Sunday, April 22, 2007

From the Notes to the Sounds

When Marino Formenti first started giving interviews about the three "San Francisco Piano Trips" he gave over the course of this past week, he would invoke the progression that many of us learned from our study of mythology (through Edith Hamilton probably) from gods to heroes to men. These were originally to be the themes of his three concerts, but, shortly before the series began, he decided to begin the series of "Kurtág's Ghosts," a fascinating exercise in free association that juxtaposed a broad collection of miniatures by György Kurtág with an equally broad collection of selections from the history of music (ranging from Guillaume de Machaut to Karlheinz Stockhausen) that could be interpreted as influences on Kurtág's own work. In the Hamilton framework one could say that Formenti began with the Titans in his first concert, proceeded to the Olympians and heroes in the second, and ended, as originally planned, with the "men" (generic semantics, since one of the composers was female) of today.

What was not stated explicitly was that there was another progression supporting this one, which made the whole series an important lesson to music theorists. One may say that the Titans forged the traditions of musical composition that have shaped the way music theory as taught and, for the most part, practiced—a focus on structural analysis that is basically confined to notes on a printed page that essentially constitute "instructions" for performance. When we look back on Formenti's "Olympians" (Ives, Bartόk, Webern, Stravinsky), we discover that the all "overthrew the Titans" with new approaches to writing their compositions; but the focus was still on the notes on the page. The "heroes" (Stockhausen, Messiaen, Nono) pushed the expressiveness even further (sometimes, as with Stockhausen's notation of rhythms, to the point of absurdity); but, as we gain more appreciation for their work, we realize (as did Formenti), that they were less interested in new ways to combine "the old notes" than we ways to elicit new sonorities. Thus, when we came to the age of men, Formenti presented a series of compositions in which "it was all about the sounds." Appropriately enough, the final concert was entitled "Nothing is Real" (deliberately acknowledging the Beatles, who, in turn, had been acknowledged by one of the composers of the evening, Alvin Lucier), relaying the subtext that, while printed music may, with suitable care and preservation efforts, last forever, the sound of music vanishes into memory as soon as it is heard.

So it was that each of the "men" in Formenti's framework (Pintscher, Lucier, Lachenmann, Haas, Ustwolskaya, Sciarrino, Cage) presented different strategies for what I have previously called "going for the sound." This was the riskiest of the three evenings, because the works of the age of men have not yet been subjected to the tests of time. In this particular collection Cage was someone like the old pioneer, since his "Music Walk" was conceived during Formenti's "age of heroes;" but, like the more recent works on this final program, it is still fresh enough to challenge us to rethink how we listen at concerts. More importantly, because this was an experimental setting, one could not expect all the experiments to "work." (As I recall, it was Cage's artistic collaborator, Merce Cunningham, who lived by the motto, "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.") However, such inconsistency does not invalidate the lessons of new ways of listening but only broadens their scope.

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