Saturday, January 21, 2017

SFCMP Celebrates the Virtues of Being in the Presence of Music

Those who have following my writings regularly know that I can not emphasize enough the superiority of being in the presence of the performance of music to any sort of “private” listening based on audio reproduction. This precept could not have been given a better demonstration than last night’s performance by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The case was made most strongly with the final work on the program, György Ligeti’s chamber concerto for thirteen instrumentalists. (The notes for the program book by Robert Kirzinger mistakenly called this a piece for thirteen instruments, but many of the players alternate between two instruments. This point was made in the preview piece for this concert, but Kirzinger should not feel bad. Boosey & Hawkes made the same mistake on their Web page for the score!)

Ligeti had an ongoing fascination with the concept of density in musical composition. He may have acquired this interest through his activities at the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne, but his attention then shifted to working with performers and their instruments. Needless to say, density is a property that does not fare very well with even the best studio reproduction technology. There never seem to be enough microphones to achieve satisfactory capture; and the prospect of mixing what is captured down to a small number of channels is daunting, if not futile.

Sadly, Ligeti’s music is performed so seldom that recordings tend to provide the only way to get acquainted with his music. There are not many recordings available of the chamber concerto (at least according to; but any one of them is probably useful for orientation purposes. (I have two of the recordings listed on the Amazon Web page.) Nevertheless, it is only through the spatial and visual cues that come from experiencing the performance itself that one can begin to grasp (and hopefully enjoy) the imaginative intricacy of Ligeti’s efforts.

This is evident from the very opening gestures of simultaneous close-packed intervals that migrate across the instrumentalists and then alternate with bold statements in unisons and parallel octaves. Most fascinating is the superposition of “precise and mechanical” (the wording of the tempo marking) passages in the third movement, which are then blown away by the brisk gusts of Presto in the final movement. It would be fair to say that the auditory response to the unfolding of these events was significantly facilitated by the ability to observe visually just how they were unfolding. At last night’s performance three SFCM students joined ten SFCMP players, and the result could not have placed Ligeti’s skills as a composer in a better light.

If the spatial distribution of the thirteen instrumentalists was one of the factors that contributed to that light, then it would be fair to say that spatial distribution was an essential element of Michael Pisaro’s “ricefall,” which concluded the first half of the program. Sixteen performers (including two SFCM students and two from the University of California at Berkeley) were seated to form a four-by-four grid that filled the stage. Each had a bowl of uncooked rice grains and sat before an object on the floor that would resonate when struck by the grains. (For guitarist David Tanenbaum, the resonating object was the back of his guitar.) Each performer then had to follow a timetable that prescribed the rate at which these rice grains would fall and (possibly) the gestures required to drop them.

As might be guessed, this was as much a visual experience as an auditory one. It is also worth noting that the entire audience sat in rapt silence, meaning that the attentive listener had little trouble identifying even the sound of a single grain of rice striking one of those surfaces. One does not encounter that sort of theatrical magic often, and it served the performance of Pisaro’s piece very well indeed.

My only question was whether the four-by-four grid was part of the plan. This posed the problem that, for almost any angle of viewing in the audience area, some of the players would be visually obscured by other players. Since this was a situation in which seeing tended to enhance listening, an obscured view ran the risk of blunting the precision of the listening experience. This left me wondering if Pisaro had experimented with less rigid distributions of the players (or, for that matter, whether or not the grid itself was part of the score specification).

The world premiere on the program was the opening selection, a song cycle by Richard Festinger entitled Careless Love. The piece was written on an SFCMP commission and was scored for baritone (Daniel Cilli) and six instrumentalists. This involved a string trio of Roy Malan on violin, Susan Freier on viola, and Stephen Harrison on cello, joined by clarinetist Peter Josheff, Alex Camphouse on horn, and pianist Kate Campbell. The texts were poems by A. E. Stallings.

The challenge that Festinger faced was that these were poems for “the reading eye.” Stallings is prodigiously imaginative when it comes to working with anagrams and interleaving rhyme schemes. Confronted with one of her texts in print, it is almost irresistible to tease out how she provided herself with a working set of verbal fragments and how those pieces were then assembled.

The problem, however, is that this technique does not translate particularly well into music. Thus, Festinger needed to tease out the underlying semantic elements and then endowing them with a rhetorical stance that may or may not have been on the poet’s mind. This then provided a foundation for Cilli’s vocal line, which accounted for the words themselves as suitably as could be expected. The accompanying instruments then served to establish the context of establishing that rhetorical stance that Festinger had selected for each of the poems.

The other vocal selection, Kate Soper’s Door, also seemed to draw upon poems whose visual appearance on the page contributed to the communicative effect. The poems came from a collection of six by Martha Collins, and Soper’s title was also the title of the collection. Each of the poems is very brief, almost as if Collins wanted the reader to look at it for some time, because the visual impression was as significant as the choice of words.

Here again was a collection of texts that posed a challenge to the composer that required getting beyond visual impressions. Soper’s approach was to require the vocalist (soprano Amy Foote last night) to explore the phonemic fundamentals behind the words themselves. Thus, the visual array of Collins’ words on the page was supplemented by the sonorous array of “pure sounds” (Soper’s words) that congeal into formants, which then establish phonemes, from which the lexical palette of the poems then emerges. That sonorous array was then supplemented by the instrumental diversity of Tod Brody on flute (doubling on piccolo), Kevin Stewart on tenor saxophone, Tanenbaum on electric guitar, and (most surprising) Karen Hutchinson on accordion.

It is worth noting that Soper was on hand for this performance. She had sung the premiere of this piece herself, from which we can assume that she was in a position to coach Foote on the techniques necessary to achieve that spectrum from pure sounds to words. The results were definitely fascinating, making a strong case that this was music that deserved more than a single isolated performance.

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