Last night in the Recital Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (LCCE) concluded its 24th season with a concert entitled Francophilia. The program presented French composers, French authors, an American composer who learned to write American music from a French composer, and another American composer setting an English translation of texts by a French philosopher. This all made for a heady pot-au-feu (one of those French terms that has earned a place in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary); but it is unclear that the pot was allowed to stew for sufficient time before dishing out the servings.
The program concluded with the world premiere of “Power is (everywhere),” composed by one of the founding members of LCCE, Kurt Rohde. The program sheet described this piece as “an observed distraction for soprano and small ensemble on texts of Michel Foucault.” Rohde conducted the “small ensemble,” which consisted of Stacey Pelinka on flute, Tanya Tomkins on cello, and Eric Zivian on piano. He also contributed to the accompaniment with rhythmic clapping. The soprano was Nikki Einfeld.
Foucault is one of those philosophers whose name is dropped more often than his texts are read. He visited the University of California at Berkeley at least twice during the Eighties, but much of his time was spent at the San Francisco bathhouses. He was one of the first to contract HIV and died in Paris on June 25, 1984 at a time when the primary “official” reaction to AIDS (particularly here in the United States) was one of denial.
Foucault was a philosopher the same way that Karl Marx was (or at least as the latter was characterized in Leszek Kołakowski’s magisterial Main Currents of Marxism). What this means is that Foucault’s approaches to philosophy were heavily informed by matters of social and economic theory (the former more than the latter in Foucault’s case, vice versa for Marx). It is therefore no surprise that power was one of his favorite topics. While Rohde’s text sheet did not name any sources, it is clear that he had extracted excerpts from a variety of different books, essays, and lectures.
Taken in context, however, Foucault is seldom easy reading. Rohde mined some powerful punch lines, but they had to be dug out of highly convoluted sources texts whose English did not always do justice to the original. Foucault relished the complexity of French grammar, particularly where verbs are concerned; and the translations of his texts often involve simplification to avoid getting bogged down in constructs that have no equivalent in English grammar. Reading a Foucault sentence in French tends to be a two-stage process: first the sentence needs to be parsed (diagrammed), after which the reader can begin to try to puzzle out what it actually says. If one is going to do justice to anything Foucault write, one should first set aside any possibility of distraction.
I first came to know Foucault through the English text entitled “What Is an Author?” That was a case in which, even in English, one could appreciate how Foucault would play with his words. In this case he associated the noun “author” with the noun “authority,” making it clear that, even where writing was concerned, power was always on his mind.
Because Foucault was so frequently opaque, the idea of incorporating any of his texts for a musical setting would require that the composer find an effective way to negotiate that opacity. “Power is (everywhere),” however, seemed to magnify the opacity by frequently obscuring the clarity of the words themselves. This left the listener with the impression that the composition could be interpreted as the process of meaning struggling to find an unimpeded path between the “author” and the “reader.” Thus, the underlying message may have been that the power to impede will always prevail over the power to clarify. Nevertheless, this is the product of a “first listening impression;” and it may very well be that, like Foucault’s sentences, Rohde’s music needs more that one listening experience to make its case.
Nevertheless, Foucault’s idea of the author as a source of authority resonated with the authors of the two song cycles on the program, Pierre Louÿs (for Claude Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis) and Evariste-Désiré de Parny (for Maurice Ravel’s Chansons madécasses). In both cases the authors claimed that the texts had been “discovered” from obscure sources, leaving them only with the tasks of editing and translating. Thus, the listener was supposed to be introduced to ancient Greece in the former case and Madagascar in the latter. Debussy responded in kind with modal passages that suggest how poems of antiquity would have been sung, while Ravel summoned up imaginative images of a jungle he never knew. This all seemed to be suitable when it came to treating texts written under false pretenses.
If the music itself was, in both cases, an evocation of a non-existent dreamworld, then both Debussy and Ravel made excellent progress through their respective well-honed crafts of suggestion, rather than statement. Unfortunately, those crafts were not adequately honored through the performances, particularly in Zivian’s tendency to beef up the dynamic level of every note he plays. Indeed, it was the characteristically French proclivity for subtlety that sustained all of the music on the program other than Rohde’s; and it was a prevailing absence of subtlety that undermined each of the performances.
LCCE clearly puts highly imaginative thought into the design of their programs; but it is time that they do justice to all of that well-considered imagination with more sensitive approaches to the expressive side of performance.