer second half of the concert consisted of the 70-minute “Four4”. This is one of Cage’s late “Number Pieces” – which, in my opinion, are some of the most profound musical expressions of the later 20th century. Most of these pieces give time frames within which the performers are to play (or act out) certain pre-set musical ideas; these can often be chosen by the performers themselves but – because of the complexity and planning of the time-frames – always work together into a harmonious (and usually tranquil) whole. This particular piece, the fourth “Number Piece” for four players, is (in a recording by the Amadinda Percussion Ensemble) one of the more beautiful of contemporary works in my CD collection. They play it mostly on metallic instruments (gongs, bells, and steel drums) with an occasional (deliberately non-beautiful) intrusion by a bullroarer. This live performance was quite different. I had told another audience member that I’d heard the piece before, and it only had one loud passage (where the bullroarer builds to a climax and then gets abruptly silenced by a huge tam-tam) – now, the passage in question was played quietly as a delicate shimmering of metallic sound (gongs and a waterphone) and many other parts of the piece were loud – sometimes startlingly so. As the piece thins out toward the end, the Amadinda recording trails off into peaceful silence; this live version got funnier instead. The humor began about halfway through (there’s something inherently comical about seeing someone violently agitating a beat-up suitcase full of rocks) – and then continued with rolling a tam-tam on the floor, opening a bag of potato chips (for its sound!) and eating the chips (again, for their sound), breaking a light bulb (it took three times of dropping it in a bucket), blowing bubbles in a cup of water, and an occasional ear-splitting sound emerging suddenly from nowhere. All in all, it was a fitting tribute to Cage, the composer at the forefront of both deep and comical experimentation for several decades.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cage, Cage, and Cage Again (Part One) - Neal Kosaly-Meyer (and friends) @ Jack Straw Productions

The title of this posting refers of course to three tribute concerts of music by John Cage on the occasion of his centennial, all three during last week in Seattle.

First of the three: Jack Straw Productions, 9/4/2012, Neal Kosaly-Meyer performing Cage’s epic (12-hour) text-into-music transformation titled “Empty Words”. The idea is to take fragments of Thoreau’s “Walden” journal and use various techniques to bit by bit remove all meaning from the words (i.e. one section has only syllables, one has only individual letters, etc.). Neal “acted” the composition in a dreamlike, half-speaking, half-intoning voice, assisted by slight amplification and subtle stereo manipulations. I agree with another blogger that removing meaning from words is like removing the ego from the author or the performer (a very Cagean concept), and the “why” is rather vague in the same way that attempting to remove my ego doesn’t render me innocent; however, I will add that the “why” in this case could also be nothing more than the reduction of speech into pure sound – akin to Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” though achieved purely through live speech. The result is rather hard to pin down. Is it music? Or, is it performance art? Is it theater? Or, is it poetry? The answer is both “yes” and “no” in all four cases; and it transcends these categories anyway into something that is also somehow both profound and trivial. I found that I could both listen intently and completely ignore the proceedings at the same time, which I’m sure was a state of mind similar to what Cage had intended.

Neal did not perform the entire twelve hours without a break, of course. “Interruptions”, in the form of other (shorter) Cage pieces, punctuated the concert at regular intervals. I only heard one of these since I did not stay for the entire piece (the audience was encouraged to come and go – a necessity for such a long work). William O. Smith played the Sonata for Clarinet (solo), an early piece in a serialist-souding style. It fit right in – the bare acoustics of the hall caused every sound of the clarinet to stand out sharply (and sometimes very loudly!) against the background quasi-silence – as if the clarinet “notes” were being reduced to pure sound, in the same manner as Neal’s recitations.

Other “punctuation marks” included Neal’s sung rendition of a brief part of Cage’s “Writing for the Second Time through Finnegan’s Wake”, without the amplification (though it sounded, probably intentionally, like more of “Empty Words”) and, during later parts of “Empty Words”, Roger Nelson reading from Cage’s “Indeterminacy” stories. Cage’s anecdotes are as well-known as his music, and listeners familiar with Cage’s work have probably heard at least some of these particular tales from the classic 1960’s recording. Some are funny, some are bizarre, and some seem to have no point at all – interspersed here they emphasized the idea of speech into pure sound, providing an understandable (until one listened too closely) counterpoint to Neal’s abstract vocalizations.

Altogether the performance was interesting and surprisingly relaxing. I listened to about six hours of it (on and off) and found myself refreshed.

Signing off for now – Cage Part Two will be posted shortly.