Against The Prevailing Order


Joan La Barbara, © 2009 Mark Mahaney

Music inherently creates order out of, if not chaos, then nothingness. Whatever else a piece of music may do, or be about, it always has a structure of some kind, even if that structure is as minimal as starting at one point and ending at another; it delineates a segment of time and separates it from the endlessly broadening stream of life. Even the works of John Cage, which challenged established and artificial distinctions between music and sound, always develops a sense of order and are never entirely random. His aleatoric pieces are tightly structured, with chance used as a means to remove decisions about aesthetic details within a predetermined structure, and 4’33” is a work that succeeds, or fails, to the extent that the audience can apply their own order to the experience.

Improvising musicians know this. While they may cast about for material, like diviners, their art is about shaping that material in the moment into a structure that best expresses it. They are composers, laying out their process to an audience, willing to endure the experience of revealing the failures that are necessary to ultimate success. Improvising is the secret history of 20th Century Western classical music, something that was previously a feature of music making for centuries and then went underground. Up until seemingly the advent of recording the ability to improvise idiomatically, to make something up within a piece, if even just embellishment, was a fundamental part of being a competent musician. One of the pernicious side-effects of recording technology was the inadvertent codification of particular performance ideas, that other musicians sought to emulate slavishly over the years (an example is the rise of string vibrato, which is actually not a traditional technique), and that made improvisation into something ‘wrong;’ in graduate school I discovered a welcome and refreshing two bar interpolation by Alfred Brendel in the slow movement of the Mozart K. 488 Concerto, and was told by a theory teacher that he shouldn’t have done that. After World War II, the extreme extension of Schoenberg’s Serial technique into all aspects of composition, which developed into an overarching dogma, pushed improvisation further into the dustbin of history, or at least tried to. Musicians kept improvising, helped along by the development of free jazz, and composers like Earle Brown made music that could be both identifiable and different in every performance. An interesting ghetto of new music was created, populated by the lineage of Brown, Morton Feldman, Albert Ayler and Giacinto Scelsi, and including musicians like Robert Dick and Derek Bailey, the latter who exclusively improvised in performance.

Although improvisation is returning to the classical mainstream, especially through the work of Early Music practitioners like Jordi Savall, it’s still a small segment, even of new music. Younger composers seem, to a great extent, still preoccupied with standard ideas of order, which is understandable in that the great musical movement of their formative period, Minimalism, is highly structured on a microscopic level. It’s possible to pick a point on the spectrum between the extremes of musical ideas of order and then gauge where certain works lie. And it’s a constructive way to look at a disparate collection of new music, including some works in progress, presented recently at Le Poisson Rouge and Roulette.

The MATA Festival returned to LPR this year, with music from April 19 through April 22. Last year’s had a problem with order, a collection of good pieces that, when put together by the organizers, conveyed a disappointingly homogenous idea of new music. This year, variety was the thing, and it was refreshing to the ears and the reason for the festival’s aesthetic success. I ducked through the doors just as the music began on the 21st, and was truly stunned and delighted to hear the quiet, scattered, focused chattering of Ensemble Pamplemousse. It was the beginning of their exciting and fantastic set, a series of pieces from Rama Gottfried, Natacha Diels, Andrew Greenwald and David Broome. The pieces were different, but they concentrated on similar values and ideas of order; pointillism, active listening and response from all the musicians, controlled binding of seemingly random events into a directed purpose, and especially the sense that anything could happen, even failure. The sound world the music came out of is that of Varèse, Brown, Stockhausen and Helmut Lachenmann. It’s a style and concept that bridges the gap between the earliest conscious sounds humans made together and the most up to the moment exploration of musical possibilities. There may be discernable moments of tempo, rhythm, melody and harmony but those are secondary to the qualities of timbre and immediate communication with musical gestures; the briefest note on the violin is answered in the flute, and the space in time between the two looms like a singularity, the event horizon of each sound describing a moment with infinite possibilities, including infinite duration. Details in this music matter so much and are heard so clearly, a pitch held for a fraction of second longer than expected is heavy with meaning, an exhalation of breath is almost erotically moving.

Each of the composers worked within this aesthetic through different means. Diels’ Symbiosis II combined strictly notated rhythms with variously specific and generally notated pitches and timbres. It was enthrallingly delicate. On Structure II, by Greenwald, very closely coordinates the instruments of the ensemble while offering them various opportunities of choice in pitch material and timbre in a score that is carefully organized in terms of density of activity through time, with specific moments for pauses. Rama Gottfried’s Nest takes those techniques and to them adds sections of temporal freedom for the musicians and tosses in a Max/MSP patch played in a laptop, and David Broome’s The Grid is just that, a piece notated as a matrix of boxes, from which the musicians choose different actions to perform. Conceptually and technically, these means are not new, but they are incredibly fruitful and still underexplored and it’s exciting to see young composers making their way down this path. All musicians and composers fail while they practice or sketch out ideas, but very few are willing to make music that specifically allows for the opportunity of failure as part of its very structure, and the vivid concentration and relaxation it takes to play works like these kept the audience in rapt attention, waiting for the very next moment, wondering what might happen. And while it’s easy to surprise listeners and upend their anticipation, these pieces added the prized quality that everything made sense, and that success was inevitable.

Other musicians have been exploring this territory for decades. One of them, John King, has a new opera and a new CD on Tzadik with a release party at Roulette on May 15. The opera, Dice Thrown, is based on Mallarmé and has a structure that is organized by chance, and designed to be rearranged for each performance. His recording, 10 Mysteries, is also produced with chance techniques. King wrote the music for string quintet and he plays the viola in addition to the all-star Crucible quartet. The title piece, curiously in nine movements, is organized with multiple layers of chance; the instructions King gives the players are determined and ordered via an I Ching-based symbol generator, and the live electronic element also is guided by chance. The results are a combination of strictly composed phrases and events, improvised music and randomized material. Like the work of the Pamplemousse composers, this is music that relies on musicians who understand and are comfortable in this language, especially in King’s complex and sophisticated system, and these players are completely at home here. This is music that does not conform to any expected notion of how things should go, has an exhilarating strength of improvisation, and demands active, interested listening. Every moment of sound is clear to the ear, and even though the idiom is unique, there is always the sense that King has a coherent idea to express. Under the seemingly chaotic surface is a structure and a direction, the sound of a constructive argument being made among the musicians, and there are well-placed moments of contrast and even familiarity, like in the muted chorale of “Movement 5” and the cross-rhythms of “Movement 6.” The electronics toss the music back at the players, add density and complexity to the sound. There is something new to hear in each playing. Closing the CD are two additional pieces, Rivers of Fire and Winds of Blood, each more concentrated on a single idea than the larger work, but each still using chance, improvisation and the complex colorings of electronics as part of the process. These pieces, like the recording as a whole, straddle an evocative line between an Expressionistic sensibility and an experimental technique, and the results are attractively disorienting and gripping.

One of King’s peers, Joan La Barbara, presented an opera in progress, Angels, Demons and other Muses, with Ne(x)tworks as part of the Interpretations series at Roulette last week. Her stated goal is to produce an abstract work that conveys the struggle and process of artistic creation. How this will ultimately play out is not clear, as without knowing what might be currently missing from the piece it’s impossible to fairly judge it as a work that succeeds or fails at its goals, but the performance was involving and mysterious, with a sense of time and motion that seem appropriate for the subject and moments of dramatic music. The playing seemed to be about producing a dream state, or revealing one in a way that involved the audience, who were seated around various stations around the floor, surrounding the musician located at each. The score at violinist Cornelius Duffalo’s stand was a mix of instructions, set in a particular sequence, along with a few passages of specifically notated pitches and rhythms – a minor key scale here, a series of sustained notes there. La Barbara, wandering dreamily through the crowd, vocalizing into a hand-held mic, led the musicians through their cues. Her voice was reproduced on a surround sound speaker system, and the sense of her being both right there and everywhere tickled alluringly at the base of the neck.

Opera is drama, and because the experience of people singing their drama is artificial and abstract, interior drama is an ideal field. The interior artistic process is as abstract a human drama there is, perhaps even impossible to convey, and so Angels is a tremendously ambitious and challenging idea, and what was heard hints that it may work. It began with what could pass as an overture, with a crescendo of voice, percussive playing of the piano strings and a lamenting, minor key phrase passed around the strings. An audio file of sounds that could have represented both an interior and exterior environment bridged the piece to a quiet, pixilated part; this all could be heard as an interior journey. The emphasis was on texture and moods, extremely dreamlike, an effective representation of the wandering mind seeking insight. The sounds of the piece – and it is the timbres that mattered most – seemed to be excavated from the recesses of memory and imagination; the ensemble includes bells and a glass harmonica, and those instruments already have a mysterious psychoacoustic power to evoke memories, even false ones, and La Barbara adds some particular features, including the string players blowing into their F-holes and a striking moment when the players put down their instruments and pick up hats. They stage whispered into the crown, opening it up like a plunger mute on a trumpet, and with this technique wandered through the audience, whispering into people’s ears. I thought I could pick out the words ‘nemos’ and ‘fish,’ but perhaps that was my imagination playing tricks with me, which may indeed be the point. It was tantalizing.

After this, the music made a transition to a series of microtonal chords, the returned to the lamenting quality heard at the start. This sounded like a natural ending, a circumscribed expression of the essence of Romantic poetry, but the performance continued for a few more minutes, although with a loss of focus and invention. The structure of the music was best served when it was wandering and developing a landscape, while repetition seemed to add the weight of a frame that didn’t quite fit. The ideas and the music were involving, though, and this is a work that deserves a full performance.


Yael Acher-Modiano

Angels was followed by more dramatic music that worked out ideas of structure and improvisation, an involving and powerful duet performance from flutist Yael Acher-Modiano and Irina-Kalina Goudeva, who danced, sang and played the bass, at times simultaneously. From the first vocalization by Goudeva from behind a curtain, the music and performance went without pause through a series of pieces by Acher-Modiano, Julia Tsenova and Bo Jøger, comprising Two-Walk: A Multi Media Electro-Acoustic Performance. The playing was committed and accomplished, but the music expressed a difficult aesthetic. This was, fundamentally, ritualistic but without the context of known ceremonies to gain some insight into significance and meaning. Goudeva caressed and seduced the bass in a soliloquy, then sang while accompanying herself with bowed and plucked notes. The ease of her playing was deeply impressive, but what she was playing seemed at a tangent to my experiences and comprehension. Acher walked in slowly from the wings, wearing a catlike mask and playing the flute; that it had a meaning was clear but the meaning itself was opaque. Her sound was frequently processed and in particular stretches she played along with a buzzing, beeping, burbling electronic accompaniment. Both women improvised expressively, seamlessly integrating their playing into the idiomatic structure of each piece. There were familiar sounding elements, especially a bluesy little flute line in Acher’s Audio Mirage, and a repeated fluttery figure she fell back on. Goudeva improvised on her instrument, her voice, and appeared to be making up text and abstract narrative on the spot during Shoshana Shelli (The Flower). But these elements were as disturbing to me as they were attractive and admirable; the flute sound was processed in such a way as to create a timbre that had a strong touch of the unnatural, the bass playing, singing and movement seemed to belong to a culture so alien as to be unearthly. The music was overwhelmingly affecting, but in an almost horrific way for me; I thought of Artaud, Huysmans, and a particular short story by Brian Evenson, which, in it’s combination of inventively baroque language and nightmarish subject, is constantly compelling and frightening in equal measure. An extraordinary performance, but not for everyone.

At LPR, there was also music with a more familiar sense of order. Tristan Perich took the stage after Ensemble Pamplemousse for qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq, for toy pianos and 1-bit chips. It was lively, intentionally naïve music, made simply with a slightly twisty, carefully structured melodic phrase and a basic harmonic structure. It was music for play. Lisa Moore followed at the common piano, playing pieces by Sam Adams, Timothy Andres, Julian Day, Missy Mazzoli and Paul Swartzel. These were all different in style and quality. Adams’ Two Step was interesting in that it seemed influenced by the playing of Brad Mehldau, and explored how a melody and structure can be taken apart, but didn’t go far enough. The opening fanfare hinted at disintegration, then the piece organized itself in standard ways with melody, harmony and rhythm. What was built was less interesting than hearing it being taken apart, however, the possibilities of disorder and destruction were the most interesting parts of the work and the least explored.

Day’s Bad Blood was standard post-Minimalism, repetition with a rock-ish attitude. He varied his rhythmic material a bit, but without enough imagination for a successful composition or with enough energy for a successful rock song. The Honky Tonk Toccata of Swartzel had a promising start, with the pianist clapping her hands and stamping her feet, then opened up into a very modern jazz tonality. The music was active and technically challenging, with the quality of a notated solo, but there was nothing honky tonk about it, and ended up a bit flat. Andres and Mazzoli’s works were very fine. The former, who has a CD coming out, has an intriguing piece in How Can I Live In Your World Of Ideas?, which seemed a response to Beethoven’s Op. 111. It opened with a beautiful harmonic cadence that was then interrupted by seemingly scattered music. This idea of an attempt at recreating Classical music and then interrupting it had an artful and intriguing self-consciousness about it. There was lots of good material that could have even been developed more. Mazzoli’s Orizzonte is another in a line of her works that continue to impress. The means are simple; piano with audio, the keyboard in harmony to the tonic of the audio, an emphasis on chords in the phrases. Her interest in harmony is a consistent feature of her music, and something that sets her apart from many of her peers, but fundamentally she has a rigorous focus on her ideas. She knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it, and there’s no waste, no distractions, her music is self-contained and organic in how it works and leaves a pause in the mind after the last note is played. She makes time skip for a beat while you return to reality.

The previous night at the MATA Festival was all strings, as the Calder Quartet played music from Lisa Coons, Fabian Svensson, Nathan Davis and Daniel Wohl. It was a split decision, right down the middle. The first half was problematic, with Coons Cythère (a trauma ballet in two parts) followed by Singing and Dancing from Svensson.

Coons capably expressed ideas of trauma through the instruments; she uses a repeated, aggressive rhythmic figure and pushes almost sadistically at the limited pitch material. The sound, even at its quietest, is severe, abrading, it succeeds as a literal depiction of trauma, but that’s the problem. This is music, an abstract art, and a poor one for actual documentation. It may be the times we live in that suggest that such literalism is artistically successful, but Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler managed to express the depths of trauma while still making art. Singing and Dancing was strangely stiff considering the title. A descending major scale seems to invert Pachelbel’s canon, then Davis modulates the scale and breaks it up. The music is quiet and repetitive, with different instruments occasionally commanding attention and trying to stamp out the other music, but not very songlike. The dancing was jauntier, more songlike, but there were too few interesting beats and too much unvaried repetition; the music become predictable quickly and remained so, although the ending was a witty surprise.

The music in the second half was excellent and seemed to bring out the best in the excellent musicians. Davis’ Skrzyp Skryz, based on the Polish name for the violin, had the satisfying effect of something nebulous coalescing into something concrete. The squeaking, rattling and chirping sounds, the harmonics, crescendos and glissandi – all played with great articulation – slide down into a definite pitch, a defining moment. As the music turns to a quasi-bluegrass feel, and almost a I-IV-V blues progression, there was the exciting feeling of hearing something being created in your presence, notated music with an improvisatory feel. The craftsmanship came through in the simple, compelling details, like the cello dropping to its lower range, creating a resonant group sonority. The music slows down, following the laws of thermodynamics, gas to solid to loss of energy to final stasis. The final piece, Wohl’s four movement Glitch, sets the string quartet against the inadequacies of technology, represented by the glitchy, woozy electronic track. The music is dense with ideas and emotional expression. The writing clothes the strings in activity, gestural ornaments, an “oo-Blah” along with every “di,” and while this could be fussy in other hands, Wohl always has something forceful and concrete to convey; the activity keeps the ear poised and interested, the idea sucker-punches you. The intensity is built on such simple structures as two bar phrases, contrapuntal lines and straight four-four time. There’s lots of Arvo Pärt inside the music, which contribute to the exhilarating sense of clarity and focus.

This was a feature of Jefferson Friedman’s excellent String Quartet No. 2, played as part of another concert at LPR, this one by the Chiara Quartet. Friedman has a voice a little like George Rochberg, combining contemporary and Romantic language and with an overriding concern with communicating. The three-movement work will be appearing on a New Amsterdam CD next year, and I’m looking forward to hearing it again. It opens with a nervous fanfare, then generates great energy and pulse through a virtuosic cello toccata. The music then turns into a slow, achingly Romantic section, before the toccata returns. It’s simple and tremendously effective. The second movement is diaphanous, slow, lyrical and moving, the inner voices providing sympathetic comments to the melody and harmony. There’s a symphonic heft to the scoring, and it closes with a rapturous major chord. The final movement dances to a Spanish beat, reminiscent of Falla, and again uses the simple, effective structure of a lyrical, introspective “B” section before the dance music returns. Friedman’s has a lot to say and his writing is well crafted expressive, and the Chiara’s know and love this music.

The pieces that followed were a bit of a letdown after this great opening. The quartet gave a charmingly Romantic reading of Webern’s Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, with beautiful tone and clear structure, but without the severe, crystalline precision that others often choose. Webern can be heard as a fundamentally lyrical composer, and that’s whom the Chiara’s hear. Their playing of Steve Reich’s Different Trains was disappointing. They seemed stiff and not completely coordinated with each other, fighting the music a little. Reich needs to move and swing a little, and the Chiara’s phrasing was more vertical than horizontal, and very clipped. The music needs a balance of pure technique and emotional expression, and neither was fully there. The final “After the War” section began to loosen up a bit, but the recap of the pervious material brought back the stiffness. This was a case of too much order for order’s sake (this concert will be available for listening at Q2 in the near future).


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.

5 thoughts on “Against The Prevailing Order”

  1. i enjoyed your review. it’s nice to see someone actually expressing some opinions. one correction though – at the MATA festival, “Singing and Dancing” was the piece by Fabian Stevenson, not Nathan Davis.

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