This season the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) prepared only a single concert for their in the LABORATORY series, conceived to focus on experimentation and exploration. That concert was held last night at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM); and it benefitted from significant contributions by SFCM students and alumni. Given that the resulting program may not have emerged as refreshingly energetic without them, one might almost call the student performers “laboratory assistants.”
Their presence was particularly appreciated at the end of the program with a performance of John Zorn’s “Cobra.” Created in 1984, Zorn has called this a “game” piece, particularly since it is based on a set of instructions rather than the usual score. The “game” is one of exchanging signals and the interpretation of those signals in terms of the relationships between the performers and their respective instruments. As might be guessed, any number can play; and the instruments in the performance depend entirely on who the players are.
“Cobra” is as much a visual piece as it is an auditory one. The game is well defined, but the rules are not disclosed to the audience. I was reminded of José Arcadio Buendia, the patriarch figure in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’ novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Near the end of his life, he goes mad and is tied to a tree in the center of town. A visiting priest tries to strike up a relationship with him and offers to teach him chess. Buendia replies that he never saw the point in playing a game in which both sides had agreed upon the rules.
“Cobra” is a case in which one side (the performers) has agreed upon the rules; but the other (the audience) is not supposed to have the slightest idea what they are. Listening thus becomes a free-for-all experience seasoned with physical antics that punctuate any frustrations in trying to identify cause and effect. It was a thorough delight to watch how the students bought into Zorn’s rules without ever trying to bend them and barely concealing the fun they were having in following them. Indeed, when one of the rules seemed to allow for playing familiar music, it was as if the students could take all of their previous coaching sessions and turn them all on their respective heads.
“Cobra” was preceded by another “rule-based” composition, Frederic Rzewski’s 1969 “Let Moutons de Panurge.” Panurge is one of the secondary characters in François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. While at sea Panurge argues with a sheep dealer about having been overcharged. In a fury, he picks up one of the sheep he had purchased and throws it overboard, whereupon all the other sheep follow their leader.
“Les Moutons de Panurge” is not explicitly about the sheep; but it involves an unanticipated breakdown of a sense of order similar to the unintended consequences of Panurge’s act. All musicians play from the same score, which is designated “For any number of musicians playing melody instruments and any number of nonmusicians playing anything.” The score consists of a single line of notes numbered from 1 to 65. Below those notes are the following instructions:
Read from left to right, playing the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc. When you have reached note 65, play the whole melody once again and then begin subtracting notes from the beginning: 2 through 65, 3 through 65, 5 through 65 . . . 62-63-64-65, 63-64-65, 64-65-. 65. Hold the last note until everybody has reached it, then begin an improvisation using any instruments.In the melody above, never stop or falter, always play loud. Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold. Continue to follow the rules strictly.
While the musicians are playing the score, the nonmusicians can make any sounds they wish (“preferably very loud”). They have a leader, “whom they may follow or not.” The leader establishes the pulse for both musicians and nonmusicians, after which “any variations are possible.” The nonmusicians are also provided with a “suggested theme” in the form of a single sentence:
The left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.
Thanks to Rzewski’s “stay lost” instruction, “Les Moutons de Panurge” emerges as a study of how disorder emerges, even when the order has been very strictly defined. In contrast to compositions that explored the use of chance procedures, Rzewski created a music-making situation designed to illustrate the inevitability of entropy. As in “Cobra” the ensemble again involved SFCM students joining the SFCMP players. However, in contrast to “Cobra,” this was a case in which the attentive listener could quickly figure out the nature of the rules and appreciate the effects brought on by following them. I was reminded of an earlier concert in which SFCM students joined SFCMP for a performance of Terry Riley’s “In C,” another piece that involves entropic effects. Nevertheless, Rzewski’s approach to that concept had its own brand of uniqueness while making for a listening experience as exhilarating as any encounter with “In C.”
The first half of the evening involved more modest resources but still entailed student participation. Most impressive was the appearance of students coached by Meredith Monk in the performance of her music. Soprano Courtney McPhail and mezzo Marina Davis (accompanied by SFCMP harpist Karen Gottlieb) gave as compelling and (in its own way) affectionate account of the encounter depicted by “Cave Song” (1988) as could be imagined. Just as striking was the serene account of Monk’s 1981 “Ellis Island” for two pianos, in which student Taylor Chan joined SFCMP pianist Kate Campbell. Campbell also excelled in her performance of four of the seven études for piano composed by Don Byron in 2009, one of which involved a brief moment of vocal punctuation.
The “new generation” of composers was represented by Vivian Fung and SFCM alumnus Ryan Brown. Fung’s 2014 Twist was a short suite for guitar (David Tanenbaum) and violin (Roy Malan), each of whose movements involved a “twist” on a past familiar form. The score required some highly demanding technical skills associated with each of the distinct styles in the different movements; but this was technical work that was the bread-and-butter of SFCMP “core competences.” Nevertheless, each movement was straightforward in making its case and benefitted from Fung’s keen appreciation of brevity.
Ryan Brown’s 2010 “Under the Rug” was a far more lyrical duo for viola (Clio Tilton) and harp (Gottlieb), along with Nick Woodbury using the body and strings of the harp for the percussion line of the score. There was also accompaniment provided by a percussion “chorus” of four players, two of whom were SFCM students. Taken as a whole, the first half of the evening was one of quietude that turned out to be the calm preceding the storm of the second half.