This afternoon the 2017–18 concert season of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) officially got under way with a Faculty Artist Recital prepared by clarinetist Jeff Anderle, Woodwinds Chair and Woodwind Chamber Music Coordinator. (Anderle is also an SFCM alumnus, a member of the Class of ’06.) Rather than give a solo recital, he devoted the entire program to performing with the Splinter Reeds all-reed quintet, in which he plays only bass clarinet. Bill Kalinkos plays the more familiar B-flat clarinet; and the other members of the group are Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Dana Jessen on bassoon, and Dave Wegehaupt playing both alto and soprano saxophones.
Their repertoire consists almost entirely (if not entirely) of recently composed pieces, meaning that, for many in the audience, the program probably consisted only of “first contact” experiences. For that reason I had made it a point to attend, because I had already been introduced to two of the works on the program, when Splinter Reeds launched this season’s ROOM Series of inventive chamber music programming curated by Pamela Z this past April. Both of those pieces were performed during the second half of the program, Teresa Wong’s “Letters to a Friend” (which had been premiered in April) and Eric Wubbels’ “Auditory Scene Analysis II.”
I must confess that I had forgotten all about “Letters to a Friend,” including the fact that it was performed in total darkness, broken only by the headlamps worn by each of the players in order to read their score pages. I had also forgotten that the piece was primarily rhythmic, based on Morse code letter-by-letter rendition of the Portuguese text of “O Pulsar,” a short poem by Augusto de Campos. This provided an alternative interpretation of the title, since the focus of the structure was on letters, rather than the semantics of the poem itself. On the other hand the fact that all of the sonorities involved uneven pulses made for an uncanny fit to the poet’s evocation of pulsar phenomena.
It is worth noting that only the Morse code part of the above explanation was disclosed to this afternoon’s audience (and only after the piece had been performed). Given the inadequacy of my memory, I am not sure how necessary any more detailed explanation would have been. The intensity of the performance came from the precision with which the uneven rhythms were realized, both by the individual players and by their migration across the different instruments. Even in the absence of specific detail, the realization of those rhythms in extreme darkness had clear suggestions (if not connotations) of cosmic phenomena and our own extremely modest situation among those phenomena. That struck me as where the rhetoric resided, and the significance of that rhetoric seemed to override any more technical matters of structure.
My recollection of Wubbels’ piece had a bit more substance, probably because my first listening experience triggered memories (not particularly pleasant) of having read Albert S. Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis – The Perceptual Organization of Sound. When I first listened to “Auditory Scene Analysis II” (the first piece of that name had been written for a larger ensemble, but the second piece was written specifically for Splinter Reeds), I recognized that Wubbles was playing games with how a listener would resolve questions of figure and ground. This time I felt more secure in where the “figures” were, realizing that they were the sustained tones that contrasted against a background of rhythmic complexity (which seemed calculated to provide the effect of entropic noise).
At the same time, however, I realized that there might be a joke in how Wubbles chose those figures. To be perfectly honest, my recognizing them as figures had more to do with looking at all of the players and paying attention to which ones were moving their fingers! Once I figured out whose fingers weren’t moving, I could listen for sonorities consistent with that particular instrument. In other words my analysis of the “auditory scene” required more than “auditory input;” it also required visual input!
I would like to believe that humor was part of Wubbles’ rhetoric because there was a generous amount of it in the rest of the program. Marc Mellits’ eight-movement suite Splinter assigned a different kind of tree of each movement. Some of the musical associations were clearer than others, but there was no mistaking the raucously jazzy rhetoric of the final movement. This was music that had more to do with the unabashed free-blowing spirit of the Original Dixieland Jass Band than the red pine for which the movement is named, which is very much a northern, rather than southern, tree.
On the other hand, many of Mellits’ movements seemed to be conceived around the Splinter Players’ impeccable attention to blending their sonorities. Indeed, attentive listening suggested that their breath control always accounted for interval relations that had more to do with natural harmonics than with the equal-tempered pitches encountered on piano keyboards. For that matter the “Ode” movement, which was the second of two “exercises” that Cara Haxo composed for the group, seemed to have been designed to refine sensitivity to such natural intonations, even when they had to be achieved through microtonal “bending.” By way of contrast, however, Jannik Giger’s “Contaminare” seem to explore the “contamination” of the opening measures of the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by microtones. (The fact that Wagner would often use “enharmonic spelling” to simplify the score for this opera suggests that his own capacity for listening was firmly based on an equal-tempered piano.)
The entire program was well received by the impressive audience turnout. The result was that the occasion called for an encore. Ironically, Mellits had reworked one of the movements from Splinter to serve as an encore. In its revised form, the movement was entitled “A Cherry on Top.” It recalled the joyous abandon of the original version while pulling off a new “punch line” for its stand-alone status. My only regret is that I am not sure when I shall next be able to see how much memory retains when I next listen to this delightful group.