Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Musical Weekend

I had an unusually musical weekend, starting Thursday night (my weird schedule has my "weekend" starting Thursday). On that night, I saw a performance by the Shepherd School new music group, 20/21. Then Saturday night, I saw my nephew's band, Drop Off, at Fitzgerald's. And throughout the weekend, I've been reading (and have just completed) New Yorker music critic Alex Ross's history of 20th century classical music, The Rest is Noise.

The image “http://www.ruf.rice.edu/~musi/design/ssom_front.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
20/21 played a program dedicated to the memory of Gyorgy Ligeti. It had three Ligeti pieces, a piece by Alfred Schnittke, a composer from the Soviet Union who I suspect had a hard time getting his music accepted by the musical establishment, and a piece by a PhD composition student at the Shepherd School, Karl Blench.

The Blench piece, an untitled piece for a small orchestra, had two parts. The first part sounded to my ears like a lot of postwar experimental music. The orchestra included a trombone player, who in the first part had only a few muted notes to play. As the first part continued, he started to methodically disassemble his instrument.
The image “http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/47/Tromboneparts.JPG/180px-Tromboneparts.JPG” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. He took out the mute first and laid it on the ground, took off the mouthpiece, then removed the main slide. He took the mouthpiece and put it into the part that had the tuning slide and bell (the middle section in the photo above). Then he lifted this truncated trombone up and, cradling it like a french horn, put the mouthpiece to his mouth. The first section ended, there was a pause, and he sounded out a short phrase that sounded like a call to the hunt. The orchestra responded with music that sounded like a manic hunt occurring, with a galloping horse rhythm. Occasionally the trombonist, Robert Trussell, would play his hunting call again. Then he did something really weird. I hadn't noticed it, but he had two mouthpieces. He put the second one in the main slide, and at one point, he made some weird noises with that!

The composer, Karl Blench, is also a trombone player, and I can imagine that many trombone players probably take their instruments apart and try out all these other ways of making music with it. Blench just decided to put these trombonist games into his piece. I wonder how this was notated in the score.

The image “http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/6/6b/Gyorgy_Ligeti.jpg/220px-Gyorgy_Ligeti.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors. But the star pieces of the night were the three Ligeti pieces. Even if you don't know much about post-war experimental classical music, you may be familiar with Ligeti's music, which was used extensively in 2001: A Space Odyssey--the spacey music that always preceded contact with the monoliths.

"Passacaglia Ungherese" was a delightful piece for harpsichord, and it was followed by the "Sonata for Solo Viola," played respectively by Kimi Kawashima and Adam Mathes. I'm no musician, but both these pieces appeared rather difficult to play, and you could see the concentration on the faces of the players. This level of difficulty and concentration is magnified in the closer of the evening, his Cello Concerto. This is a concerto in two movements, and the first movement is similar to the pieces from 2001 in that they feature long long long notes, with instruments entering and leaving so that the effect is to hear a buzzing contrast of timbres. Of course, the cello is always one of these notes. The second part was much more energetic, and the rhythm built up in speed as the piece progressed. The cellist (whose name was unaccountably left off the program!) didn't just bow notes in the usual way; at times she drew the bow so lightly over the strings so that they made a weird, high-pitched sound, and at other times she banged her fingers rapidly on the strings to make another indescribable noise. By the end of the piece, her fingers were moving so quickly that they could barely be followed. The piece ended with her evident relief. It was heartwarming to see her fellow musicians surround her after the piece was done, congratulating her. She was still breathing hard and beaming with pleasure.

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The pleasure musicians have in playing affects the quality of the performance. Obviously. That was evident last night at Fitzgerald's, where Drop Off played. They are a rock band with drums, two guitars, and bass, with vocals being handled by the rhythm guitarist. My nephew Ford is the drummer, the lead guitarist is Austin, the bass player is Lance, and the last guy is (I think) Adam. These kids are all sophomores in high school. This was, amazingly, their first show in front of a live audience. How many bands have their first live show ever at Fitz's?! Apparently there is a production company that will put on these shows with a whole lot new bands in order to see if any of them have potential. How they hooked up with Drop Off, I don't know.

The first two songs were their best--heavy blues rock numbers, obviously influenced by the White Stripes and maybe also by 70s blues rockers like Mountain and Foghat. Then they did a series of more hardcore songs, sometimes switching between slow and fast portions. They encouraged the audience to mosh, which the teenagers watching them did enthusiastically. The audience mainly consisted of their friends from high school and scattered parents. Their friends loved them, and Drop Off could hardly disguise their pleasure playing and making a huge noise. The band was raw--they hard a hard time playing in time together at moments--but it hardly mattered. They were great.

Then this morning, I finished Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise. This is his idiosyncratic history of 20th century classical music. He demands a little musical knowledge of his readers--more than I really have. But mostly, he tells the story of the music through its historical, cultural, and biographical contexts. He pays careful attention to the steady decline in popularity of new music--he contrasts the intense public interest in Vienna about new pieces by Mahler and Strauss, and how artists started thinking that reaching a big audience was somehow wrong. Early modern composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg could create scandals with their performances, but no one much cared about the compositions of Boulez and Xenakis, except initiates. But he shows how some of the music keeps insinuating itself into the culture as a whole. It might be unexpectedly popular pieces by Benjamin Britten or Arvo Part, or the way minimalism infected pop music via The Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and (weirdly enough) The Who, or even the use of Ligeti's spooky, beautiful music in 2001.

By the end of the book, Ross swings between optimism and despair. He writes:

From a distance, it might appear that classical music itself is veering toward oblivion. [...] To the cynical onlooker, orchestras and opera houses are stuck in a museum culture, playing to a dwindling cohort of aging subscribers and would-be elitists who take satisfaction from technically expert if soulless renditions of Hitler's favorite works.
Dis! But Ross ends with a paean to Nixon in China, the opera by John Adams. It's a good way to end--this is one of my favorite pieces of music. Witty, thought-provoking, alarming, and even occasionally tender and sentimental, all with a pulsing, propulsive minimalist base. A perfect end to the book and this musucal weekend.

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