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’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.