Last night in Herbst Theatre, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP), led by Artistic Director Eric Dudley, presented a showcase of the beneficiaries of the ARTZenter Institute's Emerging Composer Grant Program. The program consisted of thee world premiere performances of works by three composers, one, Julie Zhu, born in 1990 and the other two, Patrick Holcomb and Bobby Ge, born in 1996. While much of “new music” tends to have been composed on a chamber music scale, all three of the works on last night’s program were performed by the full SFCMP ensemble.
The presentation was an interesting one. Each piece would be performed, after which the composer would engage in dialog with Dudley, primarily about the motivation behind the act of composition. That dialog was then followed by a second performance of the music, providing the listener with a different (and, hopefully, richer) frame of reference.
Each composer took a unique approach to the dialog. I was particularly interested in Zhu, whose own “performing instrument” is the carillon. My own first encounter with this instrument took place on the Berkeley campus. I found that I could go upstairs in the tower that housed the bells and watch the act of performance behind the music.
While each work was decidedly unique, all three compositions seem to have been inspired by different aspects of the natural world. Thus Zhu’s composition, “as swiftly and fading as soon,” was a reflection on the weather. “This City Was Once an Ocean,” by Patrick Holcomb, was a reflection on climate change and the possibility that the human race will occupy only a modest span of time in the overall life of the planet. “The Floating World,” the concluding work on the program by Bobby Ge, was inspired by the familiar woodblock print by Hokusai, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”
Taken as a whole, this was a decidedly rich experience. Nevertheless, even with the benefit of the second-listening experience, there seemed to be an overall sense of sameness at the “deep structure,” in spite of the variety of “surface structures.” Walking back from Herbst, I realized that all three composers were of a generation for which the music of John Adams was familiar. As a result, both approaches to instrumentation and the rhetorical expression of thematic material reflected a background that those of my generation had only encountered in middle age.
The act of listening always requires some sort of point of departure. Every generation has its own reference point for that point of departure. Thus, my own impressions last night were those of having a “first contact” with points of departure of a new generation that offered their own unique listening experiences.