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.


  1. Great post on the symposium Elena and glad you liked my piece! In the third movement (French Creek) the recorded sounds (unedited) are of me walking in the woods--surprised by the sound of a siren only a few feet away! This became the inspiration for that part of the piece. I look forward to future posts and to hearing your own music someday. Sincerely, Chris Shultis

  2. Thank you Christopher! I'm glad you got to see my thoughts on the symposium, it was amazing and definitely a privilege to go to. I hope you keep reading.