Monday, November 22, 2010

NNM Trade Winds from Tibet concert review

Yesterday I demonstrated the simultaneous colander-like aspect of my memory and ability to delight in new music. It's a good life when I can rehearse in gamelan, start learning a new piece, get an hour ahead of schedule, and still make it to a pre-concert talk. I paid attention, too, until after the concert I was rather speechless for words. I'll explain.

Network for New Music, one of my favorite chamber groups in the world, commissioned several pieces from white composers* using field recordings of sacred and folk Tibetan songs as a prompt. Last night's concert was the first in a series of Asian-focused new music from NNM this season. In the pre-concert talk, composer Andrea Clearfield, whose field recordings sparked the commission, and anthropologist Katie Blumenthal gave a brief introduction to their work in Lo Monthang, and NNM artistic director and pianist Linda Reichert facilitated. Composer Eric Moe added his perspective in creating one of the commissioned works.

As you may remember from my last post, my trigger point in Western presentations of culture from the East and global South is in the simultaneous elevation of the subject to the sublime and the demotion of its human constituents to the inaccessibly different. Too often I hear from self-proclaimed [insert your Asian or Middle Eastern]-philes signs of Orientalism, not in direct dismissal of a people's ability to construct their own narrative, but in generalizing, patronizing terms they would never apply to a Western people. And just as oppressive is the practice of "natives" -- immigrants like myself included -- in adopting this dominant stereotype of who and why we are. So of course I had to ask about these women's experience of Otherness both as rare white visitors and how their own perspectives toward Asians changed as they learned more and built relationships on numerous journeys. I was at once relieved and disappointed to hear a language of mixed results, doubt, and uncertainty -- that's also my reality -- and deliberate efforts at collaboration, power sharing, and invitation. You can read about their documentation project on Ms Blumenthal's blog.

The venue was the Ethical Society's hall at Rittenhouse Square. It was a central location and the intimate space was perfect for the nuances of the chamber program. The show appeared sold out to a predominantly older white audience and handful of poc and student types.

Tony Solitro's short piece Passages for alto flute, violin, and cello evoked a woody feel with strong rhythmic presentation. By woody I mean strenuous but simple strokes in rhythmic unison interspersed by short, lyrical passages alternating with the percussive texture. I wasn't sure about form but enjoyed the rhythmic world.

Eric Moe's Spirit Mountain delighted me with great accents, pairing combinations of flute, oboe/EH, bassoon, piano, and single percussion. A memorable pairing was onset-accents of oboe phrases by off-pitch flute notes, which sounded cool over percussion hand-drumming.

The audience loved Clearfield's Kawa Ma Gyur and Lung-Ta, both for tape and chamber ensemble. I wrote the composer an email with detailed feedback about my hearing, but in short, they were powerful pieces, complex, organically undulating in mood, and rhythmically compelling. Disclaimer: rhythmic syncopation is my fix. [Edit: apparently my notes were disorganized. In addition to Western ensemble the first piece called for a pair of dung chen, long bronze horns of indefinite or varying pitch, whose tones appeared also early on in the tape, in alternation with the chamber group.] Most memorable about the first is the way it fades out: more and more of the ensemble switch from ordinary playing techniques to clapping, the cellist first rapping the side of the instrument's body with the knuckles, then whispering rhythmically, always syncopated in patterns reminiscent of interlocking, decrescendo into nothing.

The second of her works featured last night was most complex, a through-composed interpretation of a Tibetan prayer for peace. It's scored for flute/alto, oboe/EH, clarinet, bassoon/cbsn, violin, viola, cello, and percussion. I especially appreciated the way upward-bending approaches to overlapping sustained notes among the chamber instruments were like many dung chen sounding. Later, soft homophonic strings and reeds made an accordion-like texture. My notes are disorganized, so I'll have to confirm when I can steal a peek at the score, but I believe there were two notable loud sections, one in thunderous agitation involving a conch-like instrument, a siren-like horn, and four bead drum toys played by the front row at a signal; another folksy, rambunctious, and with heavy drumming as the ensemble accelerated into chaos.

I found her use of tape especially effective, enriching the chamber ensemble's sound world but not weirding it out. With extended techniques, the composition transitioned fluently in and out of them so they fit, and when the group quieted, the tape showed through gently, now men chanting prayers, now the swells of distant dung chen in its context of drums and gongs.

After this wealth of music I was yet left yearning for more, encores even, yes, with scores to follow along. The concert lasted two hours with extra time for setup before the larger pieces, but I was eager for more music. Unfortunately an encore was not to be had, and I attempted to switch into social mode to congratulate the players and composers and remark to strangers and acquaintances how delightful it had been in a comprehensible manner. Next time I had better recognize the impossibility of this feat and go home forthwith.

A younger member of the audience asked in Q&A how off-pitches are treated in a theory of Tibetan music, whether they are systematized approaches to main pitches (as in Indian raga) or ornaments, or part of a microtonal scale. Ms Blumenthal pointed out no such formal theory exists to her knowledge. My question would be, what is the significance of that? It's not our job as Western musicians to simulate a theory or encourage these musicians to make one up to suit our intellectual habit. Then what do we need to understand about the function and history of this music to advance our awareness of the cultural practice?

*I've been promised music from Asian and Asian American composers in upcoming programs, though my response to it cannot be similarly predicted.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The weekend of the Muse

This weekend has been full of music. I've been taking advantage of resources (practice rooms, music library, better speakers than at home) at my alma mater since coming back to the Philadelphia area a year ago. Indeed, it's been one year since my return to the familiar but ugly coast. Okay, maybe it's not the definition of ugly, but to name the West Coast beautiful, there must be a relative term.

I got to campus yesterday morning to catch the Chester Children's Chorus rehearsals. Check out the website -- this is an admirable project worth all the money you can fork over. It's always wonderful to watch John Alston rehearse, whether it's the college choir or jazz band or choir orchestra. But with this giant mix of loud, hyper kids from 3rd grade to high school another world emerges: to the untrained eye (I have no experience with children) John seems a ceaseless blur of motion, direction, humorous and severe admonition, metaphor, age-appropriate discipline, all fleeting but omnipresent. And the children responded; despite their distractable, raucous default they read, retained, sang their hearts into harmonious, living sound. Their hard work and purpose touched me deeply.

Last night, the Alumni Council hosted its first Student and Alumni Composers Concert. An alum and student gave Microtures for viola and piano its second performance. Not so covetous of a repeat performance, I let go much control and let these young but seasoned performers have at it. No regrets: I liked it again. That is, I had felt some embarassment for its rough sloppiness, thinking some of its material and energy good for a "real" piece, but found confidence and fresh pleasure on this hearing. I was reluctant to mention in my address to the audience my plan to develop Microtures into a new piece for fear of drawing bad luck with attention. It slipped -- opposite from my performers, I'm a wreck onstage -- and now I have to do it.

Listing, never mind reviewing, all the pieces on this program would make your eyes skip over this post. At least half the concert was contemporary composition from a classical background, and there were many other genres and film media included. A decent size audience included current students and youth with their families. Four pieces called for string quartet (SQ), commentworthy not only because of the favorite instrumentation. These seniors learned a respectable amount of repertoire and premiered it with remarkable sound and poise.

Gabriel Riccio used extended techniques for SQ to add bite to a fun movement called Interruptions. Grinding cello bowing and clever rhythmic syncopations bought me on this one. Tasty.

James Matheson, who followed up the concert with a master class for current student composers this morning, wrote a raucous and restrained piano 6-hand, On Spaces. I'm sure I've heard this piece before; it is framed in a memorable series of irregular, deafening unison six-hand chords. Its use of unison and sudden rests that cut off rock-out runs makes for fun listening and playing. The master class reinforced my faith in the feedback circle. Composers have a lot to say to one another, and for some of us, the way a feedback circle illuminates listener responses lets us help each other better than in a master-student dynamic. A power dynamic that isn't explicitly negotiated can be silencing for everyone.

A country style song by Lisa Wildman caught everyone's attention. It's a little piece of satire from her band entitled "God Bless America, Cold Beer to Go." Go listen to them.

I was impressed by Dan Kurz's SQ No. 2 in two movements. The composition moves between delicate moments with sensitivity. The fast-moving counterpoint was a bit too deliberate. I want the score for this one.

After, I wondered where Swarthmore's classical style women and genderqueer composers are. Change needs to happen here, loud enough to crack barriers. Sure, the masters are men, for example the teacher here. What are other barriers? I reject the suggestion that women composers turned into men; if they did, they also turned away from composing. And, hello, people of color? Not that I mind being surrounded by male peers, many of whom openly identify as gay or queer. I just won't consent silently in a system that appropriates people of less privilege to performer roles or excludes them entirely.

Silence means...

Meaningful silence was a concept Tan Dun attempted to capture in his Circle with Four Trios, Conductor and Audience, the feature work of Orchestra 2001's Chinese Visions concert today. Musically it was a captivating enough piece, but I don't think he used silence as effectively as some artists before him. It just wasn't enough for me today to watch a conductor beating the air. I'll comb through past programs when I get back to CT for examples. Maybe I just missed all the concepts because I didn't research the composer. (Bad scholar. No diploma for me.)

His Concerto for SQ and Pipa on the same program was much cooler. These days, I get so nervous at the suggestion of mixing Western and non-Western, but particularly Asian music and culture, that my stomach clenches*, even when we're talking about a Chinese native composer working in European genres. Today, though, I enjoyed the way Tan Dun mixed Western contemporary style with Chinese traditional pipa music, especially molding the SQ sound with pipa techniques and gestures like the flat-handed slap to stop all the strings against the fingerboard. The Adagio movement opens smoothly from a pipa ornament with a quote from a Bach prelude, astonishing in tonal contrast yet with a soft, broad-brushed mood. I found passages of metric and temporal non-synchronicity between parts especially effective. A common danger in using adventurous style or instrumentation is to be shocked by the logistics out of musical expression; the piece would have been pure delight but for a moment in a fast repetitive part that fell rather flat on my ears, like the players were working hard rather than playing. I was impressed by the din of five players and conductor shouting -- din occupies a social need in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures missing from mainstream American culture. All these languages include words for din indicative of its function: in Mandarin it's warmth-agitate. In Indonesian, lonely and quiet are the same word.

I've always found my music education a quite lonely, uphill battle. Walking through the Crum Woods midst all this creativity, I heard the sections of an orchestra in tangible textures. For the first time, the timbres felt real within my grasp. My gratitude to the Muse.

* I'm guilty. Contemporary composers can't help it; indeed, it's beautiful to have non-Western influences in one's ear. It's not mixed style music itself. I'm concerned about Orientalism. Misunderstanding deeply troubles me, so I must stress that finding lack of awareness of cultural contexts and of racial stereotype (positive and negative) in art and among artists and their admirers sickens me. My sense of guilt as a participant hurts me with the very anticipation of encountering it in others. I hope that sharing my struggle with awareness helps others confront their own assumptions. Please comment here or by email.