Thursday, October 13, 2011

SONiC Boom

            I was talking to someone over Facebook a while ago when they sent me a video. It was called “Epic Rap Battles of History.” Expecting to see some sort of weird, cell phone-filmed video, I reluctantly clicked on it. Suddenly, a guy dressed up as Beethoven was being filmed by a high quality camera, rapping against some other guy dressed up as Justin Beiber. Oh god.
            This story technically doesn’t directly have to do with anything I’m about to talk about, but it illustrates an important idea—even in a world where the only classical music stars recognized by the general public seem to be violinists with excessive make up or child prodigies seen on the Today Show, “the composer” is a valid pop culture figure. Whether they show up in 1 million-hit YouTube videos or on shirts with a picture of Beethoven DJ-ing that say “Old School Beats,” composers from this era have become images reproduced by millions. “Where is this now?” we might ask ourselves. However, this era where “the composer” is as eminent as the classics are now might be recycling itself. Maybe in a few years, tee-shirts will be screen printed with pictures of Muhly or Luther Adams, saying something like “I <3’d ‘Inuksuit’ Before It Was Cool”.

            This observation is the central thought to the SONiC Festival, a festival of 21st century music happening from October 14-22 in various locations around New York. Co-curated by composer Derek Bermel and pianist Stephen Gosling, the festival is focusing on over 100 composers under 40 years old (like the Q2/NPR list).  This festival is possibly the most chock filled with ensembles, composers, and artists that dictate the current classical music industry than any other event in recent years. It’s like Coachella for modern music—minus the central location, hundred degree weather, and tent camping. But it’s only like that in appearance—while Coachella is a showcase, a sort of “here’s what we’ve done,” SONiC is a display that is meant to be a lifting-off point. It’s more of a “here’s what we’re becoming.” It’s uncontrollably exciting.  
“Emerging composers today have much greater access to different traditions and influences, and we are celebrating that by not restricting the music we present to any one style, movement, or agenda. We want to bring more public awareness to the many directions contemporary music is moving in, and to show everyone that ‘the composer’ is alive and thriving,” Bermel said on SONiC’s website. Other popular festivals, such as MATA and Spring for Music, focus on the specific aspects of contemporary music (commissioning young composers and orchestra programming, respectively), but SONiC is aiming to be a “big umbrella” of a festival—a variety of events that celebrate a wide range of composers and ensembles. Composers and pieces that will be played range from the iconic pieces of the past few years (Judd Greenstein, “Change,” performed by the NOW Ensemble, Aaron Cassidy, “Second String Quartet,” performed by the JACK Quartet) to works from Brazil being premiered in the US. The second half of the festival includes afterhours concerts, showcasing some of the best contemporary music in the world in quirky settings at dark, buzzing hours. 
Along with contemporary music being played at SONiC, the festival is encouraging contemporary methods of listening and audience-member-being. The festival is integrating three different “projects” into the mix of music that involve audience members in much more interesting ways than, say, a Q&A. The project called “Re:Sound” allows audience members to vote on pieces they would like to hear again through phones or online, and Q2 will broadcast them. “UrbanRemix” is a project that almost commissions the audience itself—SONiC-goers are encouraged to record sounds they hear to, from, and around the festival, go online, and create a mix. These mixes will be showcased on the second to last night of the festival. “Thicket:Sonic” isn’t really a project, but an App. While sort of ambiguous, the website’s description (“a mobile audiovisual world of texture, movement, line and tone that is part art piece, part toy, part wind chime, and part spierweb.”) is ridiculously intriguing.

JACK Quartet/photo by Stephen Poff
A general theme that runs through the programming of the entire festival is the destruction of the term “genre” and the restrictions that come with that term. Contemporary music, especially in the last year or so, has been evolving into something that is difficult to classify (I feel almost awkward typing “classical” when talking about it). Chamber-pop, electronic, minimalist, “new synthesist…” these terms have been used as labels, but it’s becoming almost impossible to label everything accurately. Violins and soundboards are frequently on stage together. SONiC is demonstrating this idea in multiple concerts. The first concert on Oct. 14 features the American Composers Orchestra. In the concert is a piece by Alex Temple, who describes his music as “somewhere between Surrealism and Pop Art,” for soprano, orchestra, and electronics. There’s a piece called “Flowing Water Study II for Orchestra & Video” by Wang Lu. These defy genres in themselves. During the concert featuring the JACK Quartet (Oct. 15), the quartet will play just before an electric guitar quartet. I have a feeling it will seem completely normal.
It’s not often that history seems as if it is being written right in front of you. When it does happen, it’s exhilarating. The SONiC festival itself might not become a chapter in a music history book, but it symbolizes the shifting of a time period, the flip of a page from the music of years past. “The composer” is usually thought of as a pop culture symbol with billowing white hair and a quill pen, but recent times suggest otherwise. And as I sit here, writing this, watching the video on SONiC’s webpage, and I see my hands start to shake with excitement, I know this means something (and I don’t even live in New York). SONiC will surely be a whirlwind of in-the-moment sounds as well as a telescope into the future. And by god, if they’re selling tee shirts, someone please get me one. 

Watch this video if you want to buzz with excitement: 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Or Just After

Just like the Hubble Telescope can now see the universe around 200 million years after it was created, almost any given major cultural trend or event can be seen duplicated years after. In reality, overwhelmingly powerful telescopes certainly aren’t needed to see these reoccurrences. After a while, it’s easy to get tired of the sequence, especially when these identical ideas are thought of as new and cutting edge. There are always exceptions to the dry cycle; or, rather, occurrences that take the cycle itself and shape it into something completely different.
One of these occurrences appears on a CD released September 13th called “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” performed by the pianist Lara Downes. Not only is this collection of music a gorgeous album of piano playing, but it’s also a significant reinvention of one of most classic and respected anthologies of piano pieces. The “Goldberg Variations” themselves, especially Gould’s multiple renditions of them, stand on some of the highest pedestals in the gigantic museum of musical legends. So, logically, one would either have to blow Gould out of the water or make something magnificent and different in order to stand out among the height of these pedestals. Lara Downes, with the help of 13 others, has done that.             
Gould himself

The Aria itself

            “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” is a set of new pieces inspired by the aria of the Goldbergs, the piece that is the subject of the original variations themselves. Thirteen composers were commissioned to write these solo piano works by the Gilmore International Keyboard Festival in 2004, where they were originally played by the pianist Gilbert Kalish. From baroque tinged to unmistakably Chopin to fugal, the variations on the Goldbergs take the listener’s lens on the iconic pieces and throw it into an entirely different realm.

            The project was inspired by the poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens, a minimalist and mind-blowing portrait of perspective. The fifth stanza of that poem includes the basic idea of the “13 Ways” project:
            I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
Instead of taking the aria itself and simply placing it in a different genre’s template, the composers took those inflections and innuendos and created pieces that reflected them in unique lights.
            Remember the game “telephone?” One person would think of a phrase, they would whisper it to the person next to them, and it would go along a line of people. The last person it reached would have to repeat the phrase, but it often got morphed during the passing into something that still adheres to the original phrase but has its own meaning and mood. Well, the results of these 13 composers feels similar to that, only the composers weren’t oblivious to the starting point. They were, in fact, the opposite of oblivious.
            On one side of the spectrum, there are the composers that stayed with the general baroque feeling of the Goldbergs. Fred Lerdahl’s “Chasing Goldberg” uses the original melody of the aria and places it inside an energetic form—it jumps around the piano like releasing 100 bouncy balls into a racquetball court. Jennifer Higdon’s “The Gilmore Variation” feels like a loosened yet alert and playful version of Bach, but inserted are several unique transitions that one probably wouldn’t encounter in Bach’s time. One can feel the influence of the aria’s melody, but Higdon’s melody goes off on its own as well.
            Then there are the pieces that move a little further on the genre spectrum. Bright Sheng, the Chinese-American composer, wrote a piece in fugal form, unlike the aria, which is a sarabande. The piece, appropriately called “Variation Fugato,” begins seeping with tension, hanging only on singular outlines of fifths that begin to intertwine with other voices and eventually resolve. C. Curtis Smith’s “Rube Goldberg Variation” (who doesn’t love a little wordplay?) moves further off the aria scale as well. The moods in Curtis Smith’s piece are dark, Edgar Allen Poe-esque, and definitely don’t sound like the aria—at first. However, when in succession with all these other lens-bending works, the innuendos and inflections are visible.

C. Curtis Smith
            There are too many variations on the Variations to mention at length, though all of them contribute to the experience of listening to the recording. Derek Bermel’s “Kontraphunktus,” besides being labeled with the best tongue-in-cheek title on the album, is a piece constantly searching for a landing spot, but seems to be frantically looking the entire time in dissonant ways. Both Fred Hersch’s “Melancholy Minuet” and David del Tredici’s “My Goldberg” give neo-romanticism looks on the project. William Bolcom’s “Yet Another Goldberg Variation” is all for the left hand. And yet, they all still seem to at least be looking up at the Goldbergs like children, because they are, in a sense.
            Downes’s playing on the recording is perfect for a recording of this type. She has a personal connection with the Goldbergs; she was “a little girl in my father’s big chair, listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, wondering at the twists and turns of Bach’s creation and Gould’s imagination.” Her emphases in each piece seem just right—they’re not too pronounced and overzealous, something that shouldn’t happen when tipping the hat to Bach, but shape the pieces in a ways that brings them full circle. Her skills were certainly tested; from Lerdahl’s staccato to Dave Brubeck’s jazzy “Chorale” (a piece Downes’s added to the recording, along with another Foss piece and the “Sarabande” from Bach’s French Suite V), she adapts and also keeps a centered pace throughout.
            Some people, after hearing about the “13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg” project, might say superior things like “nothing will ever compare to Gould” or “you can’t mess with the classics.” But Downes and these 13 (plus one) composers didn’t try to recreate Bach’s original “Goldberg Variations.” They didn’t use the Hubble Telescope and copy the image. They studied it, saw how it evolved, and shifted their perspective.