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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reviewing my piece! The album is now available here