Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Triumph of the Dead White European Male

The "motto" for the BluePrint series of concerts at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music is "building new music for the city." The first concert in their series provided a venue to follow up on "Bloggers' Night" at the San Francisco Symphony. The event was different in just about every way: a program that one would be unlikely to encounter at Davies Symphony Hall, a more intimate performing space, and, befitting the space, more intimate musical ensembles. The theme of the concert was "Synesthesia: Bridging the Senses," which provides some interesting opportunities for experiments. The fact that not all of the experiments succeeded did not detract from the overall value of the performances.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evening was Artistic Director (and conductor) Nicole Paiement's decision to offer two musical perspectives on texts by Arthur Rimbaud through two works separated in time by some sixty-odd years. Since so many of Rimbaud's texts were synesthetic, these settings made the strongest case for the overall theme, while attempts by several of the other performances to draw explicitly upon "rich media" had less impact. The more recent Rimbaud effort was Jay Lyon's "Voyelles," a setting of the poem of the same name, first performed in 1998 and subsequently reworked into a version heard for the first time at this concert. The text is an exploration into the "naissances latentes" ("hidden births") of the five vowels, each associated with its own color, which is then elaborated into a haiku-like impression of an image. These are all images of the "outlaw" Rimbaud, who was so much of a hero to one of our own greatest "outlaw" writers, Henry Miller. Even those that at first appear innocuous reveal a more sinister side, which justifies why these "births" are better "hidden;" and the poem is all the more fascinating for the way in which all of these images are compacted into the fourteen lines of a sonnet.

Lyon's composition has its own "outlaw" nature in the form of a rap text that basically provides a series of running tropes on Rimbaud's words. This makes for a rather dense listening experience. The Rimbaud text is both sung by a soprano and mezzo-soprano and declaimed by a speaker while, at the same time, MC WiseProof is holding forth with his rap. The result is far more than a human ear can track, at least on a first hearing. The rap dominated to such an extent that the spoken French was pretty much inaudible; and, every now at then, a vocal gesture would emerge when WiseProof was catching his breath. This would probably outrage most traditional concert-goers, thereby achieving the sort of effect that Rimbaud was often trying to achieve in his writing. His spirit is still with us and may well be more at ease with our century than it ever was in his own nineteenth.

Of course Rimbaud is no stranger to those traditional concert-goers, due largely to Benjamin Britten's setting of his Illuminations texts. This is probably Britten's best-known departure from the "Rumpole world" of the Oxford Companion to English Literature; and it is one of his three major song settings for tenor and chamber orchestra. This was the earlier Rimbaud perspective that Paiement programmed; and, to make the performance even more interesting, the texts were sung by a soprano, Conservatory graduate student Ambur Braid. The "outlaw" side of this work is far more cryptic, probably because of Britten's own "outlaw" relationship with Peter Pears, the tenor for whom the work was composed. However, Paiement and Braid worked well together to deliver an alternative "outlaw" perspective, beginning with Braid's appearance (far more striking than that of any other performer on the program, pushing at the limits without a Madonna-style "going over the top"). The appearance, however, was only there to supplement the delivery, which toyed with the listener's emotions in the same ways in which Rimbaud could toy with the instincts of his readers. Britten was at the top of his game when he composed this song cycle, so it was really exciting to experience a performance that was also at the top of the same game.

Nevertheless, there was a certain irony involving the spirit of the evening. After the dust had settled, one realized that, for all the other works on the program (including an extraordinary experiment with the sonorities of a solo cello by Kaija Saariaho), once again it was the Dead White European Male who stole the show. This is even more ironic since, when I was first getting to know Britten, he was still very much alive and composing and was often rejected as "too modern" by many of those traditional concert-goers! Still, I do not think the message is that we need more composers willing to honor Britten more than rap. Rather, the message is that we now have enough exposure to Britten to accept his music as "part of the tradition," which means that Paiement's "mission" to provide more exposure to those now following Britten is an important one, however frustrating some of those newer works may be when we first hear them.

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