Sunday, October 9, 2016

Mahan Esfahani Takes his Harpsichord (and his Audience) on a Stunning Journey

Last night on the Rembe Stage of the Strand Theatre, San Francisco Performances launched the 2016–17 season of its PIVOT series of concerts. When this series was initiated this past spring, its full title was PIVOT: New Adventures in the Performing Arts; and it would be safe to say that last night’s performance was truly adventurous. Harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani presented a solo recital entitled Time Present & Time Past, which also happens to be the title of his Archiv Produktion album that was released in May of 2015. Only one selection from that album was included on the program; but it became quickly clear that Esfahani’s thoughts about time could not be crammed into a single album.

Indeed, his title is actually a quotation from T. S. Eliot:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
These are the opening lines of “Burnt Norton,” one of four rather lengthy poems collected under the title Four Quartets. Eliot had a reputation for a keen intellect and a stunning breadth of knowledge. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any educated reader of this poem would quickly have seen those lines as the poet’s reaction to the chapter of the Confessions in which Augustine of Hippo wrestles with understanding the nature of time. Indeed, Book XI of the Confessions, entitled “Time and Eternity” has a sentence (translated into English by Henry Chadwick) that could easily have triggered Eliot’s opening:
It [the human heart] will see that all past time is driven backwards by the future, and all future time is the consequent of the past, and all past and future are created and set on their course by that which is always present.
In all fairness it is worth noting that Augustine may well have had just as powerful an influence on the philosopher Edmund Husserl, who was still alive when “Burnt Norton” was first published and had put much of his effort into trying to understand the phenomenology of time-consciousness.

None of this is intended to confuse Esfahani’s recital with an academic presentation. Nevertheless, his remarks prior to playing Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase” (the one piece from last night’s program that can be found on his album), made was clear that, on the subject of time, he was just as boldly inquisitive as his predecessors, Augustine and Eliot. Indeed, there was even a bit of Gerald Edelman in those remarks. Edelman was the author of The Remembered Present, a book whose title confronts the problem that the brain needs time to process signals from the sensory organs. As a result, once the brain has “figured out” what has been sensed as “the present,” time has advanced; and it is not “the present” any more and has become memory retained by mind!

Esfahani was understandably cautious in preparing his audience for the experience of listening to “Piano Phase.” Apparently, it sparked a riot when he played in in Germany; but then “Four Organs” nearly caused a riot when it was played in Carnegie Hall in 1973 (when one of the organists was Michael Tilson Thomas). Esfahani’s cautiousness took him down several fascinating rabbit holes. Not only did he tease out the curious relations among present, past, and future; but also he was bold enough to take on one of the most crucial dimensions of consciousness, that of understanding. He cited Stravinsky saying that he did not understand a lot of music, but he knew how to feel it. This provided Esfahani with grounds for confessing that he could not claim to understand “Piano Phase;” but he clearly had a strong desire to play it.

Most importantly, particularly in the context of his thoughts about time, Esfahani observed that “Piano Phase” will be 50 years old next year. In a similar vein he might also have mentioned that when he (Esfahani) was born in 1984, “Piano Phase” had been around for seventeen years. Yet, over all of these spans of time, those who have come to know it (and even love it) still feel at least some need to be apologetic about it. Esfahani’s reluctance to claim understanding, however, led me to wonder about the more general breadth of his exposure to Reich’s music.

If I, personally, claim to “understand” any of Reich’s “phase” pieces at all, it is because one of my earliest exposures to Reich was “Come Out,” a tape piece that he had created in 1966, in which two recordings of the same spoken text uttered by a single voice begin simultaneously; and then one, as a result of a very slight difference in tape speed, gradually falls out of sync with the other. This was the basic idea of “phase shifting;” and in “Come Out” the words on the tape recording become less and less intelligible and transform into new textures of sounds that are neither instrumental nor, in the strictest sense of the word, “electronic.” If one has the requisite curiosity to appreciate “Come Out,” then any of Reich’s subsequent instrumental “phase” pieces are basically exploring new possibilities in the underlying technique.

Having said all that, it is also worth noting that the instrumental pieces are, for the most part, rigidly procedural. Each of the pieces is based on little more than a single repeated phrase. That phrase needs to be played as close to mechanically as possible, since any hint of “expressive” phrasing would jeopardize the effect of phase shifting. In other words, in order to perform “Piano Phase” effectively, Esfahani has to “follow the directions faithfully” and do little more. To put this in terms of the vocabulary he evoked, no “understanding” is necessary. The music does all the “heavy lifting.” This was, indeed, how Esfahani performed Reich last night; and, writing as one with a generous amount of Reich listening experience, I can attest personally that his performance was a compelling one, as much in the spirit of the composer’s intentions as one could expect.

This then raises a more interesting issue across the entire program. The selections were divided between those composed prior to 1750 and those composed after 1940. However, in addition to that wide temporal separation, there is even a significant gulf between the six sonatas that Lou Harrison wrote in 1943 and the Reich piece, which is the chronological successor to the Harrison sonatas. Then the program leaps ahead to Toru Takemitsu’s 1986 “Rain Dreaming” and Kaija Saariaho’s “Le Jardin Secret II,” composed in 1987 and a piece Esfahani got to work on with Saariaho’s guidance. “Le Jardin Secret II” was the other work on the program that included tape accompaniment, in this case a quadrophonic projection into the audience area. (“Le Jardin Secret I” was strictly electronic.) This listener is thus confronted with leaping over some rather wide intervals of time with differences in music-making practices being just as broadly separated.

In approaching “Le Jardin Secret II,” Esfahani was again a bit shy in introducing the music. Apparently, it gave offense to some of his European audiences. It is hard to say for certain why it should have provoked such a reaction. My own guess is that the taped sound had a few rather suggestive intimations of orgasm; but, compared with some other tape pieces that are now part of the repertoire, those suggestions were pretty tame. For the performance itself Esfahani used a stopwatch (on his cell phone) to coordinate with Saariaho’s tape; but the composer was impressively practical in giving him the right “space” in which to coordinate. In contrast to “Piano Phase,” this was a piece in which instrument and recording had decidedly different sonorous qualities, making the composition an engaging study of the interplay between those differences.

Esfahani decided to play the Harrison sonatas as the second part of a two-part set that began with three of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti (thus establishing another wide gulf for the listener to cross). His Scarlatti choices were, in order of performance, K. 518 in F major, K. 516 in D minor, and K. 517 in D minor. In his extensive notes for his recording of all of the Scarlatti sonatas, Scott Ross suggested that K. 516 and K. 517 could be played as a two-movement sonata; but he also advises coupling K. 518 as a predecessor to K. 519, which is in F minor. (K. 518 is actually also in F minor, but it concludes in F major.) Esfahani did not say anything about whether or not the Scarlatti sonatas should be grouped. Rather, he performed them as three independent pieces, which is also how he performed the Harrison single-movement sonatas that similarly seemed to have been conceived independently.

More interesting were two selections that provided more fuel for my argument that jamming was part of the practice of making music long before blues and jazz musicians started using it to describe improvisation. This was evident in the selections by both William Byrd and Johann Sebastian Bach. The former consisted of a pavan and galliard both given the title “the Passinge Mesures” in My Ladye Nevells Brooke, while the Bach selection was the BWV 911 keyboard toccata in C minor. Both of the Byrd compositions serve as prime examples of how the simplest of tunes could be so overloaded with embellishment that only those intimately familiar with the melody would be aware of its presence. The breadth of Byrd’s imagination can stand admirably beside “Moody’s Mood for Love,” one of the most elaborate bebop improvisations by saxophonist James Moody (clearly inspired by Charlie Parker) taking “I’m in the Mood for Love” as a point of departure and then obscuring even the slightest hint of it.

BWV 911, on the other hand, is another one of those Bach compositions that establishes him as an honored predecessor of another saxophonist, John Coltrane. Regular readers may recall this connection being discussed this past Wednesday with respect to the fugues in Bach’s solo violin sonatas. The fugue that occupies the better part of BWV 911 has that same Coltrane spirit of improvisation during which each idea triggers a wealth of succeeding ideas until it is clear that the music-maker just does not know when or how to stop. (It is said that Coltrane once tried to explain his inability to stop to Miles Davis, who replied, simply, “You could begin by taking the sax out of your mouth!”) Both the Byrd and Bach offerings thus presented the prospect of being able to fashion a wealth of inventiveness from what seemed like, on the surface, not very much. Esfahani knew just the right spirit in which this music could be approached as “pre-Classical jamming;” and these pieces gave an energetic kick to the overall spirit of the evening.

(At this point I should add parenthetically that, when I returned home, I put on KCSM to listen to Michael Burman’s Just Jazz. One of his selections was another saxophonist, Sonny Stitt, playing “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” in a combo with Hank Jones on piano, Wendell Marshall on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums. This was a night in which I could not get away from over-the-top jamming; and the Stitt selection made it clear that thoughts of time-consciousness were still with me!)

Esfahani’s remaining “time past” selection was a three-movement sonata in D major by Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann. This was Sebastian’s first serious pupil and the inspiration for some of the earliest pieces Sebastian created for pedagogical purposes. Friedemann was a good pupil and became a skilled performer and composer. However, his dissolute life style left him in poverty at the time of his death. His music is seldom performed, and Esfahani clearly felt that this neglect needed to be remedied. Hopefully, he will follow through on this particular interest when he prepares his next album.

If all this sounds like a lot of music, it definitely was. The program claimed that the evening would run for about 75 minutes. By the time things had concluded with “Piano Phase,” about two hours had elapsed. However, there were no signs that anyone was interested in leaving prematurely. Esfahani clearly knows how to engage with an audience; and no one seemed to mind his taking more than the “advertised” duration allotted for his performance. Indeed, I am sure I not the only one wondering when he will make his next visit.

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