Thursday, November 10, 2011

JACK, Part 3: Well, Hello, Iannis...

(The JACK Quartet performs Saturday at 8pm at Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg on Front Street below Seneca Street. I'll be giving a pre-concert talk at 7:15. I've posted about the other pieces on the program here.)

You know those stories that begin something like “it was a dark and stormy night”? You usually know what to expect at least in a general if not in a specific sense: anticipation and dread, mostly.

For some, the idea you’re about to hear something “challenging” sets up mental roadblocks to enjoyment. Today, we have a fairly lame attitude to “enjoyment,” though, which implies the music we listen to (the TV we watch, the art we look at) must “entertain” us (cue the dancing girls, now).

Many listeners have lost sight of other emotional responses we might have in reacting to music, transferring the bottom line of the arts experience to “I liked it. I didn’t like it.”

For some people, listening has become a passive skill: it's on in the background while you focus on something else. But even in Brahms and Beethoven, if you listen “actively,” you’ll get more out of it rather than just letting it wash over you. That’s easy to do with something you’re familiar with. (“Active listening” is also something that will help you enjoy your marriage a little more, too.)

But with something unfamiliar and initially “off-putting,” letting it wash over you can start to feel like you’re drowning.

Take this statement, a contemporary comment but I’ll leave the composers’ names blank for the moment:

= = = = = = =
“[COMPOSER #1’s] works do not in general please quite so much as [COMPOSER #2’s] – they confirm he has a decided leaning toward the difficult and the unusual.”
= = = = = = =

This was published in London at the end of the 18th Century when Mozart’s “Haydn” Quartets were still new enough to be “New Music.” Which one of these composers do you think is going to be Mozart?

Not to pick on London critics, but here’s one from 1900 and the Dawn of 20th Century Music: which composer (and piece) do you think he’s describing?

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"The [Piece by This Composer] is a work built upon dry as dust elements. It is one of those odd compositions which at times slipped from the pen of _____, apparently in order to prove how excellent a mathematician he might have become, but how prosaic, how hopeless, how unfeeling, how unemotional, how arid a musician he really was. You feel an undercurrent of… quadratic equations, of hyperbolic curves, of the dynamics of a particle. But, it must not be forgotten that music is not only a science; it is also an art. The [Piece] was played with precision, and that is the only way in which you can work out a problem in musical trigonometry."
= = = = = = =

In the first quote, Composer #1 is Mozart. Composer #2, the one who proves more pleasing to the critic (if not the audience he’s writing for) is Leopold Kozeluch. (You may need to look him up: check here.)

In the second quote, the mathematically minded composer is Johannes Brahms and the example of musical trigonometry is his Sextet in B-flat, written in 1860, forty years before that review was written.

As a famously "difficult" composer himself, Roger Sessions once said "Every composer whose music seems difficult to grasp is, as long as the difficulty persists, suspected or accused of composing with his brain rather than his heart - as if the one could function without the other."

So, considering the music of Xenakis is often labeled, for better or for worse, with mathematical attributes – regardless of whether it was conceived mathematically or not – I thought those two quotes might give a listener in 2011 something to think about.

And perhaps no better introduction to the impact his music can have on a listener would come from someone who did not at first like it. 

Kevin McFarland, the “K” in JACK, wrote this for their concert’s program notes:

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I first encountered Xenakis' music rummaging through my teacher's CD collection. The liner notes described his works using words such as “mathematical,” “calculus,” and “scientific,” which I found a bit off- putting. At the time, I had inherited my teacher's skepticism of the application of math to composition, even though I enjoyed math (especially calculus) often to the chagrin of my peers. The sounds I heard couldn't have been more contrary to my expectations. I would have described them as being brutal, primitive, and alien. I didn't quite know how to process what I was hearing at the time; I didn't know whether I liked it, hated it, or what.

I rediscovered Xenakis in college when reading Formalized Music, his treatise on composition. The book completely changed my approach to writing music. Influenced by the ancient Greeks, he believed that music should be treated as a science as well as an art. For example, he demonstrated the application of stochastic processes (previously used to model chaotic systems such as the behavior of gas molecules) to “clouds” of string pizzicati or the density of woodwind attacks. These techniques were very exciting to me as a composer; there existed an entire world of potential mathematical processes that seemed much more interesting than, say, twelve-tone rows.

However, at the same time, I was listening to many recordings of Xenakis' music, and the paradox of process versus aesthetic became apparent again. This was not heady-sounding music at all, but rather visceral, primal, corporeal. The process of composition was not obvious on the surface of the music. Instead, one might imagine the wailings of a mourning woman, the thunder of a summer storm, or even sexual or religious ecstasy.
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Earlier this year, when the St. Lawrence Quartet performed the quartet John Adams had written for them, I was intrigued to read that Adams himself had difficulties when he first heard Béla Bartók’s 1st String Quartet which you’d think, compared to the dramatic 3rd, the structurally involved 4th and 5th, and the enigmatic 6th Quartets, would be a walk in the park. But for him, it involved a good deal of “active listening” to make sense of the piece – in the sense another composer makes “sense” of something, perhaps. He said it took several hearings to “get” it.

What does “get” it mean? To each of us, probably something different: a composer wants to understand how a piece is put together, what the composer he’s listening to did to make this piece work; a performer probably listens more to how the players are making sense out of it, handling technical aspects or projecting the structure of the piece into something audible and compelling; a listener will probably be happy enough with “enjoying” it, finding some satisfying emotional response.

Even as someone who composes music, I cringe reading composers’ program notes about “How I Wrote This Piece” using technical jargon that perhaps they expect will snow the audience into submission. That’s fine but I can drive a car without needing to understand the physics of the combustion engine.

So, rather than thinking about quadratic equations and slope formulas and other aspects of trigonometry turned into music, just listen to how it works.

Listen for the visceral, dramatic response to what the composer has created from his architectural plan just as you would look at his building and not be conscious of… whatever architectural terminology one architect would use to impress the pants off his colleagues.

To the untrained listener – the Xenakis Virgin – it may sound like they’re making this up, up there, aren’t they?

But it’s not improvised, it’s not “aleatoric” (left to chance).

Instead of the kinds of phrases and cadences and melodic shapes you’re used to from Bach through Brahms – or for that matter even Schoenberg – Xenakis is finding other ways to express the same underlying concepts.

In a way, it’s like taking a plan for a church – you have the basic idea of what a church is supposed to be, but does it look like the gothic Notre Dame in Paris, the Renaissance cathedral in Florence, the modern Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or this unidentified modern church (the joy of surfing...)? They're all churches but they each look different: different times, different places but same purpose.

You can listen for Xenakis’ musical gestures (rather than thinking of them as melodies, they’re more like shapes and cells that expand to create longer musical ideas) and hear how they contrast (just as Beethoven’s often cellular ideas grow and contrast), played first in this register or instrument, then in another, or how they sound similar here and there, giving the overall soundscape some sense of unity.

Or you can sit there, annoyed, and think of a few choice gestures of your own.

But I think, if you open your mind to the point you’re not focused on negative brain-waves at this point, you’ll walk away with a more positive (or less negative) impression.

Back in the ‘80s, the Harrisburg Symphony played a piece that is often described as “The Great American Symphony” though it’s never played that often – William Schuman’s 3rd. It is not a difficult work – compared to much music written in the 1940s – but it is not an easy work on first hearing.

Two people in front of me were applauding vociferously. I thought they “got” it but then I heard one say to the other, “I really didn’t like it, but they did a marvelous job trying to convince me.”

Live performances have a much better chance to “convince” you than listening to a recording. And a committed performance from players who are convinced what they’re doing is vital will be more likely to convince you than other performers who may only be going through the motions (though technically proficient) because they feel “hearing contemporary music is good for you” (like green beans and broccoli, not likely to be on top of the “what’s for dinner” list).

In a sense, I’m reluctant to post a video of “Tetras” for fear someone will just click on it and, after 10 seconds, exit the page and go listen to this bit of trigonometric music. But hopefully, if you’ve read this far, you’ll give it a chance.

To return to Kevin McFarland’s program note about Xenakis’ music:

= = = = = = =
Perhaps no composition better embodies this contradiction than Tetras. Written relatively late in his career, Tetras is a work of starkly contrasting textures. The piece opens with a virtuosic glissando violin solo followed by the viola in double stops and then the whole quartet in quiet echo of the solos. From there the piece moves through a handful of sections, often with little or no transition in between. The feeling I get from this work is that Xenakis had already liberated string sounds from traditional roles and was then completely free to create in the wake of this revolution. It is a work of uncompromising vision, savage brutality, and startling beauty.
= = = = = = =

Here’s the JACK Quartet recording “Tetras” by Iannis Xenakis:

If you’re not one of those immediately taken in by the whole new sound-world this may open to you and you’re thinking instead, “How do I listen to this stuff?”, listen to it again and follow these points:

Long opening violin solo (single notes, sliding up and down through different registers of the violin which may sound a bit like someone talking.

At 0:32, the answering solo in the viola (two notes at a time, still sliding, but responding, making it a conversation).

At 1:02, other instruments enter with brief swirls of colors and different textures, as if commenting on the conversation between the violin and the viola ("discuss amongst yourselves"). 

At 1:15 accents contrasting with quiet flurries and sudden “rude noises” like sharp chords.

At 1:48, the tension’s been increasing to a point where – suddenly – the energy is released, and this excerpt ends with sounds (you might call them ‘noises’) that punctuate the texture like an unexpectedly loud chord in Beethoven puts a period on a musical paragraph.

(By the way, you’ll notice, looking over Chris’ shoulder, the music he’s playing from is completely (and complexly) notated, not left to improvisation.)

Instead of something that might be the logical equivalent of a still-life painting with fruit and a bowl, or somebody's barn in winter, you're looking at a colorful kaleidoscope of images, or fragments of images - or the shadows of fragments of images...

If this is your first time hearing any of Xenakis’ music, I envy you the excitement of discovery but also understand how you might feel lost. Think John Adams and Bartok’s 1st – or Kevin McFarland’s first encounters with it (and here he is, playing it for you, now).

Keep in mind, it took a while for Columbus to figure out where his explorations “got” him, too.

So if you decide you don’t like Xenakis’ music, that’s fine, if you’ve made an honest attempt at listening to it. (I remember, after making a face the first time I ate an olive, my mom said “You have to eat seven olives before you’ll like them.”)

And if you decide you never want to hear Xenakis again – which is your perfect right as an individual – you can always go home and listen to your Kozeluch CDs.

- Dick Strawser

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

JACK, Part 2: Meet G, C and P

The JACK Quartet will be performing their GPCI Program on Saturday – November 12th – at 8pm at the Temple Ohev Sholom on North Front Street in Harrisburg (just below Seneca Street) – I’ll be doing a pre-concert talk at 7:15, by the way.

G = Guillaume Machaut (c.1300-1377): Three Pieces arranged by Ari Streisfeld 
P = Philip Glass (b.1937): String Quartet No. 5
C = Caleb Burhans (b.1980): Contritus (a work composed for JACK)
I = Iannis Xenakis (1922 – 2001): Tetras

Very often, when people go to concerts where a work by a still-living composer is performed, if they don’t like the “new music,” it’s the composer’s fault but if they don’t like the Beethoven, it’s the performer’s fault.

Most of that comes from familiarity. The Beethoven You Know, whether it’s from recordings or other performances you’ve attended, is something “measurable.”

The New Guy is not.

It’s possible you’ve never heard his or her music before, much less this particular piece. And if it’s a World Premiere, no one has a yard-stick they can measure it by so you can’t even use somebody else’s opinion – a critic or the friend who talked you into coming to this concert – to base your own reaction on.

I got a phone call one night, when I worked at the radio station after playing some music by a Living Composer (something this listener equated more with a Zombie), something he didn’t particularly like. In fact, he was arguing that it wasn’t even, really, music, much less “classical music.”

Of course, I could spend hours writing about that, alone, but the comment he made about not playing music that has not reached a certain level of popularity struck a chord with me (so to speak).

This is what I now call the Reality TV Reaction – a combination of “Survivor: New Music” and “American Composer Idol” – in which listeners essentially get to vote new pieces off the island.

He said if it doesn’t “reach” an audience, “it has no right to stand next to a great work of art like the Beethoven Violin Concerto.”

I thanked him for choosing that particular piece because he just made his own argument invalid.

I explained: Beethoven’s Violin Concerto is regarded as one of the Two Greatest Violin Concertos ever written. Beethoven wrote it in 1806 and it was a disaster at the premiere (for any number of reasons: the soloist did not have enough time to learn it and was, essentially, practically sight-reading parts of the last movement). It was rarely performed because many considered it too long and too difficult to play and listen to. It did not enter the repertoire until Joseph Joachim championed it after playing it the first time in London with Felix Mendelssohn on the podium in 1844. If you’re not quick on the mental math, that’s 38 years after it was composed and 17 years after Beethoven’s death. (Oh, and Joachim was 12 at the time.)

So yes, sometimes it takes a while for a work we think of as great to “find its audience.”

As a composer, I find no more reassuring literature to read than the famous bad reviews that Nicholas Slonimsky (himself a composer and conductor of then new music) collected in an amazing little volume called The Lexicon of Musical Invective which could be subtitled “They Don’t Write Reviews Like That Anymore.”

In “classical music,” we regard what the composer wrote with all the reverence of a sacred text. Modern performances can succeed or fail on how closely they come to the composer’s intentions (whatever that is).

At least as long as the listeners are familiar with it.

One of my favorite “gottcha” moments was the fallout following a concert about 30 years ago by a famous interpreter of modern piano music – unfortunately, I’ve now forgotten her name; French, I believe – and a major Carnegie Hall recital which included works by Schoenberg and Xenakis. It was hailed as a triumph, especially the Schoenberg which, amazingly enough, she played from memory. I remember, reading the review, thinking how true it is that committed playing can win over a doubtful listener who still finds Schoenberg daunting to listen to.

Well, as it turned out, Paul Jacobs, who was a pianist also specializing in contemporary music and who’d recorded all of Schoenberg’s piano music, was sitting in the audience wondering the 1980s equivalent of “WTF?!” And he wrote a “letter to the editor” in which he voiced his opinion that very little of what she played was actually Schoenberg.

It turned out – and the pianist admitted this later, out of embarrassment – she had several memory lapses and rather than stop and start over, she kept on going, improvising “in the style of” Schoenberg and some of the most astute critics in New York City were none the wiser. (She said she’d spent so much time worrying about the Xenakis, she took her memory of the Schoenberg for granted.)

Would the same thing have happened if she’d had a similar problem in Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata?

(True story: when I was a child and first taking piano lessons, I used to improvise at the piano all the time and of course hated all the time spent practicing. I decided I wanted to become a composer because that way, I would be the only one who’d know if I was making mistakes.)

So, to give you an idea of how differently interpretations may affect how you react to it, here’s a “period instrument” version of one of Machaut’s “greatest hits,” the song, Douce dame jolie. I’m not saying either of these are “wrong” or “better” – just different interpretations of what was once on the 14th Century Hit Parade.

Here, Theo Bleckmann performs the same song: the title translates as “Sweet, lovely lady (do not think any has sovereignty over my heart but you alone).”

Ari Streisfeld, the “A” in JACK, has arranged three works by Machaut for string quartet, playing with the lines, moving parts around, making good use of the timbres available in a string quartet.

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Caleb Burhans is a more recent composer – to put it mildly – born 31 years ago rather than over 700. And one I’ve not heard before, so I am definitely looking forward to discovering his music. Here’s a link to his web-site bio.

About the work he composed for his fellow Eastmaniacs in JACK – entitled Contritus – he wrote this which is included in the program notes:
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Contritus is Latin for “crushed by guilt”. In the Catholic Church there are many prayers of contrition and penance. Composed in the fall and winter of 2009, Contritus is in three sections that organically flow into one another. These sections represent three different prayers of contrition. Much of the string writing in Contritus is evocative of early music and viol consorts while still portraying a sense of modern guilt. 
--- --- --- ---
When I saw the title, my first expectation was he might be finding some inspiration in medieval or renaissance church motets – or maybe not: it could also sound completely (and possibly) wildly different, a 21st Century take on a 15th Century model? But reading his comment about the piece, it seems that first expectation might be more accurate. I’m eager to find out how he translates one age into another.

Here is an example of another work of his, excerpts from “The Things Left Unsaid” for cello ensemble, composed in 2006.

Philip Glass has become one of the “Grand Old Names” in Modern Music, recently surviving the public recognition of his 70th Birthday. Glass’ music is no stranger to Harrisburg – his Violin Sonata was given its world premiere on a Market Square Concerts program at Whitaker Center, commissioned to honor Lucy Miller Murray.

Glass himself, with his ensemble, played the filmscore to Koyaanisqatsi live at Whitaker Center and though I find it difficult to sit in a room and listen to the full recording of the music, the actual experience of hearing (and feeling) it live while watching the film it was meant to accompany was astounding – riveting, in fact – and by the time it was over, I thought we had only reached intermission. 

Here is a performance of the 5th Movement of the 5th Quartet which JACK will be performing Saturday night. And this is also an example of another great name for an all-male quartet – I suspect it must be pronounced in the Italian way as “tes-tahs-steh-ROH-neh”…

For Iannis Xenakis, the last composer on this program, I’ll include an introduction to his “Tetras” in a separate post.

- Dick Strawser

Monday, November 7, 2011

JACK comes to town

1. Belonging to the same period of time (a fact is documented by two contemporary sources)
2. Of or about the same age (Brahms and Wagner were contemporaries)
3. Current or modern (art work that is contemporary with our own times and sensibilities)

It’s the third definition we’re using to describe the music the JACK Quartet will be performing this Saturday at 8pm for Market Square Concerts, a program that will be held at the Temple Ohev Sholom in uptown Harrisburg at Front below Seneca Street.

There is a pre-concert talk beginning at 7:15 presented by Dick Strawser (that would be me) and I’ll try not to duplicate everything verbatim I will post here on the blog.

There are additional posts about the music on the program: Part 2 introduces the Machaut, Caleb Burhans' Contritus, and Philip Glass's 5th String Quartet. Part 3 is an introduction to Iannis Xenakis' Tetras.

Opening the season with the Juilliard Quartet brought one of the Great Quartets of All Time to Harrisburg, a group that has been performing (in one personnel configuration or another) for sixty years.

This month, Market Square Concerts offers listeners one of the newer, cutting-edge ensembles that’s only been around six years, officially forming into a quartet after they’d all graduated from the Eastman School of Music (when I was a student there in the Trying to be Wild & Crazy ‘70s, there was much talk of trying to get out from under what we called “Eastman Gothic”…).

They call themselves the JACK Quartet and the name comes from the first letters of their first names:

J = John Pickford Richards, violist
A = Ari Streisfeld, violinist
C = Christopher Otto, violinist
K = Kevin McFarland, cellist (who, incidentally, is from Lancaster PA)

(In this photograph, I guess that would be JCKA but in the photo at top, it's CAKJ though since the violinists share 'who's on first,' so to speak, it could sometimes be ACKJ.)

Tickets are available on-line through Whitaker Center, by calling (717) 214-ARTS, in person at The Box on the 2nd level of Whitaker Center or at the door prior to the concert.

Student Tickets: We also offer $5 tickets for college and university students.

School-age students are free.

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Going to concerts presents a multiplicity of possibilities. As far as the composers go, consider familiar works by familiar names – Beethoven’s 3rd Razumovsky Quartet or Brahms Piano Quintet – things you’ve heard before and perhaps enjoy meeting whenever they come around. Or maybe it’s an unfamiliar work by a familiar name: let’s say it’s Dvorak but it’s not his “American” Quartet – knowing you like the familiar one, chances are good you might like another of his works.

Even if you’ve never heard a piano trio by Anton Arensky (whom you may not be familiar with), you might realize liking some of his European contemporaries or other Russian composers from the late-19th Century might mean this could be a pleasant discovery.

Of course, speaking of Russian composers, just because Cesar Cui is one-fifth of ‘The Mighty Handful’ doesn’t mean you’ll find him up there in the same league as his colleagues Borodin or Rimsky-Korsakoff.

Then, of course, there are programs where one of the names, unfamiliar or not, inspires fear. For some people, it could be Brahms. More listeners tend to suffer from contemporariphobia, anything (usually unfamiliar) which strikes them as New Music even if it’s older than their grandparents – for instance, did you know 2012 is the Centennial of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire?

I have been told that Ives and Cage are four-letter words (then, too, so is Bach).

One of my favorite composers is Elliott Carter (who incidentally turns 103 in a month and is still composing). For some, Carter is an acquired taste, but he must be doing something right to be regarded as one of the great composers of the 20th Century.

The problems some listeners have in dealing with “new music” come not so much from their lack of familiarity with it but from listening to it the same way they’d listen to Beethoven and Mozart. You would tell a Vivaldi-fan who can’t stand Wagner that you can’t judge Wagner because he’s not Vivaldi but we do it all the time with most “contemporary” music, dismissing it because it’s not Beethoven.

Listening to unfamiliar music will be one of the topics I’ll be getting into at the pre-concert talk I’m offering before the JACK Quartet’s performance on Saturday. So if you’re cautious about what’s on the program and debating whether you should go or not, I would say, yes you should go and yes you should go with an open mind as well as ear and, of course, yes you should come to my pre-concert talk ;-)

Their program opens with something not terribly contemporary – the music of Guillaume Machaut who died in 1377. Yes, the 14th Century! When you consider most concert music we hear these days rarely pre-dates 1700, this would seem a bit of a stretch, contemporaneously speaking.

Keeping in mind that Steve Reich (a leading composer in today’s so-called “minimalist” school) once said his music had more in common with Hildegard of Bingen (12th Century) than with Haydn (18th), it’s important to realize that music, first of all, is music, whatever era it comes from, and in many cases has many of the same attributes, though they may be realized differently.

There might be phrases and elements of tension and release that create cadences and form which might be easier to hear in more familiar works like Beethoven and Mozart, but you can still hear a composer like Iannis Xenakis who can create lines and forms and textures and tensions in many different, sometimes similar ways yet sound completely different from anything you’ve ever heard before.

Now, if you’ll pardon one more analogy, you’ve never had Thai food before, you know it’s spicy and you walk into the first Thai restaurant you find. You look at the menu and stab your finger at, say, a Chicken Panang Curry. After you realize you can no longer feel your lips and the roof of your mouth is melting, do you say “I don’t like this; it’s not a cheeseburger”?

Stay tuned. More posts on the way.

Dick Strawser