SONiC Festival – Camerata Aberta at Americas Society

[Published on I care if you listen.] Camerata Aberta boasts some of São Paulo’s most dedicated musicians. Seven of the group’s sixteen members were in attendance at this Oct. 18th concert. The ensemble is dedicated to premiering works of Brazilian composers as well as accepted concert music standards of the 20th and 21st century. Americas Society’s performance hall is like a grand 19th century Viennese salon, but the space was not at all anachronistic with the contemporary program; rather, it provided the dignified atmosphere demanded by the artists’ circumspect exploration of timbre on conventional instruments.

Camerata Aberta

The World Premiere of Caminantes III, a trombone / bass duet by Igor Leão Maia, began with the audience wondering, “Are they tuning, or has the piece begun?” Such is the effect of indolent quarter-tones drawn out over time. The muted trombone, sliding up and down between indeterminate pitches, seemed to channel the schoolteacher from the Charlie Brown animated series. After thus eschewing stable pitches, the duo cadenced on a gentle perfect fifth. A frenzy of 16th notes suddenly took off, down chutes and up ladders, stopping only for the instrumentalists to employ growls, and the trombone producing interference from two out-of-sync sound waves. The cadence this time was breath blown quietly through the trombone.

Tatiana Catanzaro’s Kristallklavierexplosionsschattensplitter (not a misprint) for solo piano, opened its US Premiere with tinkling in the high register, like the creaking beams of an ancient dollhouse. Pianist Lidia Bazarian soon whacked the bass strings and quickly strummed the mid-range strings. It is the kind of piece to make you wonder, ‘what came first: the horror movie, or the music often associated with this film genre?’ Ejaculatory glimmers in the highest register made sense of the accompanying poem in the program notes: “diffracted light / inside out / …into tiny little pieces”

In composing Estudo sobre os arrependimentos de Velázquez, Marcílio Onofre was inspired by the painter’s “pentimenti: mistakes… that the artist himself fixed with a thin layer of paint, which were subsequently marred by the passing of time, revealing the original brush strokes.” It is a common refrain among new music audiences: “How can one tell if they’re hitting the right notes?” What better way for an artist to bare his soul, though, than this conscious embrace of ‘error’? The trumpet, trombone, viola, bass, and piano join in episodes of timbral consensus, separated by pregnant silences, perhaps the better to digest these “mistakes.” This establishes the form of the piece. Bass drum thunder introduces a second section, and the piece ends on a wood block trill which crescendos as in a tense moment before a kung fu battle.

João Victor Bota composed Zênite for solo viola as a tribute to the Brazilian composer Almeida Prado. Violist Peter Pas began with a dyad exploration, of which the major 7th formed the median. Perfect 5ths were effected by harmonics. A solo line, sul ponticello, recalled the romanticism of Alban Berg. An extremely heavy mute was installed to create the thinnest of string sounds, creating another character entirely, perhaps a wizened elder warning the reckless, romantic youth. Harmonics were then employed to create yet another character, a maiden emitting a patter of perfect fifths and a rising arpeggio of airy simplicity. But the youth returns with a tantrum of dyads anchored on the same stubborn pedal tone.

Valéria Bonafé’s Lan uses “atmospheres” to explore a sonic close-up of a seemingly “static universe.” Muted trumpet and trombone outline a tri-tone, which crescendos while the pianist plays the alchemist, transforming light into sound, bringing with it all of its refractions and decay. Bassist Pedro Gadelha supplies the deep penetrating OM. The piece indeed avoids a sense of forward motion, choosing instead to hang like a mobile, its suspended elemental curios bumping inevitably against each other in the imperceptible cosmic wind.

If any audience members came to this concert expecting to hear samba, then they were perhaps somewhat rewarded for staying until the end, as the NYC Premiere of Clint Needham’s Color Study was a jazzy number and a closer with pulse. Here was the densest fabric of the night; no more patient exploration of timbre, just chugging, brassy syncopations. Ken Thomson blew bird-calls on the alto saxophone and was answered by complex chords, resigned in their consonance but pointing forward toward a more complete resolution. Charles Augusto’s punchy bass-snare percussion groove drove the closing section, definitely the fight scene of the program – think the “POW!” and “WHAM!” form Batman comics.

Camerata Aberta’s dedication to Brazilian composers should not be mistaken for an adherence to any Brazilian style or genre. Indeed, the composers on this SONiC program explore idiosyncrasies of timbre and musical space that can only be realized through intense artistic introspection. The performers’ skill in manipulating the outer boundaries of their instruments’ color palettes was remarkable. Many lesser performers attempting such experimentation would run the risk of presenting a pedantic exercise in extended technique, but Camerata Aberta was able to imbue the performance with contemplative nuance and aesthetic sophistication.

Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers

[this review published on I care if you listen.]
Lisa Moore, Piano and Sampling Keyboard
Music by Annie Gosfield
2011 Cantaloupe Music

This EP’s titular composition, composed in 2008, refers to a telegraph operator.  The metaphor is apt, as the piece is heavily charged with energy currents both active and awaited.  Lisa Moore performs the three tracks of Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers on a keyboard controlling the Native Instruments Kontakt sampler, while simultaneously playing a Steinway D, producing an engaging industrial process balanced with a wide range of expressive piano timbres.  The sampler is well adjusted to produce raw, sine and sawtooth-like sounds more reminiscent of oscillators from the early days of electronic music.  The first track, “With enthusiasm and a little violence,” opens with an assault from the sampler outlining a stark tonic – dominant – tonic loop.  The piano joins in with ominous trills and accented dissonant chords, and the keyboard triggers samples of prepared piano, plucked in such a way as to evoke the sound of an Oriental zither. Digital blips begin to pepper the texture, as if Kraftwerk plays pinball nearby. The sampler’s abstract loop fades out so that piano voices can be explored more fully, combining samples of extended techniques (strumming, etc.) with standard live playing.  Gosfield eschews the dense tone clusters of many contemporary composers and employs a language of short frenetic melodies and simple pitch sets, placed freely in time, so that the piano speaks and meditates, rather than singing.

The second track, “Languid and Layered,” is built upon a continuous drone of the sampler, effected by pitch envelopes to produce a buzzing sound like a pond full of tiny croaking frogs.  As in the first track, this element is removed so that the piano can state an enigmatic musical haiku.

“Machine-like, but with some groove” opens with the same sinister electronic loop of the first track.  Here there is some dialogue between the piano and sampler; they imitate each other, find common ground.  When the piano adopts the square rhythm of the sampler, which is punctuated by bursts of white noise, a groove indeed ensues.  As before, though, the piano insists on being heard alone, spinning triplets up and down the keyboard.  When the sampler occasionally returns, it is as a tutti of charged metallic outbursts.  The piano gets the last word, unencumbered by “process,” able to ejaculate one final tantrum, which in the silence that ensues seems indeed a “dead ringer.”

The telegraph is a dinosaur of technology, and this album jacket’s black-and-white photo of Annie Gosfield, made up as a ‘40s telephone operator complete with bobbed hair and earphones, reinforces the idea of a modern industrial past.  The piece could well be used as a soundtrack for Chaplin’s semi-silent masterpiece Modern Times.  While women composers have certainly transcended their historical under-representation, Gosfield here seeks admirably to cement their place in the pantheon of industrial composers.

The final track, “Brooklyn, October 5, 1941” (1997) for piano with baseballs and catcher’s mitt, is inspired by the Dodgers/Yankees Subway Series of that year.  Here, the historical context is less obvious.  This was an era that saw the birth pangs of bebop, and the experimental extended techniques (rolling, rubbing, and striking of the keys, strings and soundboard with baseball and mitt) sound like anything but the fluid scales and arpeggios of Parker and Gillespie, and even less do they evoke the ballet of Joe DiMaggio.  This is, once again, industrial music for its own sake, Lisa Moore belching out the extremes of the piano’s textural, timbral potential, as if presaging the imminence of the atomic age.

Of the two compositions on this CD, Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers is clearly more engaging, aesthetically and intellectually.  Moore turns the duet between sampler and Steinway into an intriguing dialectic.  While the former produces a tightly-structured temporal space, she employs the latter to reclaim a more personal psychic space with agogic flexibility and liberal use of rubato.  Plucked, scratched piano strings evoke the brittleness of bone, and electric sonic distortion can point either to a dystopic future or, more likely, to the lost innocence of early modernity.

American Composers Orchestra – October 14, 2011 – Zankel Hall

Berio, Ligeti, Wuorinen, John Morris, Rodgers and Hammerstein – I arrived at this unlikely group of artists as the likely influences of the under-40 composers featured at the opening concert of the Sounds of a New Century Festival. Perhaps it’s unfair to pin these emerging artists as the curators of styles already established before they were born, but if we are to believe that the 21st century is turning out truly new music, we must be prepared to accept that the innovations are not quite as radical (or as apparent) as those that ushered in new stylistic movements in the post-WWII era. This, of course, says nothing about the communicative powers of these world premieres, as all five pieces were well-received by the audience and the orchestra seemed quite “in their element.”

Christopher Stark

Christopher Stark’s … and start west is a triptych depicting first New York, then the Great Plains, and finally the Rocky Mountains. While the opening section’s unsettling monophonic melody thrashes up and down, percussion evokes the frenzied rhythms of Bernstein’s New York. The second section begins with the thinnest of sounds from the piano strings, as if the soundboard had been turned off. After toying with a chromatic mediant, the strings sustain a ground note, gradually increasing to a polytonal hum, while a percussionists employs a bowing of cymbals, affecting the sound of a wet wine glass rim. The wash of tremolo strings and trilling winds achieve Ligeti-like atmospherics, perhaps pointing to the sense of oblivion resulting from a flat landscape without limit. Chromatic arpeggios evoke the mountains of the final section, and the sense of a ground tone never leaves, even though the actual tone varies. Stark does well to avoid the trite programmatic style of Copland’s “west.”

Andreia Pinto-Correia’s Elegia a Al-Mu’tamid explores the elemental phenomenon of a tone and its two semitone neighbors. Percussion was engaged in more bowing of cymbals and vibraphone bars to reinforce the caustic harmonic environment. Muted brass was well-suited to the ironic blurts of the titular Andalusian poet-king, perhaps reminiscing his past glory from a Moroccan prison. The piano was employed for flourishes, never allowing a melody to emerge, for that was reserved for the strings, sending ideas up in the air, only to be taken over by statements of worry. The oboe had a prominent role, like an agitated muezzin calling his worshippers. The piece is left entirely unresolved, as another idea is thrown upward and left hanging.

Alex Temple’s Liebeslied opens with a noir muted trumpet; one sees a trench-coated gumshoe smoking under a neon sign, steam rising through a nearby manhole cover – and this abruptly gives way to a Broadway number. At first the only audible electronics were those that could’ve been approximated by percussion and other orchestral groups. The female voice was not quite as expressive and syrupy as she could’ve been, considering that this piece is an intensification of the great love songs of the ‘40s and 50’s. Finally, electronics included noise, gates and other filters, and a cavernous reverb for the vocalist, who now spoke passages too stark for melody. This somewhat obvious portrayal of the dark side the composer hears in love songs of a bygone era was nevertheless well-crafted, as the orchestra was not merely backing up a singer, but dancing that fine line between established, polished song formulas and emotional abstraction.

Wang Lu’s Flowing Water Study II began with extended techniques in the strings, slapping the bodies of the instruments and playing the fingerboard piano-style. An occasional tutti pentatonic melody reminded us that this was based on traditional Chinese music. The accompanying video was largely a distraction, showing Black and White tracers, less evocative of water than deep outer space. A qin (7-stringed Chinese zither) was placed stage-front under a spotlight, but remained unplayed, like the composers intentions, one regrets.

Kenji Bunch’s Devil’s Box was preceded by a short promotional film in which he tugs at our heartstrings with a close-up of his “rescued pit bull, Coffee.” Please. In any event, his source material and the ideas he uses to expand on that material are solid. Taking off from the 19th century evangelical notion that virtuosity on the violin was indicative of a pact with the devil, the composer seeks to thaw this fundamentalist bias by opening with a Stephen Foster hymn in the piano and winds, with a tremolo on strings floating high above. This is interrupted by silences punctuated by the bass drum. Strings rise even higher and muted horns and dissonant arpeggios on the harp stifle the homophony of the hymn. This dialectic is continued while the solo viola leads a call-and-response with the other violas, using a bizarre technique in which the viola is placed between the bow stick and the detached hairs, so that all four strings can be played at once. In the second section, the pizzicato solo viola quickens to an R&B groove marked by bass drum kicks on 1 and 3. The 3rd section is an extended solo viola recitative supported occasionally by lush jazz-inflected chords from the orchestra. A chorus emerges with a clear rising tonal progression:
I – I6 – IV – vi; V65 – flat-VI – I64 – flat-VI – I64 – etc. The recitative ensues with support from the piano and glockenspiel. A Short cadenza leads back into the R&B riff with basses, then percussion, rising to a celebratory gospel outburst with an edge provided by synthesizer. Think the grand finale to Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. Naturally, this piece received the most raucous applause. While it didn’t have the solo virtuosity you might expect of a devil’s pact, the complex architectural evolution of the piece served the idea of a once-maligned instrument gradually regaining its dignity.

It seems natural that young composers like these (the first three are doctoral candidates) will seek guidance from the last generation of composers, along with popular genres, as they hone their own personal styles. A key question is: are they engaging contemporary political landscape and culture in their work? The post-WWII generation of composers embraced total serialism in order to impose structure on a shattered world. For better or worse, the 21st century is already being identified with political and economic instability – its first decade has been stamped with the so-called Global War on Terror, global financial meltdown, and awareness of human-induced climate change. If the work of these composers is any clue as to the future of 21st century classical music, then artists will opt to look inward, or back in time, for source material and inspiration.