Real Americans

Stefan Lano, courtesy American Composers Orchestra

The American Composers Orchestra brought a handful of firsts into Zankel Hall on Tuesday evening; their first concert of the season, their first time under the baton of Stefan Lano, how himself was making his Carnegie debut. And the program featured four first pieces; the New York premiere of one work and the world premieres of three others. And it all began with music from the ‘first’ American composer, Charles Ives.

Ives is always welcome musically and ceremonially. An orchestra dedicated to playing music by American composers could perform him on every program, as he’s the fountainhead from which American art music in the Western Classical tradition flows. Each half of the concert began with a ”Tone Road”, numbers one and three, Ives’ overhaul of polyphony. Instead of the strict, imitative rules of Baroque forms, or the journey around the diamond to home of the Classical era, he presents a pictorial and cultural idea; the various means and ways people in a community go about their business before arriving at the same point. The lines of music move along in seemingly different keys and tempos, independent of each other but part of the same community of music, before the roads of different tones lead them to tonality. The genial, shambling chaos is intentional, an abstract picture of a social ideal. The performances were varied; the orchestra sounded stiff in the opening piece, as if using a lot of concentration to play their parts correctly, and the violins overpowered the other sections. Perhaps it was a matter of being warmed up, but the opening of the second half was completely different, a confident and coherent performance, anchored by the steady beat of the tubular bells. If road one was an unintentional mess, road three was just the sense of accidental order which Ives sought.

The premieres mixed concepts, means and goals with equally mixed success. Three of the works were programmatic, either telling an explicit story or describing thoughts and feelings. Curt Cacioppo’s ”When The Orchard Dances Ceased” is a musical narrative of the mid-19th century United States campaign against the Navajo peoples, and this is the major problem with the work. Cacioppo takes his own purpose literally. The music tries to both tell us about specific events and inevitably tell us how we should feel about them, so it is episodic, populist in style and reaches for drama and elegy. In the approximately thirteen minute duration the work goes through six or seven sections, never spending time offering substantive thoughts, and with it’s vaguely Copland-ish idiom it gives the impression of hearing a soundtrack to a silent film, with the film missing. The composer performs, singing some native interjections and playing a bit of percussion, but he doesn’t offer much information. There is a nice interlude with gentle, rising and falling string pizzicati supporting lines in the brass and winds, but most the music is unclear, parts wander around internally, and there are surprising percussion hits which are too scattered to convey a coherent purpose. There is too much plot and not enough story, and although as, hopefully, empathetic people we should feel moved, it is irritating to be presented with unobjectionable feelings conveyed through inadequate music.

There’s a different balance between story and music in ”Mouthpiece XIII: Mathilde of Loci, Part 1”, an ongoing opera project from Erin Gee, collaborating with her brother, the physical actor Colin Gee. The overall work is an opera and a concept, the opera being about the end of life moments of a character based on Matteo Ricci, who created the Memory Palace concept, and the concept being about how to remove the ego from vocal performance. The two Gees performed, Colin in pantomime and Erin using her vocal technique of phonemes and mouth sounds, the idea being that removing words from singing removes the ego of the singer as well. She admits in a short documentary which was shown prior to the piece that this is a difficult task, although not impossible. It’s something Meredith Monk does quite successfully, and Monk has also shown it can work in opera, with her masterpiece Atlas”, but that piece has no story while Gee’s is full of story. The piece was accompanied by a dense text with stage directions and characters’ specific words and thoughts, and what may prove impossible is conveying an understanding of the libretto with purely vocal sounds and gestural movement; characters are by definition egos, removing ego would probably eviscerate the drama. As an excerpt, this may or may not indicate what the entire work would be like. In concert there was a lot going on, too much in fact. As Gee sang under one spotlight, her brother performed under a second and a slide show of mostly ecclesiastical interior spaces screened above the orchestra. The pantomime was, strangely, less interesting live than the bits shown in the documentary where Colin discusses his fascinating technique, and overall Gee’s singing demanded the most attention. It is mesmerizing, clear-toned and subliminally attractive to the ear, and the music sounds a bit like Scelsi, slowed down and without the soul-plumbing exploration of microtonality. The orchestra sings along with the voice, always responding immediately, shifting in gesture depending on what the voice has conveyed. The overall tone is lustrous and musically the application of her concept is beguiling. Her ideas are ambitious and her means are interesting and lovely.

One of the most interesting young composers in America was represented on the program; Huang Ruo sang in the New York premiere of his ”Leaving Sao.” This is a folk style setting of a poem for voice and chamber orchestra, but that description doesn’t begin to hint at Ruo’s individual style. In an era when there is an accomplished group of Asian-American composers, a growing influence of Chinese culture in America, and a still mostly self-conscious attempt to aesthetically bind the two, Ruo’s work is a true synthesis. In part this may be that he is of a generation which is more catholic and less ideological about the world of cultures, but clearly a great deal has to do with his intelligence, taste, sensitivity and efforts. The title of the piece comes from an ancient Chinese poem, but the composer shed the body of the work and wrote his own lyrical, elegiac text. The music is not American with touches of China, or vice-versa – it does not juxtapose the two – but a discrete voice coming out of the influence of American and Chinese music, as well as Debussy via Toru Takemitsu and containing a dramatic element. ”Leaving Sao” is a mysterious, entrancing work, eight minutes of transporting fantasy. It begins with breathy flute and falsetto voice. The singing is almost non-diatonic, full of slow melisma and microtonal shadings and the instrumental timbres produce shadings and textures which expand on the lyrical, keening vocal line. It’s exotic music, not in the colonial sense but in overrhearing an individual, unusual imagination at work. The poem is full of the melancholy of departure, and the music is contemplative and gorgeous. The connection with Takemitsu is in the sense of musical activity happening outside of the passage of time, the imperative being to sound and express, not develop and construct. Yet Ruo also can bring an idea or a line from one point to the next and convey a sense of transformation. This is his particular balancing act and it’s impressive and promises a great deal more interesting work. At the end of the piece, the final notes are the abstract reveille of two whirled tubes, their sound literally cutting the air, then disappearing into it.

The final piece, and final premiere, was Donal Fox’s ”Peace Out,”a concerto for an improvising pianist, with the composer at the keys. This is a real gem of a piece, modest in duration but terrifically ambitious in tone and technique and in this performance a complete success. Fox matched Ives in the sense of Americanness of the music, and his is a modern updating, with a a toughness, swagger and jaunty humor that is very much a part of post World War II American culture. The work opens with an intense riff in the right hand of the piano, music which recalls Conlon Nancarrow. When the orchestra joins, the bracing excitement continues. Fox keeps the soloist and ensemble very close to each other, responding immediately and almost antagonistically to each other. The pace is fast, the harmonies pungent and the motion of the music is angular yet not harsh. It’s a kind of Romantic Modernism, highly expressive and even agitated, yet transparent and open about it’s directions. It’s reminiscent of the last movement of the Barber piano concerto, with the piano banging out clusters up and down the keys, but it’s even more aggressive, impassioned and exciting, especially the relentless interjections from the bass, drum and tuba which threaten to beat the music into a halt. Fox builds the second section from a bass line developed out of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time,” and it’s a pleasure to hear the fragment and an even greater pleasure to hear the imagination and craft Fox uses in forming it into a propulsive, hip foundation. He’s done something that many have tried and few have succeeded at, which is taking identifiable elements of jazz and make an utterly classical music out of them. There’s no stiffness, condescension, nothing arch or cute, it’s the work of a composer who knows jazz and has learned from it but has no intention of turning an orchestra into a jazz band, on par with Stravinsky’s ”Ebony Concerto.“. While he has an excellent, idiomatic blues wail for the orchestra, he doesn’t ask them to sound like a combo or a swing band. The music breaths with it’s own harmonies and own internal sense of rhythm. It also doesn’t depend on an improviser to carry the music, it speaks for itself. Fox is a fabulous pianist with sharp, confident technique and a real idea of what he wants to do, and it appears that he does improvise in short phrases during the course of the first two sections. Again, what he adds is completely idiomatic to the piece itself, seamless in the overall expression and language. The pianist has the most room to improvise in a cadenza which comes prior to the third, and last, section, and Fox maintained his fine balance between jazz information and classical structure and language. His ability to convey ideas and emotions within the limitation of his own structure was deeply impressive – while a jazz musician might use a tune as a foundation from which to break free, Fox used the material of his piece to build and focus his improvisation, just as a Mozart concerto would ask. After the intensity of this music, the final section began quietly, from a held note on the keyboard, and was a simple, lovely lament over a delicate tremolo in the violas. Beginning in extreme activity, the music became so simple as to leave the impression of repose and reconciliation, which fit well with the sense of controlled outrage, even fury, in the preceding music. Superb playing by the orchestra in a challenging piece, and some of the finest composition and improvisation I’ve heard in recent memory.


Author: gtra1n

I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.