Thursday, March 8, 2012

Just for All of Us

Young composer Maxwell McKee had a confession to make.  While he was writing a composition commissioned by Contemporaneous, he was suffering from an acute case of Ligeti’s Syndrome.  (György Ligeti, after whom this syndrome is named, is best known to many as the composer whose music appears in soundtracks of Stanley Kubrick films, including 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

As McKee explained, “What Ligeti’s syndrome is is basically when you’re up against and so deeply involved with this music that you believe is perfect, you know, mathematically and emotionally, in so many ways perfect, an ideal music, how do you write something in the face of that?”

The occasion of his comment was Contemporaneous’s first home-base concert of 2012, Just for Us.  On the docket were not just one or two, but six world premiere performances.  In introducing the evening, co-artistic director Dylan Mattingly, with his usual aplomb, put the challenge in perspective:  “Part of the excitement to me of hearing something completely new is that you have no idea what it’s going to be.  Nothing has proved it not the best thing in the world.”

All but one of the composers featured were born in 1991 or 1992; the elder statesman of the group was Lawton Hall (born in 1987, a fact of which he made amusing note).  They hailed from Mexico City, the two US Coasts, and points in between.  Aside from Mattingly, I’d heard music of two, McKee and Adam Zuckerman, at a student recital about a year before.  I was eager to hear from them again; as to the remaining three, I looked forward to what was in store.

Andrés Martínez de Velasco Escobedo's Dubio

Andrés Martínez de Velasco Escobedo’s Dubio, for violin and chamber orchestra, opened the concert.  After the concert, Leonardo Pineda, the fine violinist for whom de Velasco Escobedo wrote the piece, teased the composer about its difficulty.  The phrase that had seemed so easy when the composer tried it out on a toy violin turned out to involve huge leaps.  You wouldn’t have known it, though, from Pineda’s lyrical performance.

The piece opens with a set of gentle piano chords, and Pineda’s violin steals in on a tumbling lament.  The orchestra swells and falls away as the violin keens in passages of plaintive beauty.  With a patter of notes, the music emerges from a darkened byway to land in the midst of a fractured circus parade.  On a harp’s ethereal plucks, the parade moves out of sight and the music shifts again.  From within a shimmering soundscape, a trumpet beckons the violin to resume its place, and the music fades to a poignant close.

Molly Joyce's Dollhouse

Next up was Dollhouse, by Molly Joyce.  Joyce, a Juilliard student, explained that the piece, for chamber ensemble, came out of a dark time when she was questioning her “whole pursuit of a career as a composer.”  The Dollhouse came to represent for her “the idea of predictability and unpredictability in our lives.”

The piece begins on a single, repeated note from the piano, an auditory semaphore signaling distress.  The music proceeds in rhythmic bursts, gathering instruments to build layers of sound.  The strings lift the ensemble to harrowing heights, anchored by the horns.  The pulse returns, insistent.  The music subtly changes as a long-lined lyricism threads its way through the tumult.  The strings sing out, not in blinkered belief, but in a determined “I can.”  As the piece comes to a close, a drum beats out a new semaphore:  “I can, and I will.”

Lawton Hall's Hypothetical Patterns of Public-Private Conflict

Lawton Hall recently graduated and now supports himself, as so many in his position must, with part-time jobs.  Work on his piece, Hypothetical Patterns of Public-Private Conflict, took place, of necessity, in his limited free time.  “I realized,” he said, that “composing has become a very solitary, private experience for me.”  In this context, performance of the piece gained particular significance:  “Eventually I gave the score to David [Bloom], and David gave the parts to all these wonderful musicians, and now it’s presented to the public, and it’s this whole big birthing process that we all can be a part of.”

A lone horn’s solemn notes sound the beginning of Hypothetical Patterns of Public-Private Conflict.  Note by artfully chosen note, the instruments entwine in angular elegance, colliding in dissonance and unraveling in turns. The sound lines dissolve in a susurrus of percussion and voice, and the music closes on the horn's faint echo of its opening call.

Maxwell McKee's Double Quintet with Percussion

In his Double Quintet with Percussion, McKee demonstrates, as he had with his student recital piece Double Helix, a gift for graceful melodic line.  Double Quintet begins with a series of gently falling notes.  McKee knows how to take his time, how to let the music develop its meditative point.  On a flutter of winds, the music turns its face toward a lovely, lilting rhythm, and plucked strings carry us along its joyful path.  The music builds, in a gently rocking motion, toward an ecstatic end.

Adam Zuckerman's Reels

Adam Zuckerman’s first words, as he strode onstage, were these:  “I’d like to preface this by saying that I think I coined the term ‘Ligeti’s Syndrome.’”

The biting musical intelligence that informs that remark, as it informed his fine Quintet at the student recital, is powerfully at work in Reels.  The first notes set the music out on a brazenly dissonant limb, and it’s hard to fathom how Zuckerman will reel it back.  The oboe and clarinet, spellbinding sorcerers hauntingly played by Stuart Breczinski and Brad Cherwin, lead the way, their sinuous lament disrupted by percussive gestures from the piano and strings.  On descending piano chords, ringing out like fearsome bells, the winds let out their last ghostly cries, and the piece dies away on a solitary reed.

Dylan Mattingly's A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun

The concert closed with a piece from Dylan Mattingly, A Way A Lone A Last A Loved A Long the Riverrun.  Though it takes as its title the first words from James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, its musical roots lie deep in the byways of Americana, notably the folk field recordings gathered by Lomax father and son. The piece is scored for bassoon, percussion (including garbage can), violin, cello, and contrabass.  The bassoon, played with bluesy panache by David Adam Nagy, takes center stage to exuberant effect.  I believe this piece is fully notated and scored, yet it speaks from the vibrant, vital heart that is particular to improvisation.

As I listen, I’m taken to a wide veranda overlooking the Mississippi River, where I sit in a weathered rocker with friends on either side.  We look down the river, searching for the music that’s been riding on the wind to where we sit.  Off a ways, but not so far we can’t make it out, we see the intrepid David Bloom conducting the magnificent musicians of Contemporaneous.

We realize what we’ve been hearing is the concert I’ve just described.  We know how fragile the future of a new composition can be, how often its first performance might also be its last.  We know, too, that, though this concert may have begun Just for Us, it is too fine, too precious, simply to disappear. We want it to have a longer life; we want it to be heard.  We want it to become a concert not Just for Us, but for all of us.

My friends and I, there on the veranda, nod to one another.  We stand and applaud, we hoot and holler.  We shout out to them, hands cupped around our mouths so the sound will carry, and here is what we say:

“Ligeti, schmigeti.  Who needs Ligeti?  You, composers and musicians of Contemporaneous, follow your muses, and we will follow you.”


To hear the six pieces premiered in the concert Just for Us, click here

For a complete program and list of musicians who played each piece, click here.  David Bloom conducted throughout.

Credits:  The photographs of the fine musicians of Contemporaneous that appear at the head and foot of the post can be found here and here.  With grateful thanks to Contemporaneous and the composers for making audio of this extraordinary concert available and for permission to include it on Prufrock's Dilemma in conjunction with this post. 


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
What an impressively fine group of young musicians and composers. Such passion for their art and so skilled in their craft. Frightening and yet just hopes that they can be sustained and supported in their endeavours in these most turbulent of times.

So interesting the reference to Ligeti Syndrome, a Hungarian composer about whom we are ashamed to say that we know little. We shall, however, now be seeking him and his work out so that we may be a little more knowledgeable about the elements of his music of which the immensely talented young man clearly knows so much.

Suze said...

Read this while listening to, 'Dollhouse.'

“I realized,” he said, that “composing has become a very solitary, private experience for me.”

I think that in an increasingly transparent milieu, people who create are craving secret wombs and finding them much harder to find. In large part, this is because, besides being a haven, the isolation of the womb requires naked discipline when it's voluntary.

So maybe the sustained determination toward secrecy is where the problem lies.

Another post parfait, Sue. Metips me hat.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I can see why you're excited about these composers - must've been a great concert. It's hard to say which piece is most intriguing. Maybe, on a first listen, Molly Joyce's piece is, but they all demand repeated listens.

Britta said...

Dear Susan,
thank you for your post - which was a difficult one for me. First I wasn't sure whether I had understood Ligeti's Syndrom right - I am still not sure, surfed through the Internet and found another blogger, Patrick Swanson with Meadowlark Lemons, who presented Étude Nr.1 "Disordre'.
Then , as you know, I am musically illiterate - but I learn, in very tiny steps. (Next Sunday our neighbours invited us to come to a concert in Berlin, though I believe it is more classic than your music). I know everything is a process of getting used to and the willingness to learn without prejudices - yesterday for once I succeeded in modern Art - but I am always suspicious: we have a winged word: if I like a Science Fiction story (which I very seldom do), one can be quite sure that it is not "real" Science Fiction - meaning: if I like something very modern, maybe it is not really this. :-)

Scott said...

Great review. I could tell you were pumped. It made me want to experience the music . "Susurrus", what a beautiful word!
I'm new to alot of what you're into. I like being challenged. At this stage I really don't need to be intimidated. I found the concert quite friendly and engaging.
I'm at a disadvantage,because I don't know all the instruments. But I was struck by the variety and clarity. All the instruments seemed to have their own voice. It wasn't some sensational, chaotic mess.
I could you see you digging the show with your friends.
I liked all the pieces. And encourage the band to keep bringing it. I think there is alot of folks like Jerilyn and myself. Not big time sophisticated but we have good hearts and ears.
Double Quintet seemed to have a noticeable beat that you could groove too. I could see Roger Daltry grabbing the mike and belting something out.
Riverrun seemed eclectic and organic. The constant was the hollow vibe type instrument. Then the infusion of the blugrass type element turned it into almost like a jam.
Once again thanks for bringing a very cool sound to us.

Lawton said...

Thank you for your wonderful, colorful review, Susan. It was an unforgettable night that I am proud to have been a part of. So much electricity is in the air with just ONE world premiere, that having six in one night was unreal.

Thanks again and all best wishes,

Lawton Hall

Jayne said...

Ah, Ligeti's syndrome. Writers have their own version of that, too. Probably every artist. There's much greatness out there, but there's always more to add to the mix.

It's so encouraging and exciting to hear of young composers, well, composing! And I love how you soak it all in and shake it out at us. I'd have never known about this premiere without you.

A pitch perfect post, Susan. ;)

wanderer said...

This beautifully thought through post of vibrant hearts and muses is worthy of more time than I can devote to it, but, I will. And savour it as it deserves.

klahanie said...

Hi Susan,
As you may well have figured out, I'm rather lost amongst all this musical culture you so kindly bring forth to my bewildered brain.
Yet, I did listen and admire all the different videos you have submitted. Indeed, those youthful composers and musicians shall keep alive, the magic and the wonder of such music. Although my musical taste is rather eclectic, when I try to formulate some semblance of a serious posting, invariably, I have the British radio station, "Classic FM', on in the background.
And thus, my friend, you in the category, "Blogger with the Absolute Best, Most Faithful Followers Who Are Willing to Hang In There Through Those Music Posts", has my utmost respect and wish you well in the revamped version of 'Blogger's Got Talent' :)

theconstantwalker said...

I love reading your posts Susan.. and they make me smile as I sometimes(always)struggle to appreciate what you enjoy..
I enjoy the work of lakes poets Wordsworth, Southy and Coleridge..etc but only discovered after I first started hillwalking.

A big hug from Drew and thanks for being my friend. xxx

Susan Scheid said...

To all: Just have to share some great news of another milestone reached by Contemporaneous: with the help of 89 contributors, they have fully funded the costs of producing their first CD, of Dylan Mattingly’s music. Congratulations, Contemporaneous!

Jane and Lance: I am told Ligeti’s Syndrome is rampant at Bard’s Conservatory of Music (where McKee and most members of Contemporaneous study). I don’t know Ligeti’s music, either, though I’ve begun a small exploration. Whatever the syndrome is, the recovery rate is fantastic, if what Contemporaneous and these young composers are doing is any indication!

Suze: Interesting observation from you, once again. I think another big issue, upon leaving the creative community provided by a college or university, is the sense of isolation that surely must follow, particularly if you are living and working in a place where it’s difficult to build another such community. And thank you for the tip of the hat!

Mark: I’m pleased you had a listen. It was, of course, thrilling to be introduced to all these compositions—and hear from the composers—live. I feel particularly honored and privileged to be able to listen again and provide a space where others can as well. In preparing the post, I listened to each piece every time, and my admiration and enjoyment has only grown. I look forward to hearing from all of these composers more as time goes on.

Britta: Oh, clever of you to find that one! For all, click here
for the link to that, and here for another post about Ligeti on the same site. Hmm, I wonder, are we all going to contract some vicarious version of Ligeti’s Syndrome here? And as to the remainder of your comment: first off, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, after you posted this (click here to see the evidence—the Youtube link at the end of the post), your claim of musical illiteracy has been much discredited! I do know exactly what you mean, however, when you write, “if I like something very modern, maybe it is not really this.” Believe it or not, I often feel that way myself. After all, there are many musical “old chestnuts” (much as I cannot stand that description) that I’m just learning of and really love.

Susan Scheid said...

Herringbone: As I’ve already written elsewhere, I absolutely love what you’ve written here. Indeed, you’ve set some lightbulbs off in my head about why it is I am so taken with these young musicians and composers (more on that to come, in due course). Every observation you’ve made is wonderful. Here is but one I loved: “All the instruments seemed to have their own voice. It wasn't some sensational, chaotic mess.” I’ve certainly heard that kind of thing, too—though never from these composers and musicians—and I think I know just what you’re talking about. I think your description of Riverrun captures that piece perfectly—I, too, felt I was listening to something “almost like a jam.” I did many years ago attend the great Bean Blossom bluegrass festival, back when Bill Monroe was still alive and playing, and, I do agree with you that this piece has a lot of that feel.

Lawton: How nice of you to write! It is I who must thank you for such an unforgettable night. I can’t thank you, the other composers, and Contemporaneous enough for the fabulous music—and for allowing me the privilege of sharing the audio with this post.

Jayne: Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence (perhaps one day I will have to try and tackle that book?!) comes to mind. Elaine Fine, at Musical Assumptions, also quoted Stephane Wrembel on the “influence Django Reinhardt has on him: you can work under the shadows of great composers, or you can be illuminated by their light.” Nice way to look at it, don’t you think?

wanderer: “Vibrant hearts and muses” is a lovely phrase for it. (PS: Am looking forward to your take on that Met HD of Wagner.)

Gary: Well, Gary, as I hope you know, you are one of the “Absolute Best, Most Faithful Followers Who Are Willing to Hang In There Through Those Music Posts.” I wonder, by the way, just what sort of music Penny the Jack Russell Terrier and modest internet star likes best? Harry Partch’s Barstow, perchance? (It’s Woody Guthrie on microtones—the curious may click here.)

Andrew: I do love your walk posts—and I like your point about coming to enjoy Wordsworth et al once you began hillwalking. I think those connections are the starting point for many wonderful discoveries. Thanks for being my friend, too.

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