Monday, May 17, 2010

Momentum

Yesterday, I took in a concert by the NYC-based new-music group counter)induction. They appear several times yearly in Philadelphia, but this was the first time I'd had the opportunity to hear them. Their program, titled "The Child is Father to the Man," examined connections between composers and their pupils. The first half paired Xenakis with his student Dusapin; the second, George Crumb and two of his students at the University of Pennsylvania, Douglas Boyce and Kyle Bartlett.

The overall structure of the concert reminded me of a work by Ken Ueno, whom I met at a Philadelphia Music Project panel in January. "Kaze-no-Oka," his concerto for traditional Japanese instruments opens with two bars of fast, loud music; he says, in his program note, that this quick burst of notes "merely functions to introduce potential energy." In similar fashion, there were a few direct echoes of Xenakis' string trio "Ikhoor" later in the program, but the spirit of the piece -- call it momentum -- pervaded the rest of the afternoon. Each of the pieces that followed the Xenakis reached the fevered pitch that "Ikhoor" maintained for its entire length; the main variations were in how each composer went about reaching that level of intensity and how long they chose to sustain it.

In short, the Xenakis was furiously committed, dizzying, and over far too soon. It was a thorough working-out of the possibilities of register and timbre, with a very compact and economical marshaling of instrumental forces. Full disclosure: I'd never heard Xenakis performed live, and it was a visceral, unforgettable experience. To the Philadelphia music community: more, please.

The Dusapin was much more diffuse and dominated by the sound of piano. The spirit of "Ikhoor" seemed to enter the piece through a few small gestures -- mostly glissandos and trills -- but the deepest sense of concentration came in the form of Steven Beck's almost mantra-like piano playing, including a strummed-sounding passage of simple thirds, bookended by wiry figures from clarinet and cello.

The Crumb, though more concerned with surface effects -- whistling, declaimed bits of poetry -- combined timbral experimentation with an embrace of decay and silences. The furiously concentrated bits, especially from clarinet and flute, trailed off in ways that evoked the distortion that time and distance introduce to reliable memory. The small-scale figures that Beck drew out of the piano, from both inside and outside the piano, built up into a kind of musical echo chamber. The sum of the chirping and chiming bits seemed, to me, to conjure up a feeling of nocturnal darkness: a "silent" night that turns out to be populated with birds, insects and all manner of other noisemakers.

In the Boyce, I was taken with the overlapping patterns in a narrow range of notes from the clarinet and cello, as well as with the sense of the musicians leaning into the dissonance as their roles within the ensemble periodically shifted. It was perhaps the closest to the Xenakis in its density and the sensation of being pulled in multiple directions; the four instruments sounded more like seven or eight and tugged the piece in as many opposing ways.

Kyle Bartlett's world premiere, "Present," closed the concert and left many listeners with the sense that it should have been longer. This was the only piece on the program to feature all six of c)i's players, but, as in the Dusapin, Steven Beck's piano playing set the tone for an energetic, engrossing work. His nerve-jangling runs, broken up by wide leaps in register, were refracted and parceled throughout the ensemble. There were some slashing figures in the strings that recalled the Xenakis -- which, originally, were somewhat reminiscent of Stravinsky -- and jumped out from a roiling texture.

Bartlett's a friend, and we've discussed in the past how her pieces are guided by a dream-like logic: connections between disparate sections often resist being found, while others emerge without probing. The latter struck me at the end of the piece, as a riot of activity is abruptly cut off and the violin enters with an altered version of Beck's busy piano riff. It seemed to me like the first impression of a dream one has after waking, before the whole thing evaporates. You can't hold onto it for long, and the same is true for "Present." Were it longer, it would be somehow less immersive.

1 comment:

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