New England’s Prospect: Don’t Mention the War

New England’s Prospect: Don’t Mention the War

Sound in SPACE festival
A few heads of the “Hydra” in the Fenway Center for the Sound in SPACE festival, November 18, 2011.

With its Atlantic outlook, it’s probably not surprising that Boston has always intellectually cast a devotional eye towards Europe, historically oscillating between the competing charms of Germany and France. German philosophy and music held sway through the 19th century—the Transcendentalists loved their Beethoven—but Boston lurched westward across the Rhine in the wake of World War I and the resulting anti-German sentiment. (Musically, much of Boston’s Francophilia would, like the music itself, dance cheek-to-cheek with Russia.) War created another pendulum swing: the post-World War II Boston Expressionist school of painting, figurative rather than abstract, was keyed by German immigrants.

French and German accents can still be found across the Boston musical landscape—the Boston Symphony, under James Levine, seemed to double down on its Munch-era French specialization, while the Boston Lyric Opera, under new leadership, has been taking tentative steps into the realm of Regietheater. New music has always been more of a grab bag. But a couple of concerts this month at least took that old German-French axis as a starting point—though the music ended up in rather more cosmopolitan territory.

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Sound Icon is now in its second season. Boston is crawling with new music ensembles, but most only rarely commit to Sound Icon’s larger dimensions, which means the group has the chance to present all kinds of European music that Boston hasn’t much heard. Last year, it was French spectralism—Grisey, Murail. This season, the spectral influence is being traced among France’s neighbors.

The highlight of Sound Icon’s season opener, on November 5, was the U.S. premiere of Wolfgang Rihm’s Concerto Séraphin, an hour-long, sixteen-player extravaganza. The angels are indeed fiery—this is exuberantly complex music, a bright riot of color. But the structure is simple: partition the ensemble, then keep reorienting it around the sound of particular instruments. The opening triggers a joyful, haywire outburst from two pianos, the energy of which jumps to the rest of the players like a spark. When the flutist makes the switch to alto flute, the group seems to become an amplifier for that sound, all keening long tones and deep gongs. A lot of the Concerto is built from giddy expectation, waiting for the gun in Act One to go off in Act Three: the horns sit quietly for better than half the piece, but once they enter, the trajectory towards pealing power is inexorable. Concerto Séraphin is demanding, crowded, oversaturated fun, what high modernism sounds like without existentialist angst.

Conductor Jeffrey Means, who keeps a busy schedule (a couple weeks later, he was conducting the East Coast Contemporary Ensemble in a similarly newfangled program at the French Cultural Center), is fascinating. His résumé is excellent; he programs with adventurously exquisite taste and he prepares complex scores with what must be superbly efficient rehearsal. And yet, in performance, he can be one of the most diffident conductors I’ve ever seen, his body language slack and passive. Most of the time, it’s a quirk—he drew out a terrific performance of the Rihm, with enough flair to carry through what admirably few unsteady points there were. But in pieces where there’s a lot of stasis or silence, it can be a problem. Salvatore Sciarrino’s Introduzione all’Oscuro, for instance, which opened the program: a tour of the glossed-over edges of instrumental sound, the squeaks, and clicks and rustles (not to mention heavy breathing) that proper technique brushes under the rug. Means’s control of all this hush was precise, and the grim storm it built up to was sharp and balanced. But along the way, in places where the intensity needed to be sustained across rests or pauses, the energy would instead drop, not revved up again until the next sound. On balance, though, Means’s eagerness to tackle monumental slices of modernism, and the care with which he shepherds them to performance, is a boon.

The concert also included the winner of the Boston University/Sound Icon composition contest, a product of the group’s connection with spectrally trained composer Joshua Fineberg, now a BU faculty member. The honoree was Rafael Amaral, whose Pherrk ic deconstructed the sounds of crows into a chorus of Sciarrino-like sharp edges—though, with lots of drone foundations, Pherrk ic presented a far thicker and more dense stew than Sciarrino’s hide-and-seek. The sound-world was an interesting paradox: loud but overcast.

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Over the past couple of years, the Goethe-Institut Boston has become a particularly entrepreneurial importer/presenter of electroacoustic music. For this month’s Sound in SPACE festival—three days of concerts and workshops (I caught a pair of concerts on Friday the 18th)—the Institut made an alliance, co-sponsoring the event with Boston’s French Consulate. (Academic sponsorship was via a hands-across-the-Charles partnership between Northeastern and Harvard.) The composers-in-residence—Daniel Teruggi, director of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales wing of France’s INA-GRM, and Ludger Brümmer, director of musical research at Karlsruhe’s similar ZKM—both heavy hitters, nevertheless remain largely unknown in these parts, an indication, maybe, of the continuing below-the-radar reputation of electroacoustic music in the U.S.

The focus of the festival was the interpretation of electronic music in live performance—the practical technique behind the mad-scientist image of the composer intensely hunched over the mixing board in a darkened hall. For most electronic concerts I’ve heard, the interpretive challenge is making the most out of limited resources—for example, last month, I heard Jed Speare, presented by the experimental music series Non-Event (a frequent Goethe-Institut collaborator for electronic music), making pretty skillful use of a pair of speakers and the tiny, shoebox-like space of Café Fixe. (Speare’s offering, a work-in-progress, was a lovely, almost wistful arrangement of very industrial sounds, like an abandoned factory left to its involuntary HVAC respiration; the coffee, a pour over of Stumptown direct-trade Indonesian blend, was equally diverting.) By contrast, the concert venue for Sound in SPACE was Northeastern’s Fenway Center, a repurposed Gothic-revival church, all vaulting space and cathedral ceilings. The wherewithal was Harvard’s “Hydra” Speaker-Orchestra, no fewer than thirty-two loudspeakers arranged about the place. The result might have been the best-sounding electroacoustic concert I’ve ever been to: crystal-clear, a huge range of frequencies and dynamic power, even sixteen-channel separations clean and distinct. Size—and quantity—matters.

Friday’s concerts began with works by three of the six finalists of the festival’s composition competition. All presented in-depth manipulations of found sounds, finding the music within non-musical noise: Andrew Babcock’s Anagoge used ingredients of crinkling paper and a buzzing beard trimmer, Ana Dall’Ara-Majek’s La Lechuga was based around the sounds of lettuce—rustling, snapping, crunching, chewing—while Simone D’Ambrosio’s Villusions presented a kitchen-sink selection of urban sounds, an aural inventory of, in this case, Montreal. (The night before, another finalist, Martin Bédard, had performed a work making similar use of Quebec City’s sonic landscape. I wish they had presented the two back-to-back, a St. Lawrence River rivalry in music.)

But all three works also showed imaginative use of the medium’s potential for varied dramatic dimension. Babcock’s was the most abstract, turning on illusions of sonic proximity: the way white noise always seems to hover at an indeterminate distance, the way some electronic drones can generate enough palpability to almost invade one’s personal space. D’Ambrosio’s soundscape was one of alienated familiarity, a distorted canvas of bells, bubbling voices, indecipherable PA announcements, machinery and engines of all kinds—a Dantean intermodal depot. Dall’Ara-Majek went in for surrealism, reimagining her chosen vegetable under different guises, from a beloved pet to “a monster provoking total panic,” with an appropriate horror-movie soundtrack of theatrical screams.

Unlike the finalists’ work, which all fell more-or-less on the sound-art side of the ledger, Brümmer’s works—a trio of compositions, presented on the evening’s late concert—for all their electronic intricacy, were musical in a quite traditional way, hinging on pitch, rhythm, harmony. Glasharfe, Brümmer’s homage to the glass harmonica, was appropriately limited to vitrine sources, struck or bowed, a palette of limpid resonance. For the piece’s climax, Brümmer engineered effects that would have made Bruckner proud: a driving, almost club-worthy rhythmic crescendo, with great, rising sweeps of sound, setting up the sudden entrance of a sub-woofer foundation, like an organist dropping both feet onto the pedalboard. Gesualdo made more explicit bid for a place along the continuum of musical history, taking as its source a Gesualdo canzona and recombining it into a slow-burn epic, patiently building up clouds of notes and even some Glass-like polyrhythms. The interpretive aspect was especially noticeable in this one, given its more manipulable four-channel construction—and Brümmer piled up some crescendi of hair-raising length and power.

Like Gesualdo, Brümmer’s Nyx quotes pre-existing music—in this case, a snippet of Debussy’s flute-viola-harp Sonata, stretched to such length that all that’s left is the music’s satiny sheen. And, like both other works on the concert, Nyx nourishes its substantial length—a continuous half-hour movement—by adapting venerable concert-music techniques to electronic environments. Both Gesualdo and Nyx, for example, set up the slow unfolding of their rhetoric with soft, slow introductions, Gesualdo creeping in on near-inaudibility, Nyx letting the listener get thoroughly lost in shimmering delicacy. And traditional strategies of long-range tension were front-and-center: Nyx seems to set up a conflict between mechanistic kinds of music—rhythmically regular, percussive—and more atmospheric sounds, though the protagonist-antagonist line is thoroughly blurred, the atmosphere, at times, becoming as tense and threatening as any ostinato assault. If the finalist composers were making a virtue of Cagean immediacy and novelty, noticing the music where music might not be expected, Brümmer effectively connected the very up-to-date computerized means to a very long line of Classical-Romantic ends—structurally sound, ravishingly beautiful. If one wanted, one could almost have called it a marriage between German sublimity and French sensuality.

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