Last night at the Royce Gallery, the annual ROOM Series of inventive chamber music programming curated by Pamela Z began its 2017 season with a recital by Splinter Reeds. This is the all-reed quintet consisting of two double-reed players, Kyle Bruckmann (oboe) and Dana Jessen (bassoon), and three single-reed players, Bill Kalinkos (clarinet), Jeff Anderle (bass clarinet), and Dave Wegehaupt (saxophones). When the group formed in 2013, it was relatively unique. Since then a generous number of similar groups have formed around the world; and, because they can stay in touch through the Internet, there are rich opportunities for repertoire sharing.
Nevertheless, the repertoire for last night’s program seems to have originated from Splinter Reeds’ own initiative. At the heart of the lineup was the world premiere of “Letters To A Friend,” composed by Theresa Wong. This was a memorial composition, since the friend cited in the title, Alessia Pugliatti, died this past December 31 of a rare form of cancer. Pugliatti was Wong’s housemate in Venice when Wong was based there between 2001 and 2003.
Because Pugliatti was an ardent fan of Brazilian culture, Wong chose to base her composition on the text of the poem “O Pulsar,” written by Augusto de Campos, a founding father of Brazilian concrete poetry (as well as a music critic), in 1975. The poem is short enough to allow its translation into English to be reproduced:
Wherever you areOn Mars or EldoradoOpen the window and seeThe pulsar almost muteLight-year embraceThat no sun warmsAnd the dark hollow forgets.
Nevertheless, “Letters to a Friend” is strictly instrumental. The poem is present through the letter-by-letter translation of the Portuguese text into Morse code (which explains the plural noun in the title).
November 28, 1967 is usually given as the date on which the first pulsar was discovered, making Campos one of the first generation of creative artists to be influenced by that discovery. (In 1984 he would present the poem as a video clip adding music by Caetano Veloso to the soundtrack.) What made the discovery fascinating was that the underlying mechanism of pulsation, already familiar at the subatomic level, was just as significant at the cosmic level. Thus, one way to approach Wong’s composition is as a celebration of pulsation itself, not only as acknowledged in Campos’ text but also all the way across the bridge of scale-of-measurement down a level so small that, like pulsars, it can only be perceived through sophisticated technical devices.
Wong’s memorial was realized by extending the usual physical distances that separate the quintet members. In addition, the music was performed in darkness, broken only by highly directed headlamps to illuminate the score pages. Furthermore, the separation was so great that, from my own front-and-center vantage point, the two most peripheral players were out of sight. As a result, the very act of performance was focused only on the staccato pulses of each instrument’s part, resulting in a polyphony of pulses that could serve as a metaphor for the full breadth of scale of pulses that scientific instrumentation can reveal. This made for a highly absorbing listening experience in which the presence of Morse code was simply a structural device, rather than a “message to be decoded.”
The program also included the San Francisco premiere of “Auditory Scene Analysis II,” composed last year by Eric Wubbels, one of several composers closely associated with Splinter Reeds. Wubbels took his title from a book by Albert S. Bregman, whose full title is Auditory Scene Analysis – The Perceptual Organization of Sound. This book came out in June of 1990; and, in the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Computer Music Journal published my review of it in 1991.
It was not a particularly positive review. The book itself was very poorly produced, to the point that one block of about 100 pages of content shows up twice (word-for-word) in two different sections. I therefore have to confess that, when confronted with the problem of declining shelf space in my current condominium setting, this book was one of the first to go. However, my rejection went deeper than the shoddy text-editing. The title suggests that mind detects structures in auditory stimuli the same way it detects structures in visual stimuli. This is a worthy hypothesis, but the book failed on two points. First, it did not grasp the complexity of visual scene analysis; and, second, it never made a valid case for “translating” visual processing into auditory processing.
This left me more than a little curious over what to make of Wubbels’ piece (which was apparently one of a series). (It also left me curious as to whether he had read all 790 pages of Bregman’s book, including the word-for-word repetition; but that is another story!) I would like to believe that Wubbels shares my own opinion that listening to music is more than a matter of detecting “objects” and making note of how they are arrayed, the sort of thing that a tourist with little sense of art appreciation might do when looking at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Thus, the way in which Wubbels’ score dispatches the generation of “auditory signals” almost seems calculated to defy “object recognition;” and, in one particularly exciting passage near the end, he also seems to undermine the very nature of a figure-ground relationship. Perhaps Wubbels was no happier with this book than I was, but he managed to find a way to express his discontent that went far beyond my own carefully worded but still grouchy review!
Another piece that seriously challenged this “object recognition” point of view (but probably not intentionally) was Ken Ueno’s “Babbling,” also composed last year. This music was decidedly not about “objects.” If anything it was closer to Wong’s account of an ongoing flow of energy. Used in different settings, “babbling” is a word that can have either positive or negative connotations. To the extent that Ueno conceived the piece as a flow of energy in which the energy itself is expressed in different ways, one might almost wish to claim that he was exploring the variety of those connotations. Even if such a position had not been on his mind, it is an approach by which this listener was able to find his way around all the babbling taking place among the five instrumentalists; and it was difficult to believe that there was not some element of fun intended to be part of the process.
Similar high spirits could be found in Ryan Brown’s “Pinched,” which opened the program. Brown originally wrote this for the Kronos Quartet; but, unless I am mistaken, he prepared his own rearrangement of the score for the Splinter Reeds instruments. The initial version may have been conceived as a study in rhythm, and there is no doubt that awareness of underlying timing adds much to the listening experience. Brown seems to have recognized that he could take advantage of a broader range of sonorities to bring out the variety of approaches he deploys through which one rhythmic pattern bounces off of another. There was a bit of joking about whether this made for a better version of Brown’s score; but, since I have not heard the Kronos performance, I am in no position to compare. All I know is that this was music that knew how to seize the attention from the opening gesture and hold on to it all the way up to its impeccably well-defined conclusion.
Those who saw the ROOM Series preview article at the end of last month know that the second concert, entitled Pascal’s Triangle, will be a musical celebration of mathematics. The concluding selection last night could be taken as a preview of what might be in store at the second concert. Tom Johnson’s 1989 “Narayana’s Cows,” initially composed for chamber orchestra and narrator, explores an integer sequence whose origin goes back to fourteenth-century India. Narayana Pandita wanted to explore the growth of a population of cows if one begins with a single cow having one baby a year, adding that once a cow reaches its fourth year, it, too, can start to bear children. (This is more complex than the Fibonacci sequence, which tried to do the same thing with rabbits. Fibonacci wrote about this in 1202; but it appears that it was known to Indians even earlier than Narayana’s cows, possibly as early as 200 BC.)
Jessen arranged Johnson’s score for Splinter Reeds in 2013, and Z served as narrator last night. Basically, the text follows the growth of the population year by year. For each year there are as many beats in the score (all evenly spaced) as there are cows. As the scale of growth increases, the narrated text gets more abbreviated, while the musical material gets richer. (I would guess that Johnson introduced some phrasing to distinguish the different generations of cows, but I would need both the score and a calculator to validate that supposition.) The score also embodies a profound metaphysical precept: In the world of pure mathematics, reproduction is asexual; and cows do not die.