Nationalism used to be a common and important feature of music. Prior to World War II, there were identifiable national styles that had been developing for centuries. The Stürm und Drang of German music, the diaphanous harmonies in French music, the dazzling colors in Russian music were stereotypes but true enough, based in common fact and experience. The physical, emotional and intellectual dislocations of war put an end to much of those qualities, along with the spread of audio recordings and an ideological, international compositional style, 12-tone Serialism. There is still music that captures and evokes qualities of certain places, though it’s far more personal, connected more to geographical and historical qualities than those of national identity.

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed music at Le Poisson Rouge recently that was powerfully evocative of two specific places that exist both on maps of the globe and in maps of the mind, two places far removed from each other; South Africa and Alaska. From what the music revealed, the two places have little to do with each other, except for their fundamental quality as outposts from which to carve a new path. The composers were Kevin Volans and John Luther Adams, and their territories pair the interior with the exterior.

Volans is South African, and came to prominence when the Kronos String Quartet asked him to rework a series of pieces he had been making under the title “White Man Sleeps;” pieces of that arrangement are on the 1987 Kronos CD of that same title. The original work was the composer’s attempt to create a music that reflected the multicultural society in which he was raised. Transferring it to the string quartet meant, for him, losing particular qualities of instrumental color and tuning which were an important part of his initial idea. He gained a great deal more, though, in that he transferred his personal aesthetic into an international and historical one. White Man Sleeps for string quartet has a definite foundation in Volans’ country and it places that multicultural aspect into the ongoing world of classical music. The string quartet group inside ACME, Caleb Burhans and Yuki Numata playing violins, Nadia Sirota on viola and Artistic Director Clarice Jensen playing the cello, played three of the five sections of the piece, in the order of II, IV and I. Hearing the music in this setting, a quasi-formalized chamber music concert, was even more ear opening than encountering it on the CD. Kronos emphasizes the context but doesn’t establish enough of the music for any particular idea to take hold. With a generous amount of the music it’s clear how this piece is inextricably woven into the mosaic of classical music. Composers like Steve Reich learned features of African music and returned it to the West in the form of his own pioneering works, which do things like fitting together the audible beat found almost everywhere outside the Western classical tradition into the abstract processes that were created here. Volans music has qualities one hears in Reich, like the punchy phrases and dancing, syncopated rhythms, but his are coming from the source, Africa itself. His compositional process is also his own, more song-like and dance-like, repeating sections to make a whole rather than working out a progression of expansion and contraction of small units. It’s African music, from Africa, from a composer who came out to meet the West. The performance was lively and touching.

Volans’ later Shiva Dance, String Quartet No. 9 has some similar features but is a very different work; more Western, more expressive, grimmer. It begins with gestural language that is a like one-step abstraction of the means of the earlier work, then gradually transforms the material in a way that is very ‘classical.’ There’s an intensity to the music and the appearance of vibrato, which had not revealed itself before, makes it seem very Romantic. The two pieces together sound like internal cartography, a map Volans is trying to draw of South Africa, it’s history, his place in it and where it all fits in the world and in history. It’s going to include glory and tragedy. The quartet ends in whispered textures, and was another fine performance. This group within a group cannot possibly devote the same kind of intense rehearsal time that most string quartets need to develop the sound and interplay that produces the best playing, and so it’s astonishing to hear these four musicians play with so much sympathy in the inner voices, such a uniform sound (and such an interesting sound too; astringent and almost accordion-like), and such easily coordinated phrasing.

Adams’ territory is Alaska, and his music is about making a sound, hearing how it fills up and disappears into space, or reflects back, and then responding to and building off that. He works with compositional processes that are as abstract as any in the classical tradition but he lays them in aim of a target that has to do with the environment, horizons and the idea of achieving stillness within a stream of flowing time. He’s an experimentalist in the vital West coast tradition of composers who know their European music history and have turned to the Pacific, to see where the sun goes and what is possible across the seemingly endless expanse of that huge ocean. The myth of the American frontier, supposedly dead, still lives in a line of thought that follows Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and even Robert Bechtle, though the organic beauty of his work makes him more the musical equivalent of Andy Goldsworthy.

ACME played two Adams pieces, The Farthest Place and In a Treeless Place, Only Snow. The latter work has some more familiar elements; a rising and falling quasi-gamelan scale, a cello solo that is recognizable as a variant of that scale and an ending that is one last iteration of it. The ear can hear how the piece is put together, where it’s going, and it’s stunningly gorgeous, with a shimmering sound. Even more beautiful is the first work, which creates a plangent object of sound with repeated piano, vibraphone and marimba notes. Mixed in are sustained lines from cello and violin. This music is deceptively simple on the page and to the ear but unique in its methods and very hard to play. ACME produced a lovely balance and blend of sound, the emulsification of the instrumental tones into one seemingly solid object that they slowly turned in time, for us to marvel at. While the low ceiling of Le Poisson Rouge is not the ideal environment for Adams’ music, the playing was so fine, and the appearance of the music so welcome, that time did, gratefully, stand still.


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.