Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Continual Process

“He’s sawing a piece of wood!”
This was an exclamation that my dad heard two nights ago (in, from what I gather, a raspy, Brooklyn-tinged accent). No, we weren’t at a carpenter’s convention or a magic show, but at a symposium; The John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to be exact.
This quoted sentence doesn’t exactly fit into the mainstream file of descriptive sentences we have in our brains ready for use at a classical concert. But, contrary to the seemingly off observation, it’s exactly what was happening during the modern-music-infested concerts. 
The symposium’s first concert featured works by John D. Robb, Colin Holter (the winner of the 2010 National Biennial JDR Composers’ Competition), Karola Obermüller, Elizabeth Hoffman, Konrad Boehmer, and Ron Newman. The concert began with three of Robbs chamber works, “Miniatures” for brass quintet and percussion, “Prelude and Commentary” for brass and percussion, and “I Am Very Old Tonight” and “Tears” for women’s chorus, oboe, and piano. Robb’s brass compositions all had a big-band-type feel, but also integrated some haunting, long-held notes in “Miniatures.” “Prelude and Commentary” was like a morphing organism in some ways—at points, I felt like I was in a jungle, at others, on a pirate ship, and at others in a smoky 20s’ night club. Thought the structure of the pieces was not revolutionary, the sounds still evoked emotion from the sweet-spot in our hearts for familiarity. His two vocal pieces had a scarce instrumental ensemble; the oboe seemed like the quiet and mysterious man walking down the street while the chorus was like his thoughts blossoming behind him. The first movement used melodies with straining notes that led to minor resolutions, while the second had chords in the chorus that created more of a sound wall.  

John Donald Robb

“The Recording You Will Now Hear” for flute/piccolo, clarinet/contrabass clarinet, violin, cello, vibraphone, and piano by Colin Holter was the piece that had the most balance between contemporary, avant garde techniques and success of a perfectly-merged ensemble. To quote the program note:
The Recording You Will Now Hear” uses “Cuatro Flores” (a song recorded by Dr. Robb, sung by Josefina Flores) as its source material. The composer imagined a recorder with two settings: one sensitive to the source’s behavior as a sound object, and the second sensitive to its valences as a culture object.”  
The piece started out with subtle and haunting tone bends from the cello and violin that right away brought to mind the shaky, ghostly voice of Flores (from the recording that was played before the ensemble began) with its dissonant combinations. It conveyed the desolate desert that New Mexico is which was the perfect match for the inspirational source (and is also a difficult achievement for a non-New Mexican like Holter). The piece was shorter (compared to some of the others), but it accomplished everything it set out to do.
Following the intermission was what seemed to me like a palate cleanser, there to transition our ears from the murmurs of the break into the world of organized sound again—“moving in spirals” by Karola Obermüller. The lights were brought completely down and everyone sat, probably with their eyes closed, while the electronic piece played through the speakers. The piece included mostly rebounds of different sounds off of a nonexistent wall. It felt like, as the listener, I was inside a box, close to one side, and the sounds were launched off that side and then bounced off the other walls. The sound grew and morphed inside the box. Some of the sounds were uncomfortable, like the one that sounded like a hybrid between a scratching pencil and the clomping of hooves on a street, or the one that sounded like a frothy milkshake being poured into a glass, but they were needed an added much depth to the piece. I wish the piece was a seamless transition into the next, like a true palate cleanser would be. 

Karola Obermüller
Elizabeth Hoffman’s piece, “Pathological Curves,” was the most “stereotypical modern”-sounding piece of the evening at a glance. It was arranged for trumpet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. However, it transcended this stereotype mostly because of the way the instruments moved together; instead of going off on their own, antisocial paths like some hard-to-listen-to compositions, the composer was able to keep it contrapuntal while organizing the parts in such a way that they moved together as one voice. I remember there were two college guys in the first few rows that were silently laughing during most of beginning of the piece. By the end, however, their smug faces had turned into more interested ones. This wasn't my favorite piece, mainly because of its lack of an obvious goal, but the timbres were interesting.
Konrad Boemer’s “Tango Deslavado y Moroso” for solo piano was up next—I liked this work because at it messed with my cursory perceptions. At first, when it began, it sounded familiar, like many jazzy/tango pieces I have heard, but it was such a variation on these pieces that is sounded completely original at the same time. The form alluded to these common styles with obvious subtleties, but its bright as well as dark distinctions were remarkable and kept the attention of the listener. Plus the pianist, Charles Dickinson, wasn’t a bad performer either.

The last piece of the Monday concert was “Optics” by Ron Newman for woodwind quintet, piano, and trumpet. This piece, I remember, included interesting touches, like the sawing of the wood and an ocarina-like whistle, but was slightly uncategorized in my head and therefore did not stand out; thought some sections were memorable, like the climaxes that reminded me slightly of Mahler’s Piano Quartet in A Minor, because there were no central themes that I could recognize throughout the piece, my mind couldn’t grasp on the overall work as well as it could to others.


The second concert was last night (Tuesday). This concert was slightly more theme/concept-centered than the one from Monday, featuring works from Christopher Shultis, Barbara Rettagliati, Falko Steinbach, Konrad Boehmer, Franklin Cox, and Sergei Zhukov. The preparation from Monday night was both a curse and a blessing.
The first piece from the Tuesday concert was Franklin Cox’s “Etude” for cello, performed by the composer. This piece was the perfect starting piece (even if it wasn’t the original opening work). It was attention grabbing—the cello was more like a percussion instrument than a stringed one, with Cox slapping the fingerboard more than creating “real” notes and bouncing the bow on the strings more than “actually” playing them. Its jumpy tendencies were organized to include a rhythm simultaneously, and it was easy to listen to. Cox’s other cello composition, “Clairvoyance,” used similar techniques but obviously went under some serious thought during composition. The program note said:
“The are five continuous sections in Clairvoyance, the 2nd and 4th dominated by fast running notes. All materials develop from five basic gestures introduced in the first 15 bars of the piece. The structure, tempi, dynamics, pitch structure, and rhythm of Clairvoyance reflect the fluctuating and outwardly-spiraling basic rhythmic pattern:
6  4  7  3  5”
(There is more from the program note by Cox, this is just an excerpt). Most of “Clairvoyance” had similar interest as “Etude,” but about two thirds of the way through there was a period that seemed to be dormant and not fulfilling everything it could have been.
Then came my favorite piece of the entire symposium: Christopher Shultis’s (sections from the) piece “Waldmusik.” This piece seemed to be the most successful in regards to the mission it set out to accomplish—to evoke the sounds, or silences, and images of the mountains of New Mexico and the woods of Pennsylvania. It included two pianos, one for traditional playing and one used as a percussion instrument (rubber mallets on the strings, tapping on the sides, plucking), as well as a recording/electronic track and a plank of wood with a hammer.

Christoper Shultis
(The selections from) “Waldmusik” immediately created a cavernous sound space with almost always-pedaled, high-register notes and the rich textures it created with a minimal amount of notes. The tapped strings on the percussive-piano with the rubber mallets created a surprisingly sharp sound that contrasted well with the piano. Without even having to look at the program, the listener could realize what the goal of the piece was: a portrait of isolating nature. About half way through, the audio of footsteps on the mountainous ground came in, gradually accompanied with electronic vibrations. The piano-percussionist went to the front of the stage where the wood and hammer were sitting, and the pianist picked up a slab of wood fitted exactly to the keyboard. The pianist slammed down on all 88 keys while the percussionist slammed on the wood as hard as he could with the hammer on every fourth piano-slam (the first wood slam made everyone in the audience jump and produced a cloud of dust from the wood). After a while, however, it became a familiar sound—to clarify, this composition made slamming on wood and 88 piano keys comfortable—no easy feat. Following this was a passage where the highest C was played along with sleigh bells, mimicking the footsteps previously heard. Overall, Shultis’s piece was convincing, shocking, haunting, and amazing.
The next piece was Barbara Rettagliati’s “Esto Memoir” for violins, viola, cello, bass, piano, and percussion. This was a stylish piece of chamber music, with flashy and interesting violin solos and beautiful cadences, and the piano and marimba paired well together like cousins. There was one passage where all the strings were playing sustained notes (differing from the rest of the piece) and the piano was isolated—this allowed for a release, a resting point, for the whole piece, and greatly helped the overall work. Rettagliati also had a vocal/piano piece, “Ricordi Furtivi” with text by Claudio Saltarelli. The piano accompaniment was more the center of the work, but it wasn’t an overpowering presence in comparison to the vocals (one could tell that Rettagliati most likely spent more valued time on the piano part, and it wasn't a bad thing).
Falko Steinbach provided some humor and levity to the show with his piece “No, You Are Wrong!” (argument between oboe and piano). The piece was an instrumental mockery of the composer's arguments with one of his friends. No, the work wasn’t “emotionally riveting” or anything, but that wasn’t what it was supposed to be. However, the music relied on the movement of the players (frustrated exits and movements), and would have been less convincing if it had been listened to blindly.
Next was the somewhat career-defining work of Konrad Boehmer, “Echelon,” written for the group Sonic Youth for the concert “Goodbye 20th Century.” It took about 45 minutes to get the equipment set up, however, and definitely took away from the mystery of the work. It was incredibly different, but also slightly confusing. I couldn’t really see what Boehmer was trying to say with the piece (in the program notes, it said he was inspired by spies, and this was slightly present). However, the lines of the bass were cool, relaxed, and smooth.
Finally, the last work of the Tuesday concert was Sergei Zhukov’s “Spivanochky.” The piece called for a pianist and soprano on stage, and a violinist, clarinetist, percussionist, and another soprano behind the audience. The soprano beginning on stage (Rebecca Brunette) had one of the purest voices I’ve seen recently and really did justice to the piece. Unlike Rettagliati’s vocal piece, the sopranos were the center of the show. The piece was a conversation between the two sides of the venue, with the stage being haunting and slow and the back-ensemble with a more quick tempo and syncopated rhythm. The sopranos eventually changed sides, and it worked like a surround-sound system, with the voices circling the listener’s ears.

Barbara Rettagliati
(There was another concert tonight, but I was unable to go. It included: Andrea Polli, Ron Newman, Martin Scherzinger, Sergei Zhukov, Chong Lim Ng, Peter Gilbert, and Konrad Boehmer)
What I learned during these two modern-music-filled nights was that this type of music (if I had to categorize it, it would be intellectually-driven-there-is-more-to-this-than-what-you're-hearing music) takes a lot of energy to listen to. While many of the compositions were very interesting when looking back (and a few might not fit into this ad hoc category), at the time most did not provide a constant and smooth flow of sound into my brain, but an input that my mind had to churn into the output, which is what you have just read. Now, I’m not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Does all music need to be easy to listen to? Maybe it was just the dosage I was exposed to, but immediately after the Tuesday concert, I’d had my fill. The music seemed much better after reflecting back on it, and perhaps this is the point of it—it’s an ongoing process that continues for many days. But is music supposed to be an academic, multiday process? This is the never-ending controversy of modern music, and I don’t think anyone will ever be able to answer it. I just know that at the concerts I didn’t appreciate the music as much as I do now, which is the opposite of how I feel at Romantic, Impressionist, or Classical concerts.
Nevertheless, most of these compositions were incredibly interesting, and the 2010 John Donald Robb Composers’ Symposium was a great addition to the community and certainly brought a lot of amazing composers (and not to mention a younger audience than usual). Maybe those laughing college boys during the Hoffman piece are sitting in their rooms, like me right now, and realizing what they actually heard.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Benefit Concerts for Japan (organized by Hahn)

If you live in Baltimore, Alexandria, Morrow, or Brooklyn, it is almost required that you go to these concerts. (Lucky, lucky people in Alexandria and Morrow--Valentina Lisita is absolutely amazing). 
Hilary Hahn organized these concerts after her tour in Japan got cancelled because of the devastating earthquake followed by the tsunami. 
(For more information on the concerts as a whole and the individual concerts, go to the Sequenza 21 article)

Hahn will perform at all of the following benefit concerts:
Thursday, March 24 – 7:30 p.m.
Baltimore, MD
Featuring: singer/songwriter Caleb Stine, violinist Yuka Kubota, pianist Yoshie Kubota, Baltimore School for the Arts students Tariq Al- Sabir and Robert Pate, and Suzuki students from the Peabody Preparatory
2640 Space at St. John’s
Friday, March 25 – 7:30 p.m.
Alexandria, VA
Featuring: Valentina Lisitsa
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Free, donations encouraged
Sunday, March 27 – 3 p.m.
Morrow, GA
Featuring: Valentina Lisitsa
Spivey Hall at Clayton State University
Monday, March 28 – 9 p.m.
Brooklyn, NY
Featuring: Josh Ritter, Chris Thile, and Caleb Stine
Galapagos Art Space

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


                One of my minor pet peeves is when I’m taking a test that requires short answers; the teacher has typed a question and then left a few clicks of the Enter button for the answer, and there, right after a sentence that starts with “When,” “Why,” “Who,” “What,” they forgot to put a question mark. It isn’t something that drives me to rip up the paper and storm out of the room, but the lack of that one symbol annoys me—if I were to read the question to myself, my voice would want to drop to a lower pitch to signify a statement, when a question mark would prompt a rise in pitch. Even though I know the question is a question, the symbols on the page still mess with my mind.
We experience linguistics like these every moment of every day. When speaking, these subtle changes in pitch come out naturally because of constant exposure. When writing, unless a mistake is made, cough cough, we know that certain punctuation marks can result in changes of tone. These rules are present in music, too. I spent part of my morning reading the harmony chapter of Robert Erickson’s The Structure of Music. Although the idea was not new to me, the way he described it was perfect:

“At cadence points, those ‘sensitive’ areas in the musical organization, the effects of the harmony, and the character of the relationships between melody and chord are most easy to grasp. The tone relaxation or relative rest in the melody is supported by a chord of rest in the harmony…Language has a variety of cadences, too. At the end of a sentence, the voice falls; to express a question, we use a rising inflection. We have evolved written symbols, commas, periods, semicolons, question marks, etc., to designate these inflections, in order to articulate both spoken and written words…It is not the final tone by itself which makes for the feeling of finality, but its relation to the other musical tones… The sentence does not end because of the period—the period is there because the sentence has ended.”

And there’s where yet another intricacy of music/life comparison came into my mind. Like speaking, music flows naturally if the composer lets it. A talented composer knows where the music is going and can easily allow it to run in its natural progression. By no means is Erickson saying that all music should go by these standards of inflection, but he is saying that the tones of cadences, the intensity or calmness, are affected by the exact type of symbols that are used. One of the most definite ways a composer can control the emotion evoked from a phrase of music is the placement and length of the notes and rests he/she use. Carefully placed tension points can make all the difference. These are the periods, question marks, colons, and commas (and I suppose the dynamics are the exclamation marks and parenthesis).  
For example, in Bach’s Two Part Invention No. 13, not too many dynamics are suggested—all the emotion comes from the tension points and the length of these points.

In this melody line, I have marked in red what I believe to be the tension points of the phrase (I’m no theory expert, but this is what I hear) and in yellow the brief resting points before the next exerpt. Because he chose to make these notes eighth notes instead of sixteenth notes like the rest of the notes around them, Bach creates tension through isolation as well as pitch. In this case, these down-stepping red notes act as commas, eventually leading to the resolving Cs.
The yellow notes are the lift-off point for the next section of the phrase, much like a trampoline that a gymnast uses to reach bars. With out these notes, the phrase would lack dimension because it would be quite more monotone than its current state. The yellow notes allow a definite place for the phrase to reside--without these places, the cadences would be hanging in space. In terms of phonetics, these notes (in my opinion) are like the words used to start long explanations, quotes, or ideas. To quote Walt Whitman:

"Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not           speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?"

The yellow notes are like the word "stranger." Without it, the sentence would mean nothing. It introduces the idea. Perhaps the red notes are the "whys?"
In our lives we have learned to bend our voices up at the end of questions. Society has taught us that we are more understandable if we lower our voice slightly at the end of a sentence. And Bach (as well as almost every other talented composer) has taught us that music isn't so different from what you just finished reading. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Like Father, Like Son? Not Anymore

          Steps to the most interesting encounter to ever happen:
1.      - Make herbal resurrection remedy
2.       -Bring Haydn back from the dead
3.       -Buy him a new coat, dust off his wig, introduce him to the idea of cars
4.       -Take him to a JACK Quartet performance
5.       -Have him listen to one of Aaron Cassidy’s string quartets
6.       -Watch what happens
                I suppose an event like this would not be too different from taking Corregio to a Pollock exhibit, handing Shakespeare a copy of Ginsberg’s Howl, or perhaps showing Michelangelo a Calder sculpture. The most likely similar reaction could range from excitement, to contempt, to pure confusion. Giving one of the founding fathers of the string quartet something that is so different from the now-standard musical form he made centuries ago would juxtapose the two extremes we have come to of these categories, and create a wide expanse of time that is filled with baby steps between each. The point is, the string quartet has changed a lot from its toddler years in the hands of Papa Haydn, with its classic four-movement, tonic-supertonic-tonic-tonic roots, to something completely different. That “something” includes string quartets that only last one expanse of around 9 minutes, ones with movements dedicated to syncopated pizzicato, ones with notation that look more like blueprints, to ones performed inside of helicopters. But, despite all this differing growth, perhaps Papa would be proud of his son.

C Major Quartet (FJH)

                The string quartet, the form we all look to in a split second as the epitome of chamber music, was actually formulated by accident. Haydn was a young composer, and he was working for Baron Carl von Joseph Edler von Fürnberg at his estate near Vienna. The Baron wanted to hear music, and the only players available were two violinists, a violist, and a cellist, the makings of what we know today as the classic string quartet. Because of this ad hoc ensemble, Haydn was inspired and went on to compose 68 others, dubbing him the father of yet another musical form. Haydn not only brought this form to the masses because of its ideal structure, but also just by being himself.  He was easily one of the most publically as well as personally well-received composers during the 1700s. So much so, even, that his friend, Dr. Charles Burney, wrote a poem titled “Verses on the Arrival of Haydn in England” to commemorate his arrival to the country (a much anticipated event) in 1791. One of the stanzas is:

HAYDN! Great Sovereign of the tuneful art!
Thy works alone supply an ample chart
Of all the mountains, seas, and fertile plains,
Within the compass of its wide domains—
Is there an Artist of the present day
Untaught by thee to think, as well as play?
Whose head thy science has not well supplied?
Whose hand thy labors have not fortified?

                These words probably parallel the emotion of many others during that time. The string quartet quickly rose to fame as well as invaded the minds of other composers, such as Mozart, who dedicated a set of six string quartets to Haydn.
                However, as the ever-morphing music world always does, the structure didn’t stay permanently in the hands of Papa forever. While his clean and bright and perfectly balanced quartets never died, the form quickly shaped throughout the rest of the Classical period. Though similar, one can detect differences in Mozart’s and Haydn’s quartets. Mozart’s seem to have a bit more of a liquid-like sound, with the strings seeming more like one being than four. Further along the timeline, Schubert’s in D minor is titled “Death and the Maiden,” a much darker emotion than any of Haydn’s possess. It employs more whacking of the strings and a more violent attack, but still holds on to many of the Classic nuances. Walter Wilson Cobbett, the chamber music expert, once wrote, "To the independent artist... the string quartet had now also become a vehicle for conveying to the world his inner struggles," which was perfect for Schubert’s introverted and troubled personality. Jumping forward a few decades, Dvořák’s quartets use folk-influenced sounds and melodies. They are much rawer and seem very “woody” to me, for lack of a more understandable word, maybe organic, or homegrown. His “American” quartet uses Western rhythms and richer chords, and some resonances in his no. 11 have very sorcerer-sounding note combinations. Along with the tonal and technical differences in the quartets coming soon after Haydn’s, the tempos and styles of the individual movements changed, even though four movements was still the standard amount. Haydn’s ordering is as follows:
Sonata form
Slow (lento, adagio, largo)
Minuet and trio
But Dvořák and Schubert’s quartets (as well as others from the Classical/Romantic era, such as Tchaikovsky’s, Mendelssohn’s, and Schumann’s) differ from this form. Brahms’s String Quartet No. 3 begins with a seemingly traditional melody, but the off-beat accents in the first movement foreshadow a changing in style, and even presents a slightly jazzy outlook in my opinion (What?! Brahms? Being jazzy?). But Brahms, despite his seemingly conservative outlook, was an innovator, and helped bridge the gap between classicism and romanticism/impressionism.

And then along came the impressionists, determined to rattle the brains of their Romantically-seasoned listeners. Their quartets are loaded with new techniques and timbres, as well as new influences. Debussy was influenced by gamelan music (the percussion-based groupings from Indonesia) as well as Japanese and other Asian areas. His music can also be connected with jazz, like I wrote about before, and his String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 includes contemporary chords and mixes of sounds that are never present in Haydn’s music. His throaty solos of the viola cut through the rest of the instruments beautifully (such as at the beginning of the second movement, accompanied by pizzicato), and the ever-popular impressionist method of singling out one instrument while the rest quietly lurk in the background with either tremolo or arpeggios is used often. Written shortly after, Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, commonly referred to as “Elena’s Favorite String Quartet EVER,” also cut through boundaries. The melodies are extremely catchy and French (The first movement’s A-G-A-E-D… melody as well as the second movement’s A minor melody are constantly stuck in my head), but are versatile enough that they can be extended and mixed up in countless numbers of ways (and they are). The sounds range from stormy to light to surreptitious, all the while creating those phantom sounds that all composers strive to produce. The quartet was composed and submitted to the Prix de Rome as well as the Conservatoire de Paris as Ravel’s final submission; however, it was infamously rejected by both in 1904. Debussy, one who had a somewhat taciturn attitude towards other’s compositions, and a well-known rivalry with Ravel, wrote to him: “In the name of the gods of music and in my own, do not touch a single note you have written in your Quartet.” His rejections were perceived as unfair to the public, and made him more famous and loved than before. Gabriel Faure’s string quartets also served as steps forward during this era, with their slightly amorphous textures, abstract counterpoint, and pings of dissonant intervals.

The 20th century brought extremely significant variations on the classic string quartet. There are countless pieces to mention, ranging from Berg to Prokofiev to Webern to Villa-Lobos. Shostakovich (or known to me affectionately as “Sho-Sho”), however, is undeniably one of the masters of 20th century chamber music. His String Quartet No. 8, with its famous, intense, suspenseful first movement, is the epitome of the emotions in his part of the world during the time (he was diagnosed with polio and reticently joined the Communist Party around the time of its composition) and is dedicated to “the victims of Fascism and war.” Its C minor theme (used in five of his other works) is melancholy and subtly terrifying in the first movement, and sound unexpectedly middle-eastern. He even incorporates an eerie waltz into the mix. Contrary to Haydn’s layout, he begins the quartet with a Largo movement, and the piece is composed of five movements instead of four. The emotions Shostakovich is able to evoke from the ensemble are incredible; although it may be a bias/controversial opinion, it seems as though the emotion from string quartets intensifies as time went on past Haydn (think Barber). With the boundaries of music being stretched from purely royal entertainment, composers were able to show more private, violent, and intense emotions (despite the ominous presence of the Soviet government for Sho-Sho). Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 1 begins with the layering of an E natural and F natural, a cacophonous interval that immediately sets the mood for the piece. The work has jarring harmonies, but the instruments work together in a seamless way. The last two movements have more pleasant emotions. Bartók even created his own type of pizzicato.


Then the late 20th - 21st century works came into play. As the structure that Papa laid out stretched further and further, it was around this time that the structure completely gave way to the new ways of string quartet composition. George Crumb created a new type of “movement,” with his quartet “Black Angels” for electric strings in 1970 (subtitled “Thirteen Images from the Dark Land”). Like Makrokosmos, Crumb divided the three parts of his work into 4-5 sections because of his interest in numerology. The first part, “Departures,” comes screaming in with high-pitched tremolo and a stream-of-consciousness pings of thoughts from the instruments. Countless avant garde techniques are used, such as glissando’d pizzicato, and other objects such as crystal glasses, maracas, thimbles, gongs, and tam-tams are used. The second part, “Absence,” includes nervous glissandos as well as chanting from the performers (it sounds like 1, 2, 3, 4 in German, but I can’t be sure). There are hardly any traditional-sounding tones, but in “Absence” and the third part, “Return,” there are some harmonious passages. Another modern landmark of string quartets is Stockhausen’s “Helikopter-Streichquartett” (Helicopter String Quartet), premiered in 1995. The piece includes not only string instruments, but four helicopters and video/sound equipment as well. Each instrumentalist is placed inside a helicopter, and the music is literally flying. Despite the extravaganza, it wasn’t musically well-received (“…it was not, as Mr. Stockhausen claimed, important research into new sound materials, nor anything of consequence in purely musical terms. It was a grandiose absurdist entertainment, not unlike Christo's wrapping of the Reichstag back in Berlin” Alex Ross). It includes lots and lots and lots of tremolo. Other modern quartets include ones by Ligeti and Feldman, who wrote a six hour piece.  

And then, in the last self-created category of string quartets, comes the new era of notation. In this post, it only includes two composers, but I’m sure contains more than I mention. Iannis Xenakis is popularized by his mathematical methods of composition and how he created pieces by focusing more on the symbolism of the notation and seeing where they end up. His four string quartets use his methods of notation—I’m not even going to try to analyze them, though they are incredibly interesting. His most well known quartet, “Tetras,” is a big mash-up of modern sounds; it’s a collage of the weirdest things that string instruments can do. But, even though it sounds as if it would be difficult to listen to, it’s not. I recently listened to the whole quartet while driving through Napa Valley, and I wasn’t disturbed or annoyed, surprisingly. Because of the slight but existent structure to the piece, the listener is able to follow the groupings of scratches, harmonics, and glissandos. The other composer to use odd notation is Aaron Cassidy, the American-born but British-based composer. One of his most recent works “Second String Quartet” came out in 2010 and has been performed by the JACK Quartet. His method of composition is best described in the NewMusicBox article by Tim Rutherford Johnson (along with a lot of other really well written information about the work). It is a hybrid between staff notation and tablature, but instead of using exact notes, it’s more of a diagram for the instrumentalists to follow in terms of where to place their hands on the fingerboard, dynamics, bow action, and fingering, all color-coded and accurately described. The score is like a modern art piece in and of itself, and the sounds it describes are even stranger. The sound is very similar to Xenakis’s, but, unlike Xenakis’s, Cassidy’s quartets are never the exact same, for the diagrams can suggest anything from two to multiple choices—the performer gets to decide. But the quartet is not a matter of completely random sounds, because Cassidy carefully pieced together types of sounds that go together, and there is a method of counterpoint involved. The sound is hard to describe.

An example of Xenakis (Metastaseis for orchestra)

Cassidy score

Aaron Cassidy
Who knows what Papa Haydn would do if he was to listen to Cassidy? We will never know, but after the initial shock, perhaps he could be guided through the gradual timeline he planted the seed of. Mozart doesn’t seem so different from him, and Schubert’s quartets could have bumped elbows with ol’ Wolfgang’s. The Romantic era brought along the folk-influenced pieces of Dvořák and the slightly jazz foreshadowing rhythms of some of Brahms’s pieces, followed closely by the impressionism of the late 1800s/early 1900s. Debussy, Ravel, and Faure brought along pizzicato-centered movements and rich chords and harmonies and some of the catchiest melodies of quartet history. The early modernists like Shostakovich and Béla Bartók brought out immense amounts of emotion with their works, and used violent antics that bridged the tonal and atonal worlds. Soon after, composers like Crumb brought newly organized quartets and timbres while artists like Stockhausen put their quartets literally in the skies. And then along came Xenakis and Cassidy, the ones who were/are making music an art of diagrams and mathematics instead of notes.
The string quartet will always be one of the most used forms in classical music, and it’s not the only type of son that strays away from its father’s values. But sometimes, even those rebellious sons create amazing things.        

Very, very brief timeline:

Here are a few more modern quartets that are worth listening to:
    3 (best expression ever)                                                                             

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Shards pt. 2

As my previous post’s title alluded, I got to experience even more Philip Glass yesterday. Not only was I able to see him perform a live piano recital, but was able to go to a colloquium/Q&A with him.
                The Day (necessary capitalization) began with Glass seated at a table in front of a billowing red curtain in a small concert hall that was filled intimately with college students, adults, and a few high schoolers. Like how my dad later described the concert a few hours later, everyone in the room seemed to get chills when he walked on stage. But he didn’t have that inferior aura to him that many people capable of star-striking do. His down-to-earth and casual attitude was comforting. The talk only lasted for an hour and could only hold five questions, but I managed to get one in. I asked if, in his childhood or adolescence, any experiences or habits he had formed affect the way he composes now. He honestly didn’t really answer my question, but the information he did dictate was interesting. He mainly talked about how he had to be one of the hardest workers at Julliard because he was in the middle range of the composition students when it comes to talent. He described how he had to ignore what his teachers told him to do: to not play his own music, because they had better performers there that could. “That was bad advice,” Glass said. He went on to describe how composing is like venturing into a city. “You have to go to the parts of the city you’ve never been to, that’s where you’ll find the things that interest you. You can’t go to the parts you’re familiar with. You might as well stay at home and watch CNN.” Oh, Philip. One of the most interesting things he said was that he has taught himself to only practice between 10 am and 1 pm. He said, “If I get an idea in the middle of the night, oh well.” During these hours, he stays at the piano and works, but outside of this specific time frame, he tries not to think about composing—“I think that’s an important part of it,” he said. Unfortunately, he snuck out before my friend and I could become best friends with him, but we were lucky enough to get to hear his thoughts.
                The Day concluded, after the crucial step of sushi, with the recital. Glass played Etudes 1, 2, 3, 6, 9, and 10, “Mad Rush,” “Metamorphoses,” “Dreaming Awake,” “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” and “Night on the Balcony” and the “Closing” movement from Glassworks as encores. Staying consistent with his casual attitude, he wore slacks and a button-up shirt, with his hair in the signature ruffle on the top of his head. The powerful unison chords of the first etude confidently came through his fingers. Glass’s style is much looser than others who I’ve heard play his music. Playing like his could come off as sloppy for energetic and demanding pieces (Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff), but it worked well with his Zen timbres and so-often-used arpeggios. “Mad Rush” was performed most solidly, clear and perfectly meditative. No one understands Glass’s music more than himself, and it is evident when he is playing. He seems unfazed by the simplicity and subtleness of dynamics; it’s even easier to listen to his almost improvisational-sounding interpretations of his own work than someone else’s. I say “interpretation” because of something he had said during the colloquium—when asked how he felt about whom and how interpreted his music, he responded that he still interpreted it. He sometimes finds himself playing his own pieces with reversed dynamics, completely different to how he wrote them.

             “Wichita Vortex Sutra,” however, ended up being my favorite piece performed. The original Allen Ginsberg recording played over Glass’s playing, for which I was eternally grateful (that’s even more than a Glass repeat sign). His voice begins at a baritone level, but when it comes to stanzas that require overwhelming emotion (“A lone man talking to myself, no house in the brown vastness to hear, imaging the throng of Selves that make this nation one body of Prophecy languaged by Declaration as Happiness!”), it changes into the tenor, underlying-ly raspy tone us slam-lovers have come to recognize. And the pure Americana, slightly twangy pivots of Glass’s accompaniment was perfectly joyful over the purely honest portrayal of the America and war.

                Honestly, it’s almost impossible to critique Glass, or really make too many observations. It’s like describing Warhol making a screen print. One can observe the physical actions and black-and-white motions, but one cannot judge or make opinions, for that’s only really doable if someone else is interpreting their work. The point is, Glass is a master of what he does. For “It's not the vast plains mute our mouths,” but the people who create genres.     

Monday, March 14, 2011

Shards pt. 1

Today today today today today today today today today today today today today today today today I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I I  listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened listened to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to to some some some some  some some some some some some some…

          Philip Glass.

Hopefully that doesn’t come off as mockery, because I cannot say I do not like Glass. In fact, I respect Glass immensely. But, contrary to a hasty glance at the music industry in general, he is like a politician to the classical music world. Some love him, some don’t really care, and some really, really dislike him. All of these opinions more or less pertain to his tendency of repetition, and it’s an incredibly complicated subject (also like politics). After seeing and listening to Glassworks today and hearing the differing opinions of the audience and performers, I can see the sides of these different viewpoints.

Glassworks begins with the steady and tranquil solo piano movement (“Opening”). The piece has that quintessential Glass touch, with its slowly morphing chords and singular notes that cause the listener to sit on the edge of their seat just a little more. The contrasting rhythms of the two hands, with its triplet eighth notes in the right hand over eighth notes and whole notes in the left hand in common time, is infectious and slightly surreptitious when just listening. After my hands mastered the pattern, I couldn’t stop them from tapping anywhere I went, whether it was on the piano itself, a wall, my legs, or each other (more difficult). It is difficult to deny the simple genius of this movement—its effortless splendor transcends classical music’s complicated expectations, much like Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel” does. Every now and then we need wakeup calls like this movement to remind us that sound is sound and not a race to complexness.

The following movements of Glassworks include two French horns, a bass clarinet, two flutes, a viola, a cello, keyboard, a tenor saxophone, an alto saxophone, and two soprano saxophones (which sound like 50/50 blends of an oboe and a French horn). The French horns stand out to me as the unsung heroes of the piece, showing their velvety resonance with small-interval couplets between the two. The soprano saxophones act as top-layer voices, and with their slightly ambiguous and hard-to-categorize sounds add just the right amount of unexpectedness.

Slightly Pink Floyd, wouldn't you say?
As an audience member, I felt relaxed and invulnerable with the predictability of Glass’s harmony clouds. Sure, I thought, this is certainly repetitive, but unless your naïve-to-classical-music self has been dragged to a Glass performance or you’ve been plugging your ears for the past 40 years, the cyclical style is inevitable. I was surprised I didn’t get sleepy or end up with numb legs. Through the reoccurring patterns and identical chord changes, the simplicity of the music shone through and wasn’t irritating to the audience from what I gathered. However, after the concert, I heard many opinions from the performers and detailed descriptions of the unwelcoming trance they were falling into on stage. If one thinks about Glassworks from the performer’s type of view, eyelids almost immediately close. Playing the same alternating notes for 8 minutes straight only to see another D.C. al coda? That sums up the experience.
There enters the problem so often encountered with Glass. Even though there’s no debate that the chords and harmonies themselves sound amazing, are constantly repeating ostinatos of singular notes respectable? And one cannot deny the fact that a large quantity of his music sounds eerily similar. In a 2007 New Yorker article, Alex Ross wrote, “To encounter a new Glass work these days is to pass through a familiar sequence of emotions. More often than not, you start with a disappointed sense of déjà vu: a rapid onset of churning arpeggios and chugging minor-key progressions dashes any hope that the composer may have struck off in a startling new direction. At times, it seems as though he had launched Microsoft Arpeggio on a computer and gone off to have tea with, say, Richard Gere.”
The problem I have encountered with Glass is not the first letter of the sentence, per se, but where the period finally comes in the piece, and where it finally comes in his repertoire. I heard recently the point that audiences need to be more patient and that “entertainment” does not need to be constant. This point is incredibly valid and I lobby for it entirely, but I think that Glass’s repetitiveness goes beyond the rejection of entertainment and into the realm of rare but existent surpluses. The ideas that Glass begins with are so wonderful and straightforwardly gorgeous, but when used to the point of oblivion, they become too familiar even though they do not become irritating. When I learn a new piece or motif I am crazy about, it’s not uncommon for me to stop whatever I am doing at the moment and run to the piano. But when I start doing this, say, around 10 times a day, even I get (short-term) sick of the piece. Listening to Glass is like eating the most delicious cake ever tasted… every day. It loses its flavor. It’s not really a question of becoming bored as a listener/player, but when the music starts to slightly lose its magic.
Despite all this, one cannot overlook the emotions Glass conveys. One of my first Glass memories is watching Koyaanisqatsi with my dad when I was around 9. Then, the average movie I encountered had constantly moving characters, and, like mentioned before, was terrified of boring its watchers. But Koyaanisqatsi was simply not; it only had footage of cityscapes, masses of people, and landscapes. I expected to be jaded, but I wasn’t. I might have fallen asleep due to my elementary school-timed internal clock, but I was never bored.

Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass Glass… (fermata-ed rest) will always be one of the most famous composers in the general music business and one of the most controversy in the classical, but he will always be churning out those lines and lines of music he has come to claim as his own. Sometimes his repetitiveness is painful due to the loss of the initial beauty of the themes, but he will always compose, and we will always listen. In the long run, we need Glass's unquestionable talent to teach us patience and the effortless art of chord-morphing. And maybe we are all in fast-forward and he’s the only one who’s hit “stop.”  

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Beast

Zaka (zo-ko) v.  To do the following almost
simultaneously and with great speed:  zap, sock,
race, turn, drop, sprint.   

“Wait…” You are probably thinking right now, “I’ve never heard that word.” But don’t worry; you haven’t been deprived of hidden vocabulary. The reason that you haven’t heard this word before is because, well, it doesn’t really exist. The only “zaka” I’ve ever heard of are the relief groups in Israel, and that certainly has nothing to do with zaps or sprints. Despite the omission of this should-be-official-by-now word from the “actual” dictionary, let’s hope it starts becoming a universal term in the musical one. Because it certainly deserves it.
“Zaka” in this sense pertains to the chamber piece by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Hidgon. It was commissioned for a series of works for Meet the Composer Commissioning Music/USA. I hadn’t heard a lot about Hidgon until recently, and in the past few weeks I’ve seen Hilary Hahn, eighth blackbird, and other names linked up with hers. Jennifer’s pieces are sensitive and varied; they can be rhythmically centered (like in “Rhythm Stand” and “Percussion Concerto,” but that’s a little obvious), abstract (“Piano Trio,” “running the edgE”), or slightly impressionistic (“blue cathedral”). She has a talent for keeping her style contemporary and innovative while engaging the listener throughout the entire piece. I have found that a fair amount of new composers seem to add modern techniques and sounds just to be modern-sounding, and it sometimes sounds forced and unnecessary. But Hidgon utilizes every note to its fullest potential; everything sounds natural and crucial. She’s like a baker who’s breads are crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and don’t need a lot of butter.

Hidgon and her cat, Beau (by Candice DiCarlo)
My most recent mission was to listen to eighth blackbird’s “Strange and Imaginary Animals” album today, from second one to second 4,319. It was easily the warmest day of the year so far, and the walk I took with the album streaming into my ears was filled with bare, ominous trees and a setting but glaring sun. “Zaka” is the first piece on 8BB’s album. It begins with a rhythmic, almost tribal, prodding of a prepared piano, alternating on C sharp and A (Lisa Kaplan’s accurate and vigorous playing is perfect for these type of pieces). Quickly after this begins, in comes the scratching of a violin and the native-sounding trills of the clarinet and flute along with primal percussion. The piece has a steady, gung-ho pace but never gets forte until a bit later on. It’s hushed, like a predator sneaking up on prey. Then, suddenly, the predator begins to race as the cymbals are brought in and the instruments individually hammer on their instruments (one of the many climaxes is the flute hopping from a middle-range E to an upper-range D). The roller coaster of emotions is present for a while, and it keeps the listener on their feet for about the first half of the piece. This half fits in perfectly with the album title—the rumblings on the piano, the glissandos on the strings, and the skittering percussion sound like an apocalyptic forest in the midst of chaos (the best kind possible). It also brought to mind the book Lord of the Flies, especially the ending man-hunt section when Ralph is being chased through the burning forest by the rest of the boys.

"Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!"

However, these emotions quickly and seamlessly die down, only to be followed by concrete, calming, and seemingly hollow chords and octaves from the non-prepared piano. Layered over are the contrapuntal melodic lines from the violin, flute, clarinet, cello, and triangle. This section is wholeheartedly melancholy without ever having to resort to solely minor tones. It could easily accompany a drive through New England, abundant trees closing to isolate. I thought of the cinematography in the movies “Michael Clayton” and “In Bruges,” with their earthy and somewhat metallic colors. But I was mostly reminded of the strings in “Quiet City” by Copland, reflecting metropolitan yet macrobiotic timbres.
Shortly after the main primitive feelings emerge again, this time a bit more restrained, revisiting the calm themes from time to time. A rolling C-B, C-B, A-A flat, A-A flat pattern rushes the instruments towards the end, finishing with two drum hits. A wipe of the forehead is pretty necessary afterwards.
From Lord of the Flies to Copland to “In Bruges” and back, Jennifer Hidgon completely succeeds in creating a chamber piece that never loses its listeners’ interests. On my walk with “Strange and Imaginary Animals” I realized that landscapes can handle any emotion thrown at them, and “Zaka” was the perfect workout. When the primitive, hunting themes were pumping into my ears, I quickened my step and felt like prey to the looming, desolate trees. But when the New England-esque sounds presented themselves, I slowed down and felt an omnipresent yet melancholy calm, like an all-seeing eye. Maybe next year we’ll open up our freshly printed Oxford Dictionaries and find Hidgon’s word there in the last few pages. If not, we can feel sorry for the people who will never be able to find that perfect word for those zaka moments.