Tuesday, May 21, 2019

New Music from a Composers’ Collective

courtesy of Naxos of America

A little over a week ago Innova released a new album of performances by the Friction Quartet. The title of the album is SPARK; and it involves new works that involved a 2010 collaboration between the Common Sense Composers’ Collective and two string quartets performing at the Banff Centre in Alberta, the Afiara quartet and Cecelia String Quartet. The participating composers were Dan Becker, John Halle, Belinda Reynolds, Melissa Hui, Ed Harsh, Carolyn Yarnell, Randall Woolf, and Marc Mellits.

About seven seasons ago, Becker was named as a curator at the Center for New Music (C4NM), a distinction that allowed him to arrange and present concert programs that he thought would be of interest to C4NM audiences. This was probably when he hatched the idea to prepare a program in which the eight SPARK compositions would be performed by a single string quartet. Since both Becker and Friction were based in the Bay Area, they would be an appropriate choice to perform that program. In addition, the ensemble, consisting of violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel (sharing leadership as first violin), violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz, made arrangements to record all eight compositions at Skywalker Sound.

The result was a program entitled Friction Plays With Common Sense, which took place at C4NM on the evening of March 15, 2017. Two days later Friction would begin four days of recording sessions at Skywalker Sound. SPARK was the resulting album. One of my observations about the concert was the risk of cognitive overload and the conclusion that “all eight of these pieces deserve more than a single listening.” With the release of SPARK, my wish has been granted!

For what it is worth, my favorite during the C4NM performance was Halle’s “Sphere(’s).” Lasting only five minutes and twenty seconds, this appears to be a highly distilled version of the 2002 “Spheres” composition that Halle composed in 2002. At my concert encounter, it did not take me long to realize that the title referred to jazz composer Thelonious Sphere Monk. The opening phrase came right out of “Straight, No Chaser,” after which it was subjected to the sorts of repetitions one would encounter in the early music of Philip Glass. However, as the performance progressed, the pace gradually slowed to the point that one could realize that Monk’s theme had its origins in “How Dry I Am” (which would explain his choice of title).

As they say, it gets better. In his television program “The Infinite Variety of Music,” Leonard Bernstein demonstrated the link between “How Dry I Am” and Richard Strauss’ leitmotiv for Till Eulenspiegel. Bernstein then threw in the transfiguration theme in “Death and Transfiguration;” and, in the brief duration of “Sphere(’s),” Halle manages to “transfigure” his reference to Monk into a recognizable suggestion of that transfiguration theme.

The other notable instance of a cross-reference could be found in the five short movements of Hui’s “Map of Reality.” It was hard to avoid associating the overall plan (not to mention the crystalline brevity of each of the five movements) with the five short movements of Anton Webern’s Opus 5 string quartet. Hui’s evocation of the concept of reality may seem pretentious, but it can also be taken as acknowledging that reality is what mind chooses to make of stimuli. Each movement of “Map of Reality” amounted to a small cluster of stimuli; and mind could make of it what it wished.

In my own experiences, the most intense of the offerings was and remains Becker’s “Lockdown.” This may be another case of one composer looking back on another. In this case the view of the past from the present would involve Frederic Rzewski, who wrote a piece for voice and chamber orchestra called “Attica,” a musical setting of first-person accounts of what happened during the 1972 riots at that prison. Becker, on the other hand, saw no need to add words to his mix. The rhetoric of his quartet writing was downright ferocious, as was the poignancy of a reference to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in the coda. I was glad to see that the full breadth of his emotional dispositions was conveyed on the SPARK recording as effectively as it had been in recital.

By now the reader should appreciate just how rich the content is on this new recording. Personal experience has taught me that this is not an album that you put into a player for listening from beginning to end. Each of the eight compositions has its own unique approach to both structural technique and rhetorical expression; and it is more than a little unfair to try to digest them all in a single gulp, so to speak. Fortunately, current technology facilitates listening to each of these pieces in isolation, all the better to appreciate its unique qualities. Nevertheless, I, for one, am delighted that they have all been served up in a single package!

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