Last night composer Dan Becker made his debut as curator at the Center for New Music (C4NM) by hosting a program entitled Friction Plays With Common Sense. “Friction” was, of course, the name of the Friction Quartet, an ensemble that has been giving performances at C4NM pretty much since the space was launched. Membership has not changed since then. Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel share leadership from the first violin chair. Taija Warbelow and Doug Machiz provide the low strings on viola and cello, respectively.
A less obvious aspect of the program title is that “Common Sense” is a proper noun phrase, rather than a common one. It is the name of a bi-coastal composers’ collective, whose members are John Halle, Belinda Reynolds, Melissa Hui, Ed Harsh, Carolyn Yarnell, Randall Woolf, and Marc Mellits, as well as Becker himself. Relatively short works by all eight of those composers (in the order just listed) constituted the program for the evening, which grew out of a project that is about seven years old.
The story began when the entire collective had a residency at the Banff Centre in 2010. That was when these eight compositions were created, and they were performed on a single recital program shared by the Afiara quartet and the Cecilia Quartet. Friction is now preparing to record the complete set at Skywalker Sound; so last night’s performance could be seen (and heard) as a “warm-up” for the forthcoming recording sessions.
The program sheet for the evening was just that, a single sheet of paper listing the names of the eight composers and the titles of their respective pieces. There was no biographical information, nor was there any effort to provide text that would prepare listeners for what would follow. I have to say that, for all of my interest in background and context, I found this to be a very effective approach. The setting was such that listening was pretty much all one could do; and, in a space like C4NM, that encouraged a more intimate encounter between the music and the listener.
Nevertheless, the setting also posed an demanding challenge on memory, if the only cues reside in the titles themselves. Fortunately, most of those cues were very helpful. Harsh’s “Trill” was a perfect example of “truth in advertising.” The piece begins with a trill on a single instrument, and the trill pattern gradually pervades the rest of the ensemble. Once the setting has been established, it is explored through what might be called “alternative views” of the trill. The most evident of these was the tremolo, which is basically a trill between two notes so close together that they are the same note. Nevertheless, this was music that would require further listening were mind interested in matters such as whether or not it had a deeper structure.
Similar fidelity to title could be found in the openness in the approaches to intervals in the piece that Reynolds called simply “OPEN.” That sense of “space” allowed the listener to take in individual sonorities and the relationships that emerge among them. On the other hand the title of Becker’s piece “Lockdown” could not escape narrative implications. I suspect that I was not the only one of my generation who found it hard to resist associating Becker’s title with memories of the Attica riots. Of course Frederic Rzewski had already written a piece for voice and chamber orchestra called “Attica” in 1972; but his was a musical setting of first-person accounts. “Lockdown” was all music (without words); but it was delivered with a ferocious rhetoric that made words superfluous. My own personal impressions involved mental images of burning mattresses, which have achieved almost iconic status in the representation of prison riots.
Perhaps the most prankish title was Hui’s “Map of Reality.” Consisting of five short movements, the structure made it difficult to avoid association with the five short pieces that Anton Webern called simply “movements” in his Opus 5 string quartet. For the time when Opus 5 was composed (1909), the piece clearly established a “new reality” for string quartet music; so one has to wonder whether Hui had sought out a “new reality” and then tried to map it. However, she may also have been playing with the idea that “reality” can never be anything other than a mental construct, a process that strives to find order in the “blooming, buzzing confusion” (as William James put it) that continually assaults our sensory systems. Each of Hui’s five pieces was almost microscopically aphoristic; but one has to wonder whether she was asking (with a smile), “What does your mind make of that?”
The most fun of the evening, however, came with the opening selection, Halle’s “Sphere[‘]s.” It begins with frantic bowing of a short repeated phrase that almost suggested that we might be going back to the early days of Philip Glass. However, it did not take long for those with jazz background to recognize that the phrase had its origins in “Straight, No Chaser,” which is now regarded as a jazz standard written by a composer whose full name was Thelonious Sphere Monk. (As the piece progressed, “Brilliant Corners” also worked its way into the fabric.)
Mind you, there is a good chance that Monk himself was having fun when he cooked up “Straight, No Chaser.” The theme itself has its roots in the classic “drunk song,” “How Dry I Am.” Monk just added a chromatic passing tone between the third and fourth notes of that song. He then embedded it all in a barrage of off-kilter rhythms. Also, he did all this in 1951 when jazz players were only just beginning to adjust to such radical departures from a predictable beat. (In 1959 Leonard Bernstein would work the “How Dry I Am” theme to death with a one-hour television program called “The Infinite Variety of Music.” Most amusing was how he detected the same motif in two Richard Strauss examples, the leitmotiv for Till Eulenspiegel and the transfiguration theme in “Death and Transfiguration.”)
At this point memory begins to fade. The pizzicato work in the first movement (“MEC”) of Yarnell’s “Hiko” was memorable for its sonorous qualities; but, by the time the program had progressed to the post-intermission half, mind was beginning to deal with cognitive overload. As was observed of “Trill,” all eight of these pieces deserve more than a single listening. It is thus important that last night’s session took place just before the recording of all of them would begin. This will be a recording worthy of multiple listening experiences.