I was not aware of the release of Walking Dances, an album of three compositions by Argentinian-American composer Jorge Liderman for guitar, in August of 2004 by Bridge Records. At that time I was trying to be an industrious researcher in Silicon Valley caught in the web of the “knowledge movement” and trying to make a case that providing a large institution with an “organizational memory” involved more that just cramming as much as possible into a database. It was only about a year later that I finally cut the cord to Silicon Valley; and my wife and I turned what had been a “weekend place” to use to make it easier to go to concerts in San Francisco into our primary residence. Fortuitously, we were making our move at roughly the same time the the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was leaving its remote digs in the Outer Sunset and taking over a wonderfully well-equipped new facility in the Civic Center.
Over the years that followed, I came to enjoy a wide variety of “listener experiences of discovery” at SFCM; and one of the most interesting of those discoveries was the Guitar Department. At that time I might not have known about Liderman; but, thanks to New Albion Records, I did know about guitarist David Tanenbaum. As a result I had several of the recordings he made on that label, all of which opened my ears to a wide variety of composers and their compositions that had been entirely off my radar. It did not take me long to discover that Tanenbaum was using his SFCM faculty position to cultivate a new generation of guitarists with adventurous tastes in repertoire; and my efforts to keep up with those adventures was one of the factors that led to shaping my approach to writing about the performance of music as my latest research project.
All this amounts to a “background" explanation of why I recently requested a copy of Walking Dances from my contact at Bridge. Tanenbaum performs two of the compositions on this album, the title piece, which is a three-movement guitar solo, and “Swirling Streams,” composed for guitar, bass clarinet, and string trio. Tanenbaum is joined by five “Earplayers,” the performers associated with one of our local chamber ensembles called “Earplay,” which has a strong commitment to presenting recent works, frequently written on commission. The performers of “Swirling Streams” were Peter Josheff on bass clarinet, Terrie Baune on violin, Ellen Ruth Rose on viola, Thalia Moore on cello, and Mary Chun conducting the ensemble. The final composition on the album, “Open Strings,” is scored for guitar orchestra and electric bass and performed by the Jugend-Gitarrenorchester of Baden-Württemberg under conductor Helmut Oesterreich. Because SFCM has a generous number of guitar students, it has provided me with some fascinating exposures to the idea of a guitar orchestra; so I looked forward to encountering another composer interested in working with such an ensemble.
Ironically, my most memorable encounter with a guitar orchestra did not involve writing explicitly for such an ensemble. Rather, it was an outgrowth of the “counterpoint” compositions that Reich had been creating since “Vermont Counterpoint” appeared in 1982. This had been commissioned by flutist Ransom Wilson and originally involved Wilson playing against other contrapuntal voices that he had recorded on tape. When my wife and I were voraciously consuming concerts in New York, we heard Wilson with an ensemble he called I Solisti New York. The concert we attended included a performance of “Vermont Counterpoint” in which Wilson dispensed with the tape and allocated the previously recorded contrapuntal voices to his flute students.
In the fall of 2000, Reich had a residency at the Music Department of the University of California at Berkeley. At that time Tanenbaum presented him with a similar approach to “Electric Counterpoint,” which Reich had originally composed for Pat Metheny playing against prerecorded tracks. Tanenbaum reallocated all the different contrapuntal voices to members of the SFCM guitar ensemble, and Liderman happened to be at the performance. As he wrote in his notes for the booklet accompanying the Walking Dances album, “I immediately knew I wanted to compose a piece for David’s ensemble.”
Needless to say, the result was not just another version of “Electric Counterpoint.” Rather, it offers up its own unique approach to rhythms, particularly those that drive the outer faster movements but can also be found more subtly in the middle movement. Liderman’s upbringing in Buenos Aires may well have influenced his approach to rhythms. Indeed, the source of those influences may have previously influenced Alberto Ginastera; but each of these two composers took those influences in strikingly different directions. In addition Liderman’s title, “Open Strings” explicitly calls out his interest in reverberation, often reinforced by having several instruments sound the same open string at the same time.
In Liderman’s chronology “Open Strings” was composed between “Walking Dances” (1998) and “Swirling Streams” (2003). In the earlier piece one can detect the sorts of rhythms than would influence his approach to “Open Strings.” True to its anomalous title, this music is at cross-purposes to any traditional dance form; and it does not really capture any sense of the pace of walking either! What is interesting is that those cross-purposes to both dance and walking are still with Liderman in “Swirling Streams.” He seems to be interested in how a rhythm can be ambiguous and how that ambiguity can then be exploited; and, in many respects, “Swirling Streams” can be taken as a sign that his ideas on this matter have reached a level of confident maturity.
My question now is: where has he taken things since Walking Dances was released; and when will San Francisco audiences have a chance to listen to the results?