Monday, January 09, 2006

Jonathan Dawe: fractal geometry in music

From The Boston Globe:

A symphony of flowers and fractals
BSO premiere highlights composer's fusion of early music and geometry
By Lawrence A. Johnson, Globe Correspondent January 8, 2006

At a recent studio session for Jonathan Dawe's woodwind quintet ''Fractal Farm," the recording engineer at one point turned in exasperation to the composer and demanded, ''Why do you write such difficult music?"
Dawe's edgy style is the antithesis of the solicitous neo-Romanticism that tends to predominate among many composers of his generation. Cast in a tough, astringent, and extremely complex post-serial idiom, Dawe's music makes daunting demands on musicians, and often on audiences as well.
The 40-year-old composer's ''The Flowering Arts" will have its world premiere at this week's Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts, conducted by James Levine, to whom the piece is dedicated. Dawe's work is the third and final BSO commission to be heard in this 125th anniversary season, following Elliott Carter's ''Three Illusions for Orchestra" and Peter Lieberson's ''Neruda Songs."
The commission may have come Dawe's way only after the original composer, Leon Kirchner, failed to finish his work in time, but it's clear that Dawe has always had fervent champions. Among them is pianist Robert Taub. Taub became the serendipitous conduit for the commission when Levine noticed a score of Dawe's Piano Concerto on Taub's piano between rehearsals.
''Jonathan has a way of creating new sounds out of old principles," said Taub, for whom Dawe wrote the concerto. ''And the new sounds are comfortable and yet engaging and adventurous all at the same time."
''His writing is challenging, but the challenges are very worthwhile and always fresh every time I come back to it. He has a unique and compelling musical voice, and I feel it deserves to be heard."
A collision of influencesIn the arduous struggle to find that voice, Dawe made a breakthrough when he discovered a congruity between early music and what's known as the Darmstadt school of hard-core serialism. ''There's a transparency of style," said Dawe. ''Emphasis on polyphony, clarity, and the idea that musical textures can be generated by structures which are not bubbling on the surface but that are deeper generators of music."
The most striking element of Dawe's individual style is the brake-squealing collision of two starkly contrasted influences. The composer draws upon structural elements of early and Baroque music and then proceeds to rigorously work out his ideas using the principles of fractal geometry.
In this daunting discipline of fractals, founded by Benoit B. Mandelbrot in 1975, a single quadratic equation can morph into infinitesimal details of Baroque complexity. Fractal geometry has spawned much inscrutable nomenclature: ''self-similarity," ''rotational arrays," and something called ''cellular automata," which sounds like a painful religious state induced by overuse of a pocket Nokia.
Yet these arcane principles, applied to early and Baroque musical models, form the brick and mortar of Dawe's own rigorous language, one that has evolved from 12-tone serialism to a more practical if no less envelope-pushing style.
In the case of ''The Flowering Arts," the French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier provided the structural blueprint. Inspired by Charpentier's opera ''Les Arts florissants," Dawe created a modernist orchestral response, cast in a single movement of 15 minutes.
Following a brief ''overture," the various allegorical characters, music, poetry, etc., are presented in clear-cut writing for different sections. ''Discord" is represented with winds and percussion, segueing into a trio of two bassoons and contrabassoon. ''The Furies" are painted with whirling 16th notes, while ''Peace" enters in the strings with high harmonic canons supported by vibraphone and glockenspiel. An expansive chaconne forms the conclusion, running nearly half the work's length and developing the varied themes.
The score is surely a sight to behold, with fractal equations overlaying Charpentier's music. For Dawe, ''The Flowering Arts" forms a kind of representative portrait of where his music is right now. ''In many ways, I take strands as if they were 12-tone rows," said Dawe. ''You'll hear things often that are quite tonal, and then they'll move away from the realm of tonality into effects that are more abstract and atonal." In his program note for this week's BSO performances, Dawe adds that his new work also represents a broader wish for peace to triumph over the forces of discord, aided by a flowering of the arts.
Progressing backwardBorn in Boston, Dawe grew up in Katonah, N.Y., listening like most teenagers to the popular rock groups of the '70s and '80s. The seeds for Dawe's attraction to clarity and systematic rigor in music were sparked by a hearing of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.
''What really struck me was not only that it had such a wonderful, incredibly varied surface," said Dawe, ''but that there clearly was a structural element that was very active."
Unlike most composers, who progress from Bach forward to Mozart and Beethoven, Dawe went backward to earlier figures, even playing the krumhorn in an early music ensemble at Oberlin College. It was during graduate study at Juilliard with Milton Babbitt that Dawe acquired his interest in fractal geometry and, as he says, ''the compositional tactics to merge the two styles in a logical way."
While Babbitt's music had its influence, Dawe said it was his encouragement and mentoring that he most appreciated. ''Even more than the mechanics of working together, it was the excitement that he would show," said Dawe. ''I'll never forget there was one piece I was writing in a kind of Schoenbergian style. After I played the opening on the piano, he just smiled and said, 'Why don't you finish that piece? That would be great.' And that's all it took to give me the confidence to plunge ahead."
For Babbitt's part, the 89-year-old elder statesman of American modernism says Dawe displayed a restless curiosity and voracious musical appetite.
''He was always seeking everything possible," Babbitt said. ''He studied everything, and we talked about every type of music you could imagine."
Babbitt notes that Dawe arrived at his unique approach as the result of much hard work and several dead ends. ''He now reconceives and reconceptualizes old works in his own very contemporary terms," said Babbitt. ''It's a very singular compositional attitude."
Married and the father of two daughters, Dawe continues to teach theory and analysis at Juilliard. He is working on ''a miniature opera" based on sketches from Vivaldi's ''Orlando Furioso," in addition to writing his Third String Quartet for the Miro Quartet.
Algorithmic complexity and Charpentier allegory aside, Dawe hopes that Boston audiences will approach ''The Flowering Arts" with a ''totally open perspective."
''It's important to me that this kind of music not be seen as a pastiche or early music with wrong notes," said Dawe. ''Because, for me, musical language is much sturdier that that, and I think it comes across that way.
''There's a deep middle ground that ties in the music of the past with these expressions of the future. And in the 21st century, that's how I deal with music."

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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