Monday, March 27, 2017

Ensemble InterContemporain Considers New York on its Latest Alpha CD

This past Friday the Alpha recording label released its third album featuring Ensemble InterContemporain and its current Artistic Director and conductor Matthias Pintscher. The title of the recording is New York, and it is the first album in the series to focus on American music. Over the course of two CDs, the package offers a profile of some of the more “bleeding edge” examples of music created by composers living in New York.

The first of those composers, Edgard Varèse is not, strictly speaking a New Yorker. However, he is represented by “Intégrales,” which is one of the pieces he composed while living in New York. The “New York School” is represented by its two members that could definitely be counted as New Yorkers, John Cage (even though he was born in Los Angeles) and Morton Feldman. Similarly, Elliott Carter was very much a New Yorker; and some of Cage’s writings even cite what it was like having Carter and his wife as neighbors. The generation subjected to influences from both Cage and Carter is represented by Steve Reich. Finally, there are two composers of roughly the same age, who may be regarded as representative of the current generation of New Yorkers, Sean Shepherd and David Fulmer.

Beyond any geographical base of operations, the seven compositions in this collection have one thing in common. None of them were intended for “casual” listening. This seems entirely appropriate, since casual listening was probably the last thing on Pierre Boulez’ mind when he created Ensemble InterContemporain. While this makes the album a valuable document of creative practices emerging from New York over the last 100 years, it also poses a cognitive challenge that should not be disregarded. Each of these seven pieces has its own unique point of view, and that point of view is not necessarily reinforced by listening to any one of these works before or after another track on the album.

Nevertheless, the juxtapositions of the track arrangement occasionally bring some interesting insights to the surface. The first CD begins with “Intégrales;” and, while I would like to say that this piece has been around long enough that we can sit back and enjoy it as much as, say, one of the late quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven, the truth is that this just ain’t so. Scored for eleven winds and enough percussion to require four players, “Intégrales” is as spiky as ever. However, after one accepts the spikes for what they are, the music offers up a visceral experience that feels as if it will never be dated; and Ensemble InterContemporain has no trouble keeping those spikes as sharp as ever.

In the track ordering “Intégrales” is followed by Carter’s clarinet concerto. Now it turns out that Carter was a Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute Institute of Technology during my senior year there. What this meant in reality was that he would come by once a week to give a somewhat rambling seminar on whatever topic happened to interest him at the time. On one of those occasions the topic of Varèse arose, but all Carter wanted to talk about was the friction between Varèse and Nadia Boulanger. There was a faint subtext in his approach to Varèse that sounded a bit like, “I paid my dues; why didn’t he pay his?”

In that personal historical context I found myself struck by the extent to which the dissonances in Carter’s concerto were not only as spiky as Varèse’s but could almost be taken as downright reminiscent of them. Mind you, Carter wrote this concerto over 30 years after Varèse’s death. (He wrote it for the twentieth anniversary of Ensemble InterContemporain, which makes it a particularly appropriate selection for this album.) Thus, one of my own reactions to listening to this recording was one of revelation, musing over whether Carter had come to a stage in his personal sense of aesthetics at which he could admit (and even leverage) the idea that Varèse may have been up to something with consideration!

Those wishing to start their listening experiences with something more “accessible” would probably do well to select the second CD in this collection and turn to Reich’s “WTC 9/11.” This piece was scored for string quartet and tape and written for the Kronos Quartet. In many respects it complements “Different Trains,” which was also introduced in both concerts and recording by Kronos. Both pieces explore the potential for melodic contours in spoken text; and, of course, both are unabashedly political. “Different Trains” was basically reflections on the Holocaust by a Jew who escaped that catastrophe by having been fortunate enough to be born in the United States. “WTC 9/11,” on the other hand, was about a catastrophe that took place in the composer’s “home town” (a town whose environment he had previously celebrated in “City Life”). Curiously, this is not the first time that “WTC 9/11” has been recorded by a European ensemble, since there is also a recording made by Quatuor Tana. On this recording the performers are violinists Jeanne-Marie Conquer and Diego Tosi, violist Grégoire Simon, and cellist Eric-Maria Couturier; and they certainly know how to bring clarity to what Reich had in mind in creating this piece.

The most surprising selection in the collection is probably Cage’s “Music for Wind Instruments.” Composed in 1938, this was a piece in which Cage used the twelve-tone technique to provide him with a systematic approach to pitch selection. He was equally systematic in determining how silences were added to the overall structure. The piece is in three movements, the first a trio (for flute, clarinet, and bassoon), the second a duo (for oboe and horn), and the last a quintet for all five instruments. Given Cage’s “bad boy” reputation (which is probably as fresh today as it was 75 years ago), the music is surprisingly affable, thus offering a striking contrast to the dissonances of Varèse and Carter. Considering the level of rhetorical intensity in this album’s perspective on New York, it is nice to know that Cage’s “sunny disposition” (his choice of words) provides the listener with a chance to enjoy a smile or two. The two younger composers that contributed to this album might make a note of how effective Cage could be in that regard!

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