Saturday, November 08, 2008

American, Experimental, Robust

The local Musikhochschule (the University-level music school or conservatory) held a long night of American music last night, under the title Input Output. There was a lot of music and relatively little talk, a pretty good state of affairs, with one serious complaint about the absence of composers who happened to be women or people of color (except, perhaps, for that assigned to a parallel jazz event which I did not visit). At times, there were four or five concerts going on in parallel distributed throughout the building, with a nice break for common listening in the middle of the evening in which Cage's Winter Music was played by twenty pianists scattered throughout classrooms with the audience either seated in the main entry hall or wandering the various passageways. With music more-or-less continuous, and scattered through all of the available spaces, it was my kind of event, made more jolly with modest but ample food and drink.

The programmed music played really divided into two groups, one of which was our mainstream and not-so-quiet musical school of quietude (thanks again to Silliman's term from Poe), typified by works by Bernstein, Carter, and Crumb, which, for all their differences in materials, technique, or style, were still examples of music which is all about pushing all the right emotive buttons. I don't like being pushed, I don't like being reminded that I have those buttons which might get pushed, and I don't like music which substitutes button pushing for musical invention. There was some Ives and Gershwin on the program as well, fairly standard choices for programs like this, and the honesty of the styles made a strong contrast in particular with the Bernstein, music which just tries too damn hard, and often ends up a dog's breakfast. (With so much going on simultaneously, I missed the parts of the program devoted to European composers who emigrated to the US, including works, especially songs, by Schoenberg, Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, which surely added an interesting local prospective to the notion of an American repertoire).

The second group was music in the experimental tradition, ranging from the New York School (Cage, Wolff, Feldman) to now-classics in the tributaries of the radical/minimal tradition (In C, part one of Drumming, The People United Will Never Be Defeated) as well as Adam's Phrygian Gates, a work which I heard at one of the very first performances, and now, increasingly sounds more at home with the mainstream, but very much a fine piece of American string writing. (Isn't astonishing, that, for a nation in which wind bands have always been more locally prevalent than orchestras, we do such a good job with strings?) In contrast to the mainstream repertoire, which largely came out of the Musichochschule's traditional performance studios and standing ensembles, using traditional rehearsal techniques, this repertoire was assembled more on an ad hoc basis, using non-standard, often flexible instumentation, and sometimes requiring quite a bit of non-traditional engagement in order to realize a score. For all that, this music is extraordinarily robust, and one realizes now, as In C and Drumming enter middle age, that these works have become standard repertoire, and are programmable in an incredible diversity of means, settings, and circumstances. Moreover, these works remain fresh by virtue of this robustness. The performance of In C, for example, led by the local percussion professor (and long-time Ensemble Modern member) Rainer Römer, was for a subdued and slightly under-tempo ensemble of five mallet percussion, two cellos, and two clarinets. Initially, I wanted to object to the use of register contrasts introduced in this performance, particularly in the extended bass-range marimba, but I was soon convinced that this was a useful way of projecting details in the texture that are frequently lost in large ensemble performances which restrict themselves to the notated register. I am far from certain that this particular performance practice is strictly allowed by the "rules" of the piece, but it did show that the material was still rich for experiment.

As a caveat to the remarks above, two works by Feldman illustrated real limits to the notion of robustness. Chorus and Instruments II simply fell flat; as music which depends upon disappearing into and coming out of silences, the traditional choral performance style is inadequate (as the choir members have to seize pitches out of nowhere, they have to constantly bounce tuning forks against their heads in order to get reference pitches, adding some odd theatre), a typical choral audience is unprepared for it, and the typical concert hall is unsuited for it. (Heinz-Klaus Metzger got it spot on when he remarked that Webern was the last compose to write before the advent of air conditioning). On the other hand, with a piece like Why Patterns?, played well last night by students of the Ensemble Modern Academy, Feldman quite effectively solved the problem of creating musical continuity sufficient to exclude external distractions from a music which is so dynamically reduced and subtle.

1 comment:

Justin Friello said...

It sounds like it was an amazing night. I certainly wish there was something comparable here. I've been toying with the idea of organizing a Cage/Feldman/Brown concert here at school, and maybe your experience will give me the motivation to do so.