The Triumphs of New Music
The Common Sense Composers' Collective presents New Music for Old Instruments. Featured are the world premieres of eight new compositions, including Randy Woolfs "Artificial Light," Dan Becker's "Tamper Resistant" (a fractured, twisted, and tangled 'cover tune' of a Telemann piece), Ed Harsh's 'authentically classic' (a wacky cantata that has the ghost of Lully singing the woes of being "just a label in a catalogue"), John Halle's "Spooks," Melissa Hui's "SHALL WE GO?", Marc Mellits's "11 Miniatures," Belinda Reynolds's "CIRCA," and Carolyn Yarnell's "More Spirit Than Matter for the acclaimed Bay Area period instrument ensemble, American Baroque. April 8, The Minna Street Gallery, San Francisco, CA.
The evening of Monday, April 8, saw the glorious results of mixing two different, often mutually exclusive groups: an ensemble of polished baroque traditionalists and a cadre of living composers. More than an experiment, it was an exploration of the versatility of late 2Oth-century musical language and the remarkable musicianship of the performers in an arena free of trashcan lids, thc I Ching, and other extramusical devices.
The First work, "Tamper Resistant" by Bay Area composer Dan Becker, was parody in its highest sense: the restructuring of an existing work to illustrate the relationship between its creator and its re-creator. In this case the creator was 'Telemann, a composer for whom Becker shows a deep affinity. Old Georg's teasing serenity was elevated to new levels of complexity by the interplay of focussed and prankish syncopations, present in the original work yet cleverly magnified for an almost calypso effect. Apropos of the work's title, the spirit and direction of thc piece never wavered throughout all serendipitous tonal conjunctions. Gonzalo Ruiz's oboe entrance after the exposition simply killed.
New York composer Carolyn Yarnell's contribution followed: a three-movement work entitled "More Spirit Than Matter." The first number (Yamell was still stumped for a title by showtime) flirted with] the audience in a habanera pulse that escaped all cliche. Yarnell has a gift for creating new textural landscapes, and that gift was certainly in evidence. Through an ingenious balancing of thematic material with witty part- writing, one was able to still feel the infectious pulse: of the opening even after the piece changed rhythmic direction. 'The middle section followed with a groundbass development that had a certain sweet solemnity, yet led so logically back to the recap that the interruption felt like a fading daydream. The following movement, titled "Plain Music," utilized the baroque convention of building upon resolved suspensions. In Yarnell's rendering, the suspended notes emerged dreamily from the slowly moving tonal mass to resolve and ebb like a spent breaker.
Against the inexorable build of the music, the mute-stopped harpsichord sounded like an improvisation on koto. 'The final movement, ''Spinning Music," set out in the form of a gigue, which led to playfulness, and thence to the complete abandon of swirling strings and circling winds. The vortex somehow gave birth to the gigue again, which pulled the thematic whole of the movement to a very satisfying conclusion. The music of Ed Harsh belies all connotations which his surname might suggest. His offering was a smooth, well- conceived mini-opera entitled "authentically classic," featuring the able talents of soprano Andrea Fullington as the revived spirit of Jean-Baptiste Lully. The work evoked a feeling of Stravinskian neoclassicism bonded strongly to a thoroughly American sense of lyricism. Though conceived as a tragedy, a very high form of comedy seemed to be driving the plot. After making a dramatic musical entrance, Lully addresses the audience:
Hey! I'm Lully. I wrote music for
Lully follows with the obligatory recounting of his life's work as creator of the soundtrack to the dance party that was the life of his patron. Then he considers the enlightened 20th-century art music scene with some longing, but decides to go when The action really is:
Reaching all the people is what I will do:
Suddenly, however, Lully realizes he is dead, and he mourns his
status as a relic, a myth, a "label in a catalogue." After stating
with finality, "I am a classic," he stutters rather mustily offstage.
The digital sampler is fast taking the place of the bulky old reel-to-reel as the provider of recorded sounds in contemporary music -- and it's about time! The flexibility, indeed musicality, of the interface (i.e., a piano-style keyboard) between performer and data was underlined in Randy Woolf's "Artificial Light," which featured samples of American Baroque's more traditional repertoire with all appropriate pitch sifts and processing. The ensemble executed the piece with dedicated caution, the sparse textures and uncomplicated thematic material leading to an exploration of tonal possibilities that were at times profound. at times comic. The intrusion of the sampler, played with all due irreverence by harpsichordist Katherine Shao, made the hypnotic finale wild around the edges. The taproot of this music has definitely dipped in the waters of early Eno.
John Halle was quite ebullient in his explanation of the choice of the word "Spooks," which refers both to the spirit of ancient instruments and the musical depiction of the CIA's interference in foreign affairs. To use his words, the piece was rife with "friendly motives that become nasty over the course of time." The language and feel of the blues dominated the outset of this strongly post-minimalist work. Indeterminate thirds lent a wonderfully calculated "falseness" to the contrapuntal structure that became gradually more sinister as the music progressed. Little jazzy breaks seemed to desperately and unsuccessfully battle the onslaught of savage portamento. If I follow the program right, I believe the work ended in detente.
Emotional enchantment followed in Melissa Hui's "SHALL WE GO," a brief yet intensely focussed work. The introduction combined a folklike motive on flute with a gravely poised, Frescobaldi-esque strum on cembalo. A slow, three-way conversation evolved as the oboe and violin entered the mix. Hui showed great sensitivity in her balance of elements in this piece, the gentle with the stark, the ancient with the global.
Marc Mellits capped the program with "11 Miniatures," a set of brief excursions that pulled out the stops on the potential of the performers. It had something for everybody, from the turbid restlessness of "Dark Age Machinery" to the whimsy of "Slippery." Mellits seemed to be equally at home in any framework, whether raga or ragtime, and slipped between styles and rhythms with unstoppable wit. My fave was "Lunacy," which was noticeably heavy on musician enjoyment. The definite high point of the work was flautist Stephen Schultz's moving solo in the second-to-last movement, "Elegy for Lefty."
This was definitely one of the events of the year, as far as Bay Area contemporary chamber music is concerned. These eight composers were COMMISSIONED -- not pleaded, not offered a prize for best entry, but shown all due respect by one of the finest local ensembles. The composers are all of an age between ?7 and 36, and share a common goal and excellence, though their identities are refreshingly individual.
That the ensemble is comprised of baroque specialists elevated the level of innovation and originality (a word best used sparingly) in these works to an appreciable height. After playing the very demanding program through and taking their bows, the musicians sat right back down and played it again for a fresh audience at lOpm.
A reviewer's foremost duty is it enjoy himself. What could I do? I stayed, of course.