“You might believe these things you say!” Generally, one hopes people mean what they say, but there are certain times when generous thinking would mean hoping that people don’t necessarily do so. Take Matt Friedberger, of the Fiery Furnaces. It’s one thing to confuse Harry Partch with Harry Patch, and when I first saw the news about the new Radiohead song, I did a double-take myself. But ye gods, lad, just say you don’t like Radiohead and quit while you’re ahead. The incoherent, rambling complaints and justifications reveal a pretty profound ignorance of Partch’s work and an insecure, infantile antagonism to the band. But then, musical incoherence, limited aesthetic horizons and a kind of smug ignorance about the voices who came before and are around are staples of a lot of indie-rock (and indie-cinema). And since musically incoherent bands like Fiery Furnaces and Dirty Projects garner praise and admiration, these must be qualities to admire and aspire to. I prefer knowledge, ambition and musical coherence, so I’ll stick with Radiohead (perhaps Beck does too, but his musical response is the most incoherent thing of all in this dumb dispute).
Think of it as a debate, forget the facts, and focus on the rhetoric. Rhetoric is an essential tool and can convince on its own, but it must be as coherent as pure logic. Even if the rhetoric is disingenuous, it must make sense. Look at Sarah Palin, desperate to please everyone she speaks with, to tell them what she thinks they want to hear. She’s completely disingenuous, but doesn’t have the skill to run for President, much less win and govern — she can’t think and speak coherently, she can’t make any sense. Politician as indie-rock front-woman, it’s a curious phenomenon. Making sense, communicating clearly, is a matter of craft, and craft may go out of fashion but it never goes out of style.
The craft of Ralph Shapey, the latest composer feted in the Composer Portraits at Miller Theater, is an example of this. His art is bracingly crusty and uncompromising and completely sincere, and it’s never been in fashion (a Pulitzer Prize was, amazingly, overruled). Liking or not liking his music is a matter of personal taste, but he unquestionably wrote good music. The works on the program were a fine representation of his career; concentrated in size, ambitious, challenging for musicians and audiences, extremely well crafted and always coherent. Agree or disagree with what he says, but what he says is always clear.
Shapey began his musical life playing the violin, and his writing for the instrument is almost impossibly fine. Two of the strongest works on the program, “Etchings” for solo violin (finished when he was in his mid-twenties) and “Five,” for violin and piano, are works that show an intimate familiarity with what is possible on the instrument. These are works at the edge of playability but are never showy. The challenges are not endless runs of notes and chromatic scales but immediate, broad intervals and quick shifts to and from harmonics. This is virtuoso violin music like that Stravinsky wrote for his Concerto, demanding more speed from the mind than the fingers, and emphasizing quickness of the bow from string to string rather than dramatic twirling of the left hand fingers. The early work takes a graceful, ultra-Romantic, melody reminiscent of the gripping opening of the Bartok solo violin sonata and repeats it through several variations of tempo and rhetorical quality — grander, sweeter, syncopated — complete with a surprise authentic cadence. The surprise is because Shapey’s work, while mostly not atonal, is highly dissonant, and although that necessarily means that there is consonance and diatonic melodies and chords to be found in his music, the emphasis is on a craggy, confident and very American dissonance. His sonorities, especially for combined winds, are astringent to the point of peeling paint. “Five” is a real masterpiece, a work that seems effortlessly virtuosic in performance but which clearly demanded a great deal of blood, sweat and tears. An explosive, breathtaking opening statement consolidates into a more introverted soliloquy in the violin, and then the ideas begin to come with a speed and density which rivals Beethoven, and there is a sense of an ongoing, constructive debate between the two instruments. There is almost constant activity between the two and a bit of rhythmic conflict, especially in the Scherzo movement where the violin bickers with short, punchy diatonic phrases from the keyboard. The work says more in ten minutes than many symphonies do across an hour. Violinist <a href=“http://www.artistsinternational.com/miranda_cuckson.html”>Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen played with the command and ease that comes from dedication to the music and understanding what it is they want to say; coherence in composition breeds coherence in performance.
Shapey shares a something with Elliot Carter, in that good musicians are drawn to the quality and challenge of his music. The spirit of his music is serious, rigorous, clear-eyed, far less playful than Carter but with a greater tenderness and humanity, both in specific moments and as a consistent underlying his voice. There’s a sense of the individual declaring themselves to the universe, then exploring the territory around them, speaking up for and defining their own existence. He’s a Romanticist who writes in a highly Modern language, a sort of generational progeny of Samuel Barber. Even in muscularly atonal works like “Movements” for woodwind quintet and “Concerto for Clarinet and Chamber Group” (featuring the New York Woodwind Quintet and the Argento Ensemble), there is a quiet lyricism in the middle of the strident, high E’s blasting from the flute and the roiling Romanticism of the clarinet. The “Quintet” is full of disorienting wide intervals, which are fodder for good wind players, and since the music makes such sense to the musicians it quickly makes sense to the ear. Shapey does familiar things in extreme ways; he favors rondo forms and passages, and so music that first seems like neurotic chattering soon reveals itself as a fascinating chase. The “Concerto” has parts for two percussionists, playing bass drums, and the soft but full bodied sound of their stubborn rhythms is both a mysterious echo of the ensemble and a musical response and ground its own right, like the ‘druids’ in Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”
The percussion writing is surprising and usually effective. The second half opened with the weakest piece on the program, his later “Interchange” for percussion quartet. His scoring for metal instruments is attractive, the sonorities of tubular bells, orchestral bells and vibraphone sounds great, but here Shapey is locked to true atonality, a 12-tone row he described as his mother lode, and the row seems to lead him around, rather than vice-versa. There’s an interesting eeriness to the sound, but the overall effect is mechanical, and that’s enhanced by a particular dotted-eighth/sixteenth/triplet rhythm (which sounds very much like Partch) which appears too often with too little variation. The piece doesn’t breath with life and spontaneity like the other works, including the concluding “Three for Six,” with it’s lively, demanding woodwind writing and provocative timpani phrases. It begins with a familiar tactic, and explosion of sharp sounds and forceful figures, a combination of announcement and march. The ensemble seemed slightly stiff at first, but then found their way to an unforced pace and really began to speak the music. There is a lovely, haunting viola solo in the middle movement, dazzling clarinet solos, and always the music is answered by the timpani, supported by the piano, asking “is that what you mean to say? Is that what you mean to say?” Shapey, as a composer, clearly asked himself that question, and answered “yes, I mean to say exactly this.”
The next Composer Portraits concert is dedicated to the evocative music of Kaija Saariaho, on Sunday November 22 at 8PM.