Thursday, February 17, 2011

Curtis Student Recital: Early 20th-century Eastern European composers

I treated myself to a recital at Field Concert Hall last night to celebrate my selection for a residence at Millay Colony.

Prokofiev's Sonata in D for violin and piano was showy as expected, the string part far outshining the accompaniment. When the piano sounds like accompaniment, I doubt my hearing. The relative positions of the players -- violinist Ji-Won Song standing directly downstage from pianist Jiuming Shen rather than nestled in the shoulder of his instrument -- and their body language signaled hierarchy. I have seen a rare pianist command an equal or even authoritative role in chamber performance, but this was not the music for it.

Jessica T. Chang played Bartok's viola concerto, Francesco Lecce-Chong accompanying on piano. His Asian collar shirt caught my eye as they came onstage. As an aspiring viola lover, I admit I am unfamiliar with the piece. I missed Bartok's masterful orchestration in Lecce-Chong's execution and will have to study the piece carefully. Chang's playing was surprisingly straight in executing work from a composer known for rhythmic and metric aggression, but her sound was remarkably resonant. I found out from her afterward her instrument features an asymmetrical tailpiece intended to maximize the length of lower strings and, through pressure, their conduction into the body. Hot. Unfortunately for extended technique the piece is metal alloy and too slippery to bow (but maybe tough enough to be beaten).

The second half was all spectacle, and every soul outside the concert hall ceased to exist.

Identical twins Michelle and Christina Naughton with impressive coordination Ravel's exuberantly playful piano duet, La Valse. After a point I get weirded out by the medical exoticism people direct toward twins, but that might be me. The piece opens with indistinct bass clusters perversely harped on vaguely in waltz rhythm by one player, then passed to the other. I don't think I would try to dance to this one.

After some piano juggling Yue Chu and Michelle Cann performed Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps 4-hands, the version Stravinsky prepared for a friend and himself to rehearse the orchestral piece. I'd heard it in recording before but never witnessed the demanding changes of hands between players, part crossing and overlapping, and polymetric coordination in addition to the usual requirements of timing and balance. Some moments I found it hard to remember what the orchestration was, other times I heard the accustomed rich timbres, but most of the time I was able to enjoy fully the piano idiom. In it I was able to hear thematic material and elements of compositional mastery more clearly. It was a daring choice, and though a sloppy pedal release or grace scale was exposed on rare occasions, the performance was finely and musically prepared. I welcome such boldness from young musicians. Both Chu and Cann warmly greeted admirers in the lobby and expressed eagerness for contemporary repertoire.

Conclusion: these musicians are so young!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Home Theater Festival Philadelphia Mar. 13

Updated time and date! Sunday March 13 from noon-4

I bring the artist-run performance series Home Theater Festival to Philadelphia next month, when events take over 31 salons and living rooms worldwide. A project to cultivate self-sufficiency among emerging artists, Home Theater Festival was created by Philip Huang in Berkeley.

Philadelphia's show features:

(check back for updates)
Joy Mariama Smith, performance installation
indee, speaking/moving truth to power in the name sake
The Logical Phalluses, jazz and progressive rock
Morgan Andrews, Philadelphia Theater of the Oppressed
Yours Truly, something never witnessed before

Substance-free, 18+
$4.99-7.99 cover
Donations accepted for vegan fudge
All takings go to performers
Comment with your Facebook URL or email me to RSVP and for West Philadelphia address

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The tickle is in me, not the feather

Trade Winds From China concert review

I just can't miss an NNM concert. This week it was like having to see the Phillies play (I think, I don't actually follow sports) in the sense of Pierre Boulez's aleatoric concert as a game without rules -- everyone vaguely familiar with the contemporary music scene has heard of Bright Sheng, but I couldn't even remember my opinion of his work when I walked into the pre-concert lecture. I knew I was taking a gamble, but a combination of intense personal events left me with those metaphorical cotton-stuffed ears I've resented in audiences prior. Worrisome at first, it has led me to contemplate Galileo's metaphysical observation that the tickle is in us and not in the feather that draws it out of us. I didn't have my usual tickle for new music worship Sunday night, and that anomaly is as much a blessing as a curse.

My feeling of denial solidified in the very first piece, Sheng's Three Fantasies for Violin and Piano; it just wasn't in me to suspend disbelief. That said, I was able to enjoy the trees: astonishingly clean, sharp pizzicato (I thought at first violinist Hirono Oka was using the mute for a plectrum), ornaments and sudden flashes of melody shaken from long sustains, a palette of harsh, stompy clusters in the piano, a fun vocabulary of double stops. I could hear Chinese and Western European tradition pitch and maybe ornamentation throughout the three movements, but what grabbed me were Oka's body language and facial expressions: forward, stony, even stiff, but arresting in the way she shifted weight bringing feet together and apart. Pianist Susan Nowicki was in tears at the bow and neither performer returned for second bows though the audience applauded heartily for the better part of a minute.

Shih-Hui Chen spoke with appreciable energy in a muted voice at the pre-concert lecture. She shared a movement from Mei-Hua for string quartet with high school players from the Philadelphia Sinfonia under Gary White's direction, a sensitive piece marked with broken narrative. Already before the concert I was hearing as through sweet mud or underwater. This sample was easier to listen to that her featured work, Our Names for narrator, percussion, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Context: I am attuned to words as a bird is to light. Our Names was a notated melodram, the players and narrator speaking lines from a poem lamenting the appropriation of Taiwanese names in precisely predetermined rhythm. In this hierarchy of sound interpretation it was difficult for me to hear the music, which I yearned to hear without the words. Moments that made an impression were "A flood of power" accompanied fittingly by too much energy in a flute entry and "The shadow of inferiority at the edge of society/ Has overflowed in our hearts" with layer on layer simultaneous, independent voices from all instruments.

While I complain regularly about the heartache of reviewing concerts involving performers I know personally, I had the perk of being introduced to composer Chou Wen-chung with whom I exchanged a few simple but satisfying remarks in Mandarin. Attentive and discerning at 88, Professor Chou had the air of a venerable elder when giving anecdotes in response to questions during the lecture. After the concert, he serenely challenged me to describe my response to his Ode to Eternal Pine. Context again: though he's been in America since before my parents were born, I recognized an Asian elder by softening my posture to make myself lower than he, a practice that feels even more awkward at a concert reception. It was a chamber piece interpreted from his 2008 work for traditional instruments. From spacious instrumental whispers, inexplicable explosions, a remorseful tone in a cello melody, cascading textures with sudden onset like laughter, a sinuous violin line, atonal abbreviated straying, ear-splitting piccolo and Eb clarinet screeches, and mallet/string stroke piano passages that kept Nowicki in constant, high-tension motion, all in a short, continuous five movements, I blurted some prattle about expansive openness and sounds of nature. He smiled and replied in Mandarin, "I think your hearing is accurate." I allowed myself some relief, but don't know how much he's letting on.

He went on to characterize that openness as a feature of Eastern writing and narrow focus as a Western norm. Never having studied any Eastern music theory in depth, I can approximate this projection on my Western training to develop ever elemental material. The programming, indeed of the Trade Winds series, obsesses over ways composers incorporate the two practices with some semblance of balance. I heard Ode to Pines as entirely original Western contemporary music. I think it was Crumb who, when questioned about whether his work was gamelan-influenced, claimed it's all in the Western ear now.

Since Feb. 11th I've been drawn for moments into preoccupation with the possibility of a new movement for democracy in China fueled by the rapid, apparent success of demonstrators in Tunisia and Egypt, bolstered by an overcautious but supportive international show of sentiment. Throughout the lecture by composers Chen and Chou, I itched to ask them to frame their work in a political context. "Will Taiwan unite with the mainland before China transitions to democracy? What role do leading emigrants have in reforming Asian nations' images in the West? Do non-Mandarin native speakers hear your music differently? Which of your pieces would you have performed in the Koreas' DMZ? in Tiananmen Square?" I was in too much an introverted mood to pose these questions that night, but they are as much on my mind today.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Meredith Monk

Until Sunday I'd never knowingly heard Meredith Monk. A dancer took me to her concert at Bryn Mawr, and let's say I had an experience.

My experiential practice has come a long way since I walked out of my first gamelan concert, Germanic sensibilities offended by the invitation to the audience to walk around the shadow puppet screen onstage while a leaf shape twitched on the screen. After some reflection and hearing from another composer, I understand there is strong ritual emphasis in Monk's work as well. I'm also retrospectively (no pun intended) interested in what her performance calls for from the audience, although the proscenium staging did set one up to sit and watch dumbly.

I had no idea her music would be minimalist in a most stereotyped style, combined with melodramatic, simple movement.* The presentation and movement, too, were more awkward and simpler I expected. The acoustic effect of the synthesized keyboard in persistent patterns can wear down one's consciousness -- another dancer acquaintance admitted she'd slept through part of the concert, too exhausted by the sound.

When I sensed the first, long piece was coming to a close, I became genuinely afraid I would not maintain control of my vocal muscles and first covered my mouth forcefully, then jammed the whole hand in hard enough to leave teethmarks. Only during intermission did I read that the first piece was adapted for the stage from an original site-specific piece. Still, the performances repeatedly provoked my disbelief that such a popular artist could give so little material, so awkwardly timed, so slowly. The style, including that of the Girlchild costume, evoked tribal and Japanese court traditions in a way that made me suspicious.

My metaphor for my experience was to witness the concoction of a powerful medicine, and then be made to take it even though it was certainly not for my illness.

So what do you think of Meredith Monk?

*It begged the question why Glass is better known, if not accepted, among Western classical tradition musicians than Monk. She's been no less academically recognized. The multidisciplinary focus? her popularity? that she's a she?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Non-profit in the arts

Last night I played a set among five by Leeway Foundation grantees. We were all young artists of color performing in classical, contemporary, hip-hop, punk, and jazz styles. I appreciated how warm toward and supportive of one another the performers were.

Among announcements and general rallying cries were cheers for non-profits. I feel odd expressing pride in non-profit as a brand, kind of like pride in studying formal music theory or pride in disinfectant. As a musician and queer, I have practices of which I am proud that require one or another functional necessities. I'm not ashamed of such necessities, but it would be an uncomfortable stretch to extend my pride to them.

Are there context-specific reasons for pride in non-profit status distinct from those in the benefit and virtue such agencies generate?

Again I emphasize I have no shame about the non-profit brand. Jeri Johnson of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra struggled heroically to make her group survive as a NP agency. There's even more room for businesses to become better for-benefit agents. The pay discrepancy between NP, government, and for-profit jobs is at once alarming for the talent drain, but encouraging as well. That passion and willingness to sacrifice comfort and lifestyle for service is prideworthy.