Sunday, April 8, 2018

Henry Cowell’s World Music Perspective

Yesterday afternoon I returned to the Noe Valley Ministry for the second of the three concerts being offered by the Bard Music West festival, The World of Henry Cowell. The title of this concert was Living in the Whole World of Music, drawing upon Cowell’s extensive interest in what we now call “world music,” cited briefly in yesterday’s account of the first concert. In addition to diverse selections by Cowell and those in his circle, the program also included a very recent (2015) work by Wang Lu, a Chinese composer from Xi’an now teaching at Brown University.

Across the works presented on the program, there was particular emphasis on percussion. Indeed, the entire performance (presented without an intermission but with short breaks when instruments were rearranged on the stage) was framed by Shahab Paranj performing on tonbak, the principal percussion instrument of Persian music. He began the program with an improvisation and concluded by participating in the performance of Cowell’s four-movement “Homage to Iran.”

However, the primary emphasis on percussion involved coupling Cowell’s “Return” with a rather unique collaboration between John Cage and Lou Harrison called simply “Double Music.” This latter was performed by the quartet of percussionists Ben Paysen, Mika Nakamura, Sam Rich, and Tim Padgett. “Return” required only three percussionists and was played by Paysen, Rich, and Padgett.

“Double Music,” which received its first performance in San Francisco in 1941, was the product of an innovative experiment with engaging results. It was decided in advance that the entire piece would consist of 200 four-beat measures. It was also determined that the percussion instruments would be grouped into four “voices,” specified as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Cage and Harrison then proceeded to write parts for these voices independently, Cage writing for soprano and tenor, while Harrison took alto and bass. Each part was given to a single percussionist with specification of the necessary instruments; and, because the beat was both simple and steady, they could perform without a conductor. No dynamics are specified in the score.

By 1941 Cage had developed considerable experience in working more with rhythm than with pitch. He would explore structures based on patterns of integer groups, dealing only with a single pulse and different ways to divide or multiply it systematically. Harrison’s approach, however, seems to have been more intuitive. Nevertheless, the simple act of superposition resulted in a fabric as intriguing as some of the thicker webs of Renaissance polyphony, all expressed by nothing more than the interleaving of a generous diversity of rhythmic patterns.

Cowell’s “Return,” on the other hand, came across as more spontaneous and was apparently written to be played by dancers as part of the choreography. Cowell was also far more specific about the dynamics, using sharp contrasts as a key expressive element. It probably would have been more interesting to observe how this music emerged as a byproduct of dance, but the performance by last night percussionists still endowed the score with a compelling account based only on its sonic qualities.

Spontaneity also emerged as a key element in “Homage to Iran.” There was a clear sense that many of the extended discursive passages by both Paranj’s tonbak and the violin part, played by Luosha Fang, were either improvised or based on improvisations that were then notated. Allegra Chapman then provided what amounted to a continuo from the piano. The piece was structured as two Andante rubato movements in which the piano provided context for extended violin work. These were separated by a tonbak solo, and all the instruments come together only in the final Con spirito movement. Fang and Chapman also performed Carlos Chávez’ 1924 sonatina, which was probably the most conventionally lyrical work on the program. Those familiar with Chávez’ other compositions could probably pick up some familiar tropes, some of which most likely reflected the composer’s interest in Mexican folk styles.

The only Cowell selection without percussion came from a piece written in 1924 called simply “Ensemble.” This was originally scored for string quintet and thunder sticks, but he subsequently eliminated the thunder sticks. Michael Nicolas played the Adagio movement, which was written as a cello solo.

Nicolas was visiting from New York will his colleagues in the chamber ensemble Third Sound: Sooyun Kim on flute, Romie de Guise-Langlois on clarinet, Karen Kim on violin, and Orion Weiss on piano. Conducted by Patrick Castillo, the group played Wang’s Urban Inventory. This is a suite in six movements that reflects on the nature of urban life in contemporary China. That sense of context is reinforced by recordings of city sounds that provide occasional background textures for the instrumental parts.

Several of the movement titles are playfully cryptic. The most amusing of these is “(Dream of the) red chamber,” which seems to be mocking synthesis of the highly traditional Dream of the Red Chamber and the jingoist ballet Red Detachment of Women, which thrived under the notorious Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. That word game suggested that much of the music may have involved some subtle coding of thoughts about current life in China, but it would take more than one listening experience to begin to catch on to those codes.

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