Is no excuse for such things
Weigh like strawberries
On a shortcake.
To the root of the matter
Have a friend
But be a free fucking agent.
Has lots of them
Lays or friends or anything
That can make a little light in all that darkness.
There is a cigarette you can hold for a minute
In your weak mouth
And then the light goes out,
Rival, honey, friend,
And then you stub it out.
– Jack Spicer, from Admonitions
If you can do it, do it. If they don’t want you to do it, do it. If they don’t help you do it, do it. Do it yourself. That’s the most important lesson an artist must learn, usually the hard way. At places likes music schools and conservatories, they teach you technique, give you valuable opportunities to compose, rehearse and perform, but they never bother to tell you how to make your way in the world as a musician and composer. You have to do that yourself. You have to be a free fucking agent.
And why not start when you’re young, when it’s time to get laid, get drunk. A group of young composers and musicians, Existential Pilot, is doing an admirable job of DIY, and they gave a recital last week at the WMP Concert Hall in Manhattan. This is a group of performing composers, and they played the works of three of them, Ezra Donner, Johnathan Lubin and William Zuckerman. Shows like this are by nature a mixed bag, and in this case a mixed bag of young men figuring out what they are doing. This is the time to make the best kind of mistakes, and these composers are making theirs, and that’s valuable. They are also making a lot of good, lively and interesting music.
Every composer belongs to the culture of their time and place, so it’s a natural that Zuckerman’s opening Calzoncillo Gnomo is his homage to South Park. It’s a pithy piece full of rhythmic force and a few lyrical touches, with the interesting mix of legacies from both Vince Guaraldi and Ligeti’s Etudes. Lubin played this demanding piece with knife-edge concentration. It was an engaging start.
Lubin’s own This is the Garden followed, and was less successful. It’s a song, setting the e.e. cummings poem, but not in a way that clearly apprehends the substance of the words. The poem is a death-haunted pastorale, the music is in the style of the American songbook, and they don’t quite go together. Lubin’s melody is lovely and could be made to work, but the harmonic structure does not do justice to the meaning of the text which demands the type of shading a Sondheim can give in this context; less regularity in shape and sound and more unsettled harmonies and phrases. Ezra Donner set Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, a daunting challenge with better results. Stevens is difficult to understand, and Donner made the interesting choice of emphasizing variation over interpretation, changing the accompaniment of the voice frequently, keeping the ear interested. The music was frequently lively, a good lesson that the art song doesn’t have to be lugubrious, and also witty and conscientious in support of the fine singing from Claire DiVizio. There were a few moments that recalled the wonderful Hermit Songs of Samuel Barber, appropriate both in that this is that composer’s centenary and that his work offers real guidance in how to write good American art songs.
There was some electronics, and they were problematic. Pure electronic playback in a concert setting, with an audience listening and staring at an empty and inert stage, just doesn’t work, and it never has. Even audiences that know they are getting something prerecorded need something to look at, this is why I think Tim Hecker tends to stand fiddling, probably superfluously, at a mixer during a presentation of his work. That was a problem here for Lubin’s Transformations, a short electronic piece played back straight, and ‘God in the Machine,’ the first of three excerpts from Zuckerman’s ongoing Music In Pluralism. Also, the electronic palettes used by the composers were dull, and in music that demands non-acoustic processes and non-notated structures, nothing out of the ordinary happened. These pieces were brief, though, and a small part of the concert. The other excerpts from Zuckerman’s piece, scored for piano and violin-piano duo, worked as intriguing epigrams. Outside of their larger structure there was not enough context to judge them thoroughly, but they had the aspect of preludes and postscripts, music describing an experience once-removed, which is an enticing idea.
Lubin and Zuckerman’s most successful works were, respectively, the former’s Moods for Piano from 2006 and the latter’s Sinuous Rills from 2008. Moods is in the elusive and attractive classical/cabaret style that William Bolcolm is so good at. The four movements, ‘Proclamation,’ ‘Inverted toccata,’ ‘Night Club’ and ‘Ragtime’ express their titles in music, have their say and take a bow. The ‘toccata’ was a little unformed, but ‘Night Club’ made witty use of what is usually clichéd material, and there’s always a need for new rags. Rills is a trio for piano, played by Donner, violin (Zoë Acqua) and clarinet (Mark Dover). It follows an abstract path of water from ‘Waterfall’ through ‘Flow’ and ‘Dams’ before emptying into ‘Basin.’ The music is appropriately fluid and lyrical, with a gentle, slightly melancholy tone and real emotional heft. It’s open spaces and subtle inventiveness recall Copland, and it is straightforward and pithy. The extremely subdued ending is very effective in its sense of both control of the materials and in the questions it seems to ask.
In all these works, though, there was an overall sense that there were chances still left to take, more to be dared, a greater desire to do the unexpected, the thing that the composer himself was not considering. The question of relative aesthetic safety and a willingness to fail is one that every worthwhile artist has to consider, especially because it’s hard and scary. The standout pieces on the program were two works by Donner that showed an interest in pushing that edge out a little. His Sonata No. 1 for Piano and Sonata Judaica for clarinet and piano performed the vital action of setting their own premises and then attacking them a little bit. The duo was energetic and good humored, incorporating the flavor of Jewish melodies into Modernist structures with just enough touches of popular culture and craziness to also try and break out of them. It offered an understanding of the gestalt idea of music that Meyer Kupferman expressed so well, a very open-hearted and human approach to music making. The piano sonata, played by Donner, was an exciting, impressive work. He uses fragmentation as a structural technique in the first movement, tossing off interesting, jazzy and often intensely energetic phrases, abandoning them and bringing them back just at the moment one thinks he’s forgotten about them. It seems random but is actually continuous. The material is dense but the writing is always clear, even in the inner voices. The remaining movements go for effect, the middle one lulling and the finale agitated, and they work all the way to the big ending. If anything the piece could be longer with more music, the structural method of the first movement is so interesting that it could be applied in a more extended manner.
It was a promising and intriguing start for this young group, and if they are proclaiming their existence through the action of making music, then I hope they will continue to proclaim and expand. Stub it out, light another, get laid, but be a free fucking agent.