Where are we in history? When I’m getting tech support via twitter on my iPhone while riding on an intercity train, we’re in the 25th century of Star Trek. When I see Marc Thiessen defend America’s use of torture, then we’re clearly in the Dark Ages. Musically, we’re in a period where there is no officially dominant ideology. If last century was one where composers were arrayed on either the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ side of ideology, starting with the opposite poles of reaction in Schoenberg and modernism in Stravinsky, this century is one where most any style goes, in the academies or in the streets. That’s a welcome situation, but not without challenges, the main one being the daunting task of taking the blank page of one’s own aesthetic voice and drawing the particular and personal on it, following the designs and styles of others as a starting point but still coming up with something unique. It’s a matter of finding a suitable style without making it a dogma, of finding the best means to express oneself while not being subsumed into a tribe.
One place to discover how this balance actually works out in music is, as always, the Composer Portraits series at Miller Theater, which produces concentrated pictures of composers with distinctive voices in a plethora of styles. The penultimate concert in this season’s series presented the music of contemporary American composer Sebastian Currier. Currier’s own brief biography in the program described the process of an artist working his way through a variety of styles until he finds own that suits him and makes it his own. The composer’s own music demonstrates this clearly, with identifiable elements of preceding styles but ultimately both a variety and coherent consistency of expression that stamps the work as Currier’s.
One of the elements in the vast toolkit for composers is the opportunity to use basically simple materials and techniques and depend on taste and craftsmanship to assemble them into an accomplished whole. The pieces on the first half of the program showed that Currier has developed plenty of taste and craft, probably through his personal process of trying out different styles and techniques and discarding the ones that didn’t fit. Night Time, a duet for violin and harp, opened the program, a piece with a sound that puts it into the general world of French composers like Debussy and Dutilleux, but that stands on its own. It moves through impressions of the stages of the passage of night, expressively but never literally. The writing is clear, fine featured, controlled but supple, with an intriguing general alternation between sparse, almost astringent textures and long, impassioned romantic phrases. The pair of Miranda Cuckson and Jacqueline Kerrod played the music with assurance and focus, with a commitment to the quiet the composer clearly calls for (although the performance was miked, as was the whole program, in order to convey the textures Currier wanted but with inconsistent results making their way through the PA system).
Currier’s Piano Concerto, played by Christopher Taylor with sharp accompaniment from Michel Galante and the Argento Ensemble, is packed full of ideas and information and is a terrific example of the composers smart, expressive style. A repeated note in the piano leads not to Minimalist rigor but sighing chords in the ensemble, both consonant and dissonant. The opening ‘Fluid’ section does flow to surprising and intriguing places, while the ‘Edgy’ middle movement is full of jazzy, athletic passages in the piano, meaty textures, the ensemble nimbly shadowing the soloist. It is athletic, with expressive flourishes, the spirit and quality of Raymond Scott’s ‘Powerhouse’ via the Adams Chamber Symphony, and has a modestly thrilling flyaway ending. The closing ‘Soft’ is languid, rocking back and forth between two chords with touches of extended dissonance, repeating a slow, descending scale that seems to be the Rosette Stone of the piece, and closing with a beautiful subdued coda. The sound is mellow and sonorous with just enough edge. It’s music with expressive questions, always more satisfying than music with pat answers.
The evening’s main event was the premiere of Bodymusic, a Miller Theater commission. Here, the use of amplification makes sense, because the instruments of the chamber orchestra play against and, at times along with, sampled sounds that have to do with the human body, loosely defined (sneezing, talking, hiccupping and breathing along with the opening and closing of doors and water in a bathtub). All this comes in short sections defined by the sounds in use; ‘Doorways’ walks up and opens doors, from which music immediately ensues (impressive coordination here from conductor Galante). In their respective sections, the instruments chatter to ‘Gossip’ and follow the aftermath of a ‘Sneeze.’ There is quiet music to accompany the breathing ‘After Sex,’ and a rollicking accompaniment to ‘Babel.’ It’s a cinematic piece in the abstract, music that expresses finely defined states and moments, and there’s lots of fun in it. It also suffers from a sense of repetition; what is inventive and charming at first is less welcome the second or third time around, and Currier applies the same technique to different sections of sound, undermining the premise that there is a varity of music in the body. It seems to go on longer than it should, though the high points, like the trumpet turning from funny to mocking in ‘Humiliation,’ and the solo violin accompaniment to ‘Solo Voice,’ are very fine.
A composer who shares a similar interest in combining audio and live instruments, as well as the sense of having found his way through the music of others into his own strong, characteristic style, is Jacob TV. The string quartet ETHEL gave a concert of his music at Merkin Concert Hall last week that was one of the high points of the year so far. TV’s basic method is to sample words and phrases from people’s speech, whether from the street or in the electronic media, then stitch those samples into a soundtrack and write music to be played along with it. The method was pioneered across decades by Steve Reich, first in experimental tape pieces like It’s Gonna Rain, where the manipulation of the sample itself is the piece, and later in Different Trains, where the recorded speech is used to derive pitch and rhythm and the music and sound are tightly integrated. TV is doing a similar thing, but his style is very different; he uses the pitch and rhythm from the samples not only as sources for the music but also as things to oppose and from which to break free. His writing is not an expression of technique or method but an expression of his personal viewpoint, for which the technique is just a means, and while his style is possible because of Minimalism, the elements of that in his own voice are not the flavors of Reich and Glass but Arvo Pärt.
His expression is consistently clear, exciting and, at moments, extraordinarily powerful. Everything is concrete, even the music that would seem the most abstract in that there is no accompanying soundtrack, as her prefers to call the audio. The concert opened gradually, with one member of ETHEL following after another onto the stage to play Capriccio, a series of individual, alternating lines that eventually come together into a full quartet. It’s an energetic, pithy piece reminiscent of the violin writing in Stravinsky’s Histoire du soldat. The soundtrack music is exciting and affecting; TV genuinely loves American pop culture; things that we may find easy to mock are objects of affection and fascination to him. In onstage chats with John Schaefer, he expressed both his love for the blues and his idea that the blues is primarily talking music. He puts that into effect by giving his soundtracks fluid, funky shapes that the musicians can play off of with vivacious phrasing. The pieces Jesus Is Coming, Dolly Shot, Syracuse Blues and Take a Wild Guess are beautifully constructed. His soundtracks define the duration and are made up of repetitive units spliced together, his writing (or arranging, as he reworks the same pieces for different instruments) uses small repetitive units that are familiar from pop music, but he extends and varies them in more complex larger scale structures. His vocabulary and syntax are clear and compelling and the stories they tell are attractive and satisfying (although The ‘Body of your Dreams’ Quartet pushes it’s infomercial samples a little too long with too little variation, it mocks a little too much which seems a misfit for the inherent good-nature of the composer).
The program was an excellent overview of his work, and ETHEL played with a combination of classical skill and rock intensity. The balances, with the composer at the mixing board, between audio and miked strings were excellent. For the most part the concert was pure pleasure, great fun, and when it wasn’t that it was deeply moving. The two major works on the program were Grab It! and the String Quartet No. 3. The former is another soundtrack piece, with both musical material and a sensibility that TV has mined for other works. The audio comes from the famous “Scared Straight” documentary and is serious stuff, the music matches the spoken phrases with precision and a bluesy, rocking power. Combined with the usual sense of energy, there is a brooding, unsettling meditation on society, violence and anger and a feeling of tragedy. It’s an intriguing counterpart to Fred Rzewki’s Attica.
The String Quartet is one of the most moving, emotionally powerful pieces of composition in the post World War II era. It says something to describe its means; a tentative opening, the development of a lovely chorale, an accelerating tempo, repeated phrases and interlocking rhythms, but it also says nothing at all. Jacob TVs way of writing for instruments is immediately attractive to anyone who has an ear for pop or classical music, that’s how clear and direct his music is. He also has an inherent sense for large scale form that makes everything sound good together over time, everything sound like it lasts just exactly as long as it should, everything come to the conclusion that the internal logic points towards. What is most important though, especially in this age where the moral cop-out of a dessicated lack of affect infects music from indy-rock to Gavin Bryars, is that Jacob TV has something clear to say and he says it with unselfconscious strength and assurance. This piece expresses a reaction to the world that should be heard more often; not sadness but sorrow, not anger but indignation, not answers but questions. It is ravishing in its complex beauty, its emotional depths, its sincerity and its humanity. Jacob TV’s music loves humanity and it is music to be loved.
[Q2 is currently presenting Jacob TV on the Radio, a festival of his music running through Sunday. Listen here. And see below for a preview of his upcoming opera, The News. The excerpt is ‘Small Pop.’]