Sunday, March 24, 2019

All Those Pitch Classes!

Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissjan, Lucas Fels, and Ralph Ehlers (photograph by Ebbe Roe Yovino-Smith)

Last night the Taube Atrium Theater hosted the first of the three concerts presented by Other Minds that will constitute Festival 24. The title of the entire festival is A Pitch Perfect Revolution; and the featured composer is the Russian-born French-emigré composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky (1893–1979). Wyschnegradsky is  primarily known for working with microtones; and, of the five of his compositions performed last night, four were based on dividing the octave into 24 equal divisions, resulting in intervals known as “quarter tones,” since they involve dividing the semitone in half. The remaining composition had a title that explicitly included the phrase “in semitones” was the only one that was not microtonal.

The program consisted entirely of chamber music for strings, performed by the Arditti Quartet, led by Irvine Arditti. The other members are violinist Ashot Sarkissjan, violist Ralf Ehlers, and cellist Lucas Fels. Four of the Wyschnegradsky compositions were string quartets, all performed during the first half of the program. The second half began with a string trio, which he concluded shortly before his death in 1979. The remainder of the program was devoted to the second string quartet by Georg Friedrich Haas, composed in 1998. All of the Wyschnegradsky compositions were being given their first performances in the United States.

The program itself had a decidedly exploratory feel to it. The compositions themselves cover a period of activity from 1923 until 1979; and two of the quartets, the first and third, were subjected to revision a decade or more after they had been composed. There was a distinct impression that the composer, having made a calculated decision to work with an equal-tempered octave of 24, rather than twelve, pitch classes, kept revisiting the problem of how he could best work with twice as many pitch classes.

The notes in the program book raise the question of whether the earliest of those quartets is tonal or atonal. By fortuitous coincidence, I read that text only a few hours after having encountered the following sentence by James Tenney:
Time has given us some degree of familiarity with even the most advanced musical achievements of the early twentieth century, and yet our descriptive and analytical approaches to this music are still belabored with negatives—“atonal,” “athematic,” etc.—that tell us what the music is not rather than what it is.
I felt as if I had been predisposed to give an account of last night’s listening experience in terms of “what it is;” and this emerged as quite a challenge.

Given a choice between abstract constructs and “living experiences,” I do my best to opt for the latter. Looking back on my experience in listening to Wyschnegradsky’s earliest quartet, my primary impression was one of tone clusters. While no one would confuse Wyschnegradsky’s music with that of Henry Cowell, there seem to be a sharing of a common core. Cowell’s tone clusters were not “chords with extra notes” that allowed for new approaches to progression. Rather, they were the building blocks of rhythmic patterns, each of which had its own unified sonority that transcended any sense of voice leading or, for that matter, the idea of the cluster being a superposition of “voices,” rather than a unified object unto itself.

The tightly packed simultaneities in the opening measures of Wyschnegradsky’s first quartet presented a similar unity in which an overall sense of the flow of rhythms was more apposite than any “extended perspective” rooted in harmony or counterpoint. The entire evening thus processed as an unfolding of those initial impressions. Sometimes, as was the case in the second quartet, there were clear statements of linear motion that could be taken as “themes.” Indeed, much of Wyschnegradsky’s overall aesthetic seemed to emerge from a dialectic between the rhythms of his clusters and the almost vocal qualities of individual solo lines taken by each of the quartet instruments in turn.

In other words simply trying to account for a listening experience in terms of “what it is” is no easy matter. There was very much a sense that, over the course of his life, Wyschnegradsky sought, but never found, a methodical foundation for his efforts. Every composition amounted to posing a hypothesis about the nature of that foundation, and each one ultimately sent him off on a quest for another hypothesis. The result was an evening that ultimately culminated in “cognitive overload.” By the time the performance of the trio brought one to the end of Wyschnegradsky’s career as a composer, few “cognitive cycles” remained for mind to grasp, let alone process, those attributes that characterized Haas’ approaches to “what it is” in his own efforts at composition.

The fact is that none of the works on last night’s program deserved to be limited to a single listening experience. Executive and Artistic Director Charles Amirkhanian observed that Arditti had recorded all of the Wyschnegradsky canon of chamber music for strings but that those recordings were now out of print. He hinted that Other Minds might try to reissue those recordings on its own “house label.” I hope he succeeds in this endeavor. There is too much imagination behind those compositions to be relegated to a single performance at a single concert.

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