Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Seattle Chamber Players in a publicity photo for the Icebreaker festival just past

What an extraordinary weekend of music! The Seattle Chamber Players have been hosting a week-end long festival-conference of contemporary American composers. It’s been a blast.

What a hot band! Violinist Mikhail Shmidt, cellist Devid Sabee, clarinetist Laura DeLuca, and flautist Paul Taub play with hot verve and tremendous togetherness -- thrillingly precise and colorful. And the amount of music! Five world premieres and two Seattle premieres on Friday, followed by four world premieres, two Seattle premieres, and a world premiere of a new revision of a piece on Saturday, followed by a three-and-a-half-hour concert of the music of Morton Feldman (1926 - 1987) on Sunday.

And a lovely band, such beautiful sounds they all make, separately and together.

Alex Ross (who’s almost 40) curated Friday’s show of composers under 40, and Kyle Gann (who’s over) curated Saturday’s show of composers over 40 -- actually, of his friends.

Youth v. age? Nah, it was a love fest; or, so it seemed to me; BUT! one can’t help but compare. I can report that the older composers visually signify their membership in the arts tribe by wearing mostly (not exclusively) black, while the younger composers signify with funkier clothes and hair and, in some cases, indie-rock-style slouching.

Nico Muhly, one of the under-30 crowd, and whose piece I really liked, points out on his blog how much more the older composers used electronics than the younger, attributing the mega-wired-ness to anti-academic rebellion, contentiously and subtly implying a perpetual adolescence to the elders.

Youth v. age!

Anna Clyne was the one composer of the under-30s who would have fit in to Saturday’s show. Her piece, 1987, relied heavily on pre-recorded sounds that evoked the title year to her, when she was seven years old. The juxtaposition of the music box and calliope sounds with the quiet, lovely playing of the ensemble brought up interesting, perplexing foreground / background questions for me. I had bumped into a friend, composer Gretta Harley, at intermission, and she guessed that Clyne had deliberately set the live musicians in the background to the recordings; at a bar after Saturday’s concert I met Anna and she confirmed this guess. I had been thrown off by the more glamorous sonic presence of the recording as compared to the band. Given that the piece evokes memory, the backgrounding of the live musicians has a metaphorical sense: When in the grip of reverie, the visions of the past -- whether sonic, olfactory, or visual -- can push present stimuli into the background. At points the piece felt like a surrealist film; these musicians sawing away, with other music overwhelming what they were playing; at times I wished that the disconnect had been more severe, that we couldn’t hear the players at all (which reminded me of a long performance poem I wrote and recited in college accompanied by guitar feedback which mostly drowned my voice out; I heard the tape of the performance afterward and really liked the effect) -- except that Clyne’s writing for the group was slowly moving and beautiful. A lovely piece.

John Luther Adams’s The Light Within blew foreground / background questions away in its wall of glorious, slowly moving sound. I asked Adams after the concert how he generated the pre-recorded sound. He had scored it for the ensemble; they had recorded it, and he had manipulated it on his computer with a view of blending the live with the pre-recorded sound seamlessly. A gorgeous piece; I overheard more than one audience member ID it as their favorite of the evening, and I could not disagree.

Eve Beglarian’s song for flute, electronics, and voice, Robin Redbreast, and William Duckworth’s Cathedral solved the foreground / background puzzle the traditional way: The live performers had center stage sonically as well as visually. Everyone I talked to really liked Beglarian’s piece and particularly guest vocalist Jessika Kenney’s performance, and nobody I talked to tracked the song’s text all the way through; I include myself in both groups.

Cathedral was unforgettable. A semi-improvised poly-everything internet performance process piece with live DJ that Duckworth and team have been presenting for over a decade, the Seattle version was blessed by having master trombonist-composer-improviser Stuart Dempster in front. (Maybe other presentations have been blessed by equally gifted band members; maybe Dempster tours with them; I don’t know; but he lives in Seattle and I feel lucky to have seen him in performance.) It was fascinating to watch Seattle Chamber Player Paul Taub on flute contribute some of his most cantabile playing of the two nights as he improvised more tentatively but always beautifully, in contrast to Dempster, whose improvisations took over the stage. Arthur Sabatini’s semi-improvised (I asked him afterwards at the bar; he confirmed) monologue held me too: a wandering shaman/mystic quester in search of the unattainable and yet mythically attractive merging with music, with a paradoxically hard-boiled style -- I dug it. (Sabatini is nothing like the character he plays; I enjoyed meeting him.)

Janice Giteck’s Ishi provided two more unforgettable musical theatrical moments. A musical meditation on the last member of the Yahi Indian tribe of California, who left his ancestral lands in 1911 and lived the rest of his life in San Francisco, Giteck incorporated a detail of his biography in a surprising and delightful way. Ishi was enthralled when he first heard Caruso records; Giteck had violinist Mikhail Shmidt remove his shoes and walk into the audience playing a Donizetti aria associated with Caruso. Shmidt invited us to “sing along,” and many did: something I had never experienced at a classical show -- and oddly sweet and lovely. The last movement of Giteck’s piece was a meditative film of photographs of Ishi placed in his ancestral lands. The band did not play at all during the film, to satisfying effect.

Kyle Gann’s Kierkegaard, Walking evoked an unseen film of a stroll through Copenhagen (I’ve never been there), unhurried, steady, and beautiful, with some deliciously sweet harmonies.

Family obligations prevented me from catching more than part of one piece of today’s Morton Feldman marathon at the Seattle Art Museum. Like much of Feldman’s music, Crippled Symmetry, for flute, bass flute, percussion (marimba and xylophone?), piano, and celesta, shimmers with quiet, calm, unpredictable dissonance. Hearing it in a museum gave it a constant background of the shuffling murmur of museum patrons. “We rustle, like the leaves”; the evanescence of a human life flickered like the sight of a human figure tiny in a vast classical Chinese landscape. Hearing the music in a room full of works by Abstract Expressionist painters like Pollock, de Kooning, Kline, and Feldman’s beloved Rothko, I felt his connection to their work. He’s an expressionist: Feldman’s music creates a mood, an enchantment, an attuned serenity; like the painters, Feldman serves beauty with traditional materials (beautiful lines, beautiful colors; both designations applicable to his music and their painting), with utterly untraditional technique. During Saturday night’s post-concert Q&A with the composers, Kyle had mentioned the influence of Feldman’s abjuring of traditional western tension-and-release dramatics on all of them, but the explosion of applause that greeted the end of Crippled Symmetry complicated Kyle’s claim. Feldman does not employ conventional tension-and-release patterning within the piece, but he does create a sort of tension that is exquisitely sustained until the piece ends, and the release is ecstatic.

A highlight of the weekend for me was meeting Kyle (scroll down for the photographic evidence). I had been a fan of his writing since the early ‘90s, and we have corresponded for a few years now, and it was great to meet him. I enjoyed meeting a bunch of the other composers as well, in addition to Seattle-based sound-sculptor Trimpin (whose work is visually and musically delightful) and local composer-critics Christopher DeLaurenti and Gavin Borchert, both of whom I had corresponded with but never met. I recognized them from photos and accosted them in the lobby during intermission and after Saturday’s concert. I’ve never heard Gavin’s music (put me on your email list, please!), but Christopher wrote an extraordinary, moving essay about field recording the WTO protests, which so impressed me that when I came across his edited recording of the event I bought it -- and it’s tremendous.

Inspiring weekend. The music created an experience of communion. Grateful to the players and composers.

It was beautiful to meet you, and to repeatedly encounter your smiling face at the various events. Hope to run into you again out and about!!

It was lovely to meet you as well, and I'll try to make your birthday show.
OOPS! I'm afraid that website is very, very out of date. I'm sure that nothing quite so special is happening for this birthday. :( I'm sorry, too - that was a great show.

Another time then?

And I promise to update that thing before March, or at least take it down... tamaraweikel.com will hopefully catch up eventually. It's not as slick, but it's easier to slack on...
Thanks for the clarification -- hope to hear your music some time!
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