Thursday, March 9, 2017

Andy Kozar Brings his Trumpet and Electronics to C4NM

Last night the Center for New Music (C4NM) hosted trumpeter Andy Kozar, who organized his recital around five compositions for solo trumpet, each of which required interacting with electronic gear. Three of the pieces were composed in 2015, one in 2012, and the oldest of the set (and first on the program) in 2008. The evening then concluded with a set of free improvisations in which Kozar was joined by vocalist Ken Ueno, pianist Tania Chen, and clarinetist Matt Ingalls.

The opening selection, entitled “Flutter,” was actually performed twice, because composer Tyler Harrison, based in Palo Alto, was unable to get to C4NM in time for the beginning of the program. For this piece the electronics were provided by Max/MSP software, written to process audio input in real time, thus establishing what was effectively a duo between Kozar and the transformations of his sounds. Harrison’s score required non-standard techniques for providing those inputs, including the sounds of the trumpet keys themselves, breath unmediated by tone-producing lip vibration, and simply slapping the mouthpiece, which basically created a pulse that reverberated through the body of the trumpet. Much of the beauty of this piece can be attributed to how the software could take effects like these, often at the threshold of audibility, and transform them to a more comfortable hearing range. It was that leveling of the playing field, so to speak, that allowed “Flutter” to establish itself as an almost conversational duet, serving up traditional rhetorics of chamber music with decidedly contemporary sonorities.

The most fascinating work on the program was Elizabeth Hoffman’s “Deviations From A Theme by Brahms.” This is a four-movement composition with each movement based on one of a set of twelve études supposedly composed for solo trumpet by Johannes Brahms. As might be guessed, that adverb “supposedly” carries a lot of currency; but a twentieth-century publication of the full set was edited by Edwin Franko Goldman, who founded a concert band in New York City in 1918 that became an institution for the free public concerts it would give around the city for much of the twentieth century. The repertoire included works by the likes of Ottorino Respighi, Albert Roussel, and Jaromir Weinberger, which Goldman had commissioned. Such a reputation did not warrant Goldman’s credibility as an editor, but it probably helped with sales of the publication!

Kozar played the last two of Hoffman’s movements. Each basically required that he play one of the études pretty much as written but within the context of textures provided by live electronics. The electronic processing was applied to not only trumpet sounds but also recordings of other Brahms compositions. However, sources in the latter category were sufficiently transformed that the originals could not easily be identified. In a coy way Hoffman’s piece gave the impression of an orchestra trumpeter warming up in preparation for his night’s work.

Scott Worthington’s “Still Life” could be taken as an attempt to stand the conventional practice of listening on its head. The trumpet part consisted of two-note fragments, which explored a relatively limited number of pitches and intervals. These were performed against a “textural wash” of electronic sound. The initial impression was one of a drone. However, in the face of the predictability of the trumpet part, the attentive listener could easily become aware of the subtle changes taking place continuously in that “wash.” The result was that, in the context of overall listening, the trumpet part served more as a background for the gradually evolving changes that established the electronic source as foreground.

Jeffrey Gavett’s “Moving Target” was a study in the subtle microtonal shifts that take place when the same pitch is fingered differently on the trumpet. This amounted to an intriguing exploration of natural harmonics. Unfortunately, too many of the passages proceeded too rapidly for mind to grasp the subtly of the differences.

This was followed by “Rahab’s Herbarium” by Adam Zahller. The description on the program sheet offered only a quote from the Babylonian Talmud that “Rahab inspired lust by her name.” In the Book of Joshua she is a resident of Jericho who helps the Israelites defeat the Canaanites. Ultimately, however, puzzling over the piece’s title became a distraction from the music that was actually being made.

The free improvisations tended to be somewhat pointillist in nature. While Ueno summoned a wide diversity of sonorities in which even the sound of the microphone cable hitting the floor seemed to serve as accompaniment for his vocalizations (very few of which were pitched), it seemed as if the other three improvisers were focused on creating individual moments. The overall effect, however, was one of superposition in which it was unclear that any performer had much awareness of the others. Indeed, this set may have marked the first time that these four players joined together to jam.

One thing that was clear from the first part of the program was that listening to Kozar required considerable effort with just as considerable reward. To be fair, however, the same could be said with just as much satisfaction of the other three participating improvisers. It would thus be no surprise if listening to others did not figure very much in how the improvising unfolded, but the overall result was the sense that aimless tended to loom over any other feelings.

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