Last night the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) performed their Temporal Excursions program in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, which is part of the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera on the top floor of the Veterans Building. This is a “dead” space, deliberately designed in such a way that all acoustic properties are products of electronic gear. In other words the setting is a “blank space” in which different acoustic qualities for different sonorities are given a “level playing field.”
This was the ideal setting for a program consisting of three compositions, each involving unconventional approach to rhythmic patterns as the primary structural component. It would probably be fair to say that Conlon Nancarrow was a pioneer (if not the pioneer) of this approach to composition. Each of his explorations of those rhythmic patterns was given the title “Study,” followed by a “catalog number.” The patterns he explored were so complex that he could not play them accurately; so his “performances” consist of an extensive library of hand-punched player piano rolls, where the locations of the holes (which would establish the rhythms) could be established with the straight-edge and compass used in the study of geometry.
One of Nancarrow’s earliest compositions was his Boogie-Woogie Suite, whose five movements were labeled “Study No. 3a” to “Study No. 3e.” Last night’s program began with “Study No. 3a;” but it was performed by an ensemble of six instruments: clarinet (Jeff Anderle), electric guitar (David Tanenbaum), percussion (Haruka Fujii), piano (Keisuke Nakagoshi), cello (Douglas Machiz), and bass (Richard Worn). The transcription was created by Evan Ziporyn. The breadth of sonorities made it easier for the attentive listener to appreciate both the eccentric rhythmic patterns and the interplay among patterns being performed simultaneously.
This instrumental account of Nancarrow’s polyrhythms served as an “overture” for the world premiere performace of four movements from a suite by Brian Baumbusch entitled Polytempo Music. This music was commissioned by SFCMP and is still work in progress. It requires an ensemble of twelve performers, each of which has an earpiece providing a “click track,” which sets the tempo. This allows each performer to proceed at a tempo that differs from those of the other eleven players. This left Artistic Director Eric Dudley with the task of giving everyone the first “down beat,” after which he could step down from the podium and let the earpieces do the rest.
I have to confess that this was far from the easiest composition to “parse” through a single listening experience. One is better off simply embracing the chaos. Listening then becomes a matter of trying to home in on individual instrumentalists to capture the motifs they happen to be playing (often as repeated rhythmic patterns). This was clearly not music that could be grasped through a single listening experience. Nevertheless, within the limitations of a concert performance, one could cultivate an awareness of what each of the players was doing, perhaps as an acoustic analog to the way in which we perceive the patterns that come and go in a cloudy sky. Once again, I find myself drawn to the advice given in T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:”
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
The final “temporal excursion” was a polyrhythmic three-movement suite by Esa-Pekka Salonen entitled Catch & Release, being given its Bay Area premiere. This was scored for the same collection of instruments that had been required for Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. By the time that Dudley took the podium for this selection, it would be fair to say that the audience was becoming used to the variety of patterns one could encounter in rhythmic complexity. That said, much of the listening experience emerged from the interplay of the sonorous qualities. Each of the “families” had its own pair of players: clarinet (Peter Josheff) and bassoon (Jamael Smith), trumpet (William Harvey) and trombone (Brendan Lai-Tong), violin (Hrabba Atladottir) and bass (Worn), and percussion (Fujii, the one exception). One might say that the diversity of those sonorities guided the efforts of the attentive listener to appreciate the interplay of rhythms (although the “guidance” of the first half of the program was probably just as effective an asset).