Friday, October 09, 2009

New works from Harbison and Campion

From: SF Classical Music Examiner

By: Stephen Smoliar

Date: October 6, 9:12 AM

Perhaps the most important lesson from the Gustav Mahler: Origins and Legaciesprograms that Michael Tilson Thomas prepared with the San Francisco Symphony involved the significant role that listening experiences can play in the act of composition. Thus, when confronted with "new music," such as the works that the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players prepared for their first concert of the season last night, we need to remember that none of these composers has ever worked in a vacuum. A composer is as much a listener when composing as (s)he is when performing; and this involves not only listening to what is being composed but also listening to one's memories. Contrary to what Harold Bloom proposed, influence is less a cause for anxiety and more a trigger for reflection from which one's thoughts begin to emerge. The serious listener may, as a result, try to approach a new composition by taking into account the context in which that composition came to be.

This strategy works particularly well with Morton Feldman, composer of the earliest (1972) work on last night's program, part I of The Viola in My Life. (The decision to print this title in lower case in the program is inconsistent with all the sources I consulted in preparing the preview piece I wrote on Sunday.) As a member of the New York School, Feldman shared John Cage's acute awareness of the significance of every sound; and this particular composition comes from a time when he worked almost entirely in soft dynamics and the stillness of isolated moments. What emerges is a conversation as intimate as we can encounter in the overall legacy of chamber music that we are easily seduced into following, even if the novelty of logic, grammar, and rhetoric in that conversation leave us puzzled over what has actually been said.

The next work in the chronological ordering of the program selections was Steve Reich's "Vermont Counterpoint" (1982), commissioned by flutist Ransom Wilson and dedicated to Betty Freeman. Here is Reich's own description of the work:

It is scored for three alto flutes, three flutes, three piccolos and one solo part all pre-recorded on tape, plus a live solo part. The live soloists plays alto flute, flute and piccolo and participates in the ongoing counterpoint as well as more extended melodies. The piece could be performed by eleven flutists but is intended primarily as a solo with tape.

I had the good fortune to hear Wilson play this in concert with ten other flutists; but in this performance Tod Brody was the only flutist, playing against the tape. The work is very much a logical consequence of Reich's earlier compositions in which thick contrapuntal textures were achieved through experiments in phase-shifting. As is the case with any complex contrapuntal structure, the ear can detect different melodic patterns in the interplay of the voices; and Reich's "Violin Phase" (1967) required the solo violinist to do just that, creating a solo by enhancing fragments from the texture that were perceived as particularly salient. By the time of "Vermont Counterpoint," Reich had taken over responsibility for all decisions of choice; but the earlier spirit is still present. The flute soloist guides the ear through the thick texture, pointing out melodic passages latent in that texture, somewhat in the spirit of Thomas' recent metaphor of discovering unknown flora on a previously unknown island.

Charles Wuorinen's "Trombone Trio" (1985) was an entirely different matter. This is a work for tenor trombone, piano, and xylophone and marimba performed by a single percussionist. (The xylophone is placed behind and slightly above the marimba, creating the effect of a single instrument rather like a double-manual harpsichord.) The account of Wuroninen's career in the program book was rich with influences, but it also seemed rich with a preoccupation with theory in preference to practice. Thus, the influences seemed to have more to do with marks on paper than with the different approaches to listening that could be found in Feldman and Reich (not to mention Mahler). This may well be a work in which each listener must find his/her own way and will only find it through the sort of repeated exposure that most concert series cannot provide.

The remaining works on the program were products of our "new century." John Harbison's The Seven Ages, a cycle of six song settings of poems by Louise Glück, was composed in the summer of 2008 at the Aspen and Tanglewood Music Festivals. Harbison is very much a performer with a rich repertoire. His diversity runs the gamut from preparing regular performances of Johann Sebastian Bach with Emmanuel Music through chamber music in a Wisconsin barn that he refurbished with his wife (as in the above photograph) into jazz gigs with "friends." However, as was evident in the pre-concert interview, he is also intensely intellectual, attributing his appreciation of jazz to a relatively obscure German critic's analysis of chord progressions.

The Seven Ages was the longest work of the evening, taking almost half an hour while all the other works ran about ten minutes. Unfortunately, it also felt long. This may have had much to do with the texts that tended to be long-winded (to a point that would challenge mere recitation) with a tendency for self-indulgence:

Why not? Why not? Why should my poems not imitate my life?
Whose lesson is not the apotheosis but the pattern, whose meaning
in not in the gesture but in the inertia, the reverie.

Say what? By all rights Harbison should have had the performer's chops to make this work. Bach's tastes in poetry were never particularly distinguished; and Bach also had a talent for moving his settings along through paths of both instrumental and melodic diversity. Unfortunately, like Wuroinen, Harbison seems to have been consumed with questions of theory when his intuitions for practice could have done with a few hints from older (as less theoretically inclined) masters.

The most recent work on the program, composed by Edmund Campion for the 2009 Festival Presence in Merz, France, might best be described as anti-theoretical. Having been commissioned by Radio France, the work was given a French title: "600 Seconds dans le vieux modèle." This translates to "600 Seconds in the worn-out model." The "worn-out model" is the one Campion acquired in his studies, particularly his doctoral research at Columbia University under Mario Davidovsky at a time when it was difficult to distinguish serial composition from research in the abstractions of higher mathematics (particularly, thanks to Milton Babbitt, the study of permutation groups). Campion thus had to contend with a lot of "influence" in his baggage; and he chose to relieve the anxiety of that influence through satire. He thus dished out his own slightly jaundiced impressions of rhetorical idioms that remain as opaque as they were when launched by the theoretical birth-agonies of composers like Pierre Boulez; but he served up his own version with that "cheery disposition" to which Cage attributed his own success. If Campion is a harbinger of where music may be going, then the century may be off to a good start!

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