Thursday, April 12, 2018

Rollicking History Lesson from Other Minds

The title of last night’s program presented by Other Minds as part of Festival 23 was The History Channel. This was definitely truth in advertising. With one exception, all of the works presented on the program covered a span of time between 1914 and 1966; and the only recent offering, given its world premiere, was basically an arrangement of a piece composed in 1930. Taken as a whole, the program was a rollicking account of different approaches to sound poetry that served as a reminder that even the most remote abstractions can exercise a sense of humor.

While it might be unfair to elevate any individual work above all the others, it would probably be fair to say that the major contribution was a performance of Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” (primal sonata) by Jaap Blonk. Intended to demonstrate that one could adapt the traditional form of a sonata to a recitation of vowels and consonants, Schwitters worked on this piece between 1921 and 1932, performing it frequently and developing his score from one performance to the next. What resulted was a four-movement structure beginning with a rondo and then progressing through a largo, a scherzo (with trio), and a presto with finale.

Schwitters was inspired to begin this project after listening to Raoul Hausmann recite his poem “fmsbw;” but it is clear that he was as interested in musical structure as he was in the emerging art form of sound poetry. There is a story (which, if apocryphal, almost begs to be true) that Schwitters once performed his “Ursonate” to an audience of German army officers, who sat there intensely focused on his syllables from beginning to end. Whether this tells us anything about how those officers would subsequently respond to speeches by Adolf Hitler is left as an exercise for the reader.

Nevertheless, I must confess that my own first contact with “Ursonate” (which would have been about twenty years ago) was not that different from that of those Germans. To be fair, that performance was one of an intense declamation, which may have been the same approach that Schwitters had taken with his military audience. Blonk’s performance last night was far more multi-dimensional. He had clearly put much thought into not only shaping every phrase but also endowing each phrase with its own dramatic disposition. However, just as musical rhetoric can startle through abrupt shifts, Blonk’s performance did the same.

One could not “settle in” to listening that focused simply on the rich sonorities of the phrases, because one was always in suspense over the physical manifestation of each phrase. Because there is never any doubt that “Ursonate” is a piece of music that happens to be working with a novel approach to organizing sound, the composition has deservedly earned iconic status in the history of modern music. However, Blonk’s performance made it clear that this was no static icon for worship but a piece of music that invites different approaches to interpretation, just like any sonata by any of the “historically approved” composers.

Less iconic but just as historically significant were the pioneering efforts in sound poetry by the Italian Futurists Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and Fortunato Depero. Enzo Minarelli performed five of these pieces, three by Depero, which were preceded and followed by single selections by Marinetti. What is most interesting about Depero’s creations is that they are basically posters, panoramic images whose shapes and shadings are defined through an ingenious combination of lines and words of different sizes and shapes.

A page from one of Marinetti’s scores for a sound poem (courtesy of Other Minds)

Fortunately, these images, as well as those of the Marinetti compositions, were projected during Minarelli’s performances. Since no specific instructions were provided, performance amounted to a traversal of the image, declaiming the words as the performer progressed along the path. Minarelli presented those words with a clarity that made “score following” relatively easy; but, like Blonk, he had his own techniques for embedding his accounts of those words in an overall rhetorical framework. Thus, regardless of the words he uttered, his delivery of Depero’s “Subway” had unmistakably subterranean connotations as he endowed each word with an acoustic shape that reflected its physical shape on the poster.

The program was distinguished by presenting the United States premiere of the entirety of Ernst Toch’s three-movement suite Gesprochene Musik (spoken music), composed in 1930. The one movement of this suite that has been performed frequently is “Fuge aus der Geographie” (geographical fugue, whose text has an English version, as well as the original German, which was performed last night). In a spirit similar to that of “Ursonate,” Toch developed a rhythmic declamation of geographical places, which are then subjected to imitative polyphonic practices, including the superposition of multiple subjects and the stretto overlapping of voices (but no attempt to provide the subject with a tonal answer).

He also explored specific sound-based approaches to utterance. He thus began with Ratibor (a town that is no longer known by that German name, since it is now in southern Poland, where it is called Racibórz), because rolling the “r” would provide an aural cue to the entrance if the subject. All this was given a thoroughly convincing sense of fugue by the vocal sextet of Amy X Neuburg (soprano), Pamela Z (alto), Kevin Baum and Randall Wong (tenors), Joel Chapman (baritone), and Sidney Chen (bass). (None of those parts had a “pitch range;” but they were still sorted as if such ranges existed.)

The first two movements of the suite amounted to syllabic études, experimenting with different phrasings of vowels and consonants. These pieces were only recently reconstructed from archival materials by Christopher Caines, who created choreography for the entire suite. However, he used the English version of the final fugue. Therefore, last night marked the first time in the United States that the suite was performed entirely in the original German. The suite was followed by a more recent (1962) “Valse,” a setting of mindless cocktail party chatter that offered a delightful account of just how sharp Toch’s wit could be.

Finally, Toch’s grandson, Lawrence Weschler, contributed to the program with “The Medical Fugue,” completed in 2014 and being given its world premiere. Weschler took Toch’s score and changed all the words into medical diseases. As a result, the rolling “r” was replaced by a strongly sibilant “s.” As a result, the fugue subject was announced by the declamation of (you guessed it) “syphilis!”

The program concluded with “Capital Capitals,” Virgil Thomson’s setting of a text written by Gertrude Stein in 1917. Thomson composed his setting in 1927. Those familiar with his score for their joint opera Four Saints in Three Acts will appreciate how “Capital Capitals” introduces many of the devices that Thomson engaged to allow his music to wend its way through Stein’s words. Taken on its own merits, the piece is a bit long-winded; but it still encourages taking a witty approach to Stein’s convoluted texts. The performance was by the vocal quartet of Baum, Wong, Chapman, and Chen, this time accompanied at the piano by Sarah Cahill.

By way of an overture to this piece, the audience got to listen to Stein’s own voice reading her poem “If I told him (a completed portrait of Pablo Picasso).” This definitely prepared the attentive ear for Thomson’s approaches to setting Stein. During the first half there was another recording, this time of Bernard Heidsieck reading “La Poinçonneuse, Passe Partout No. 2,” an account of riding the Paris Metro in earlier days. The remaining selection on the program was Cathy Berberian’s 1966 “Stripsody,” which could be taken as her effort to provide a vocal “reply” to the “Sequenza” composition that her former husband, Luciano Berio, had written for solo female voice. As the title suggests, the piece has as much to do with pop culture as with her thoughts about Berio.

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