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.

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