Saturday, May 31, 2008

I Saw a Sign in the Sky

So, to try and loop back onto last weekend before the rest of this weekend and its own concerts happens:

Friday, May 23rd

Went to a new music concert in Kreuzberg (the Eastern most section of the former West Berlin), by the Ensemble Zwischentoene, part of a weekend-long sequence of concerts called “Idiota Triumphans” – though other concerts kept me from attending the other nights of Idiota. I was tipped to the existence of this concert by the other music-nerd that’s at the Goethe-Institut currently, my friend (one, of course, becomes friends with the other music nerds (my friend Derek, who was with me at the other concerts this weekend – Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday – was the other music-nerd at the G-I last summer)) Maggie, who actually wasn’t planning on attending, but showed up after all at the last minute. Three pieces by three composters – “Berlin Exercises” (2000) by Christian Wolff, “Sieben Stimmen” (2003) by Christina Kubisch, and “Aguas” (1994) by Maria de Alvear.

So none of this music was brand new, but it’s hard to judge that sort of thing anyway, these days. Carefully programmed though – the three pieces certainly belonged together, though at times it was hard to differentiate this concert from a hypothetical concert-that-ends-a-weekend-long-extended-techniques-seminar. Which is not to say at all that I’m down on extended techniques. George Crumb is one of my favorite it composers. (Though if we can consider John Adams sitting in front of his computer and hitting the shortcut keys for “Copy” and then “Paste” on his music-scoring software as a compositional extended technique then maybe I can come out as being anti-extended techniques.) I guess the question is – which I, in usual fashion, will not pursue – whether or not extended techniques can ever be emancipated from their very extended-ness.

The composers, I think, were also fans of Nono. Lots of sparse scoring, blunt refusal to groove in the usual now-is-now fashion (though still too much rhythm, if you ask me). All three pieces were for various chamber ensembles. The hall itself was really quite cool. It was an old Ball House which was only partially restored (the kind of artsy “look its still partly destroyed” kind of aesthetic which now that I’m getting out more in Berlin seems commoner than I initially would have guessed).

“Berlin Exercises” seemed to be about a couple things – there was a sung text, which I could only understand snippets of – but the piece was structured around a song initially incanted only by solo voice, then slowly expanded by the instrumental ensemble, with lots of riffing on single notes and things. The piece was in four movements, and seemed to be at least casually winking at the good-old-fashioned Classical Symphony. Good piece thumbs up. It’s actually really great to have gotten out for a couple of contemporary concerts – something that I missed entirely last summer, though I must admit that seeing new music generates a certain kind of itch internally for me, which generally (the itch) represents, I think, the not-making-music-ness of my current existence (I was talking to Maggie during the intermission, and describing my approach to the piece – something basically to the extent of “I tried to figure out what its project was and then approach it in terms of that project.” “But you’re being a critic!” she exclaims, and I have no choice but to admit that that’s the case, though the last thing I want to be is an ex-musician turned critic (I want to be a musician and a critic, if anything).).

“Sieben Stimmen” was more of a dud for me. Interesting enough – the piece was scored for – I guess it was seven – musicans who were striking tuning forks of various pitches and holding them to various objects. The basic problem with a piece like this is that it can begin, but never end – it can only stop. Very quickly the sonic world becomes defined by the anticipation of the dull percussion of the hand (or knee (or mallet)) striking the fork, followed by the sharper attack of the tuning fork being touched to its resonating object (whether a desk, a bowl, a suitcase, or a closed piano), finished with the rapidly fading tone itself. The piece was clearly somewhat “aleatoric” as I suppose they’d say (which they? you know, them.), in that the players were letting the pitches ring until they couldn’t hear/feel them ringing anymore. So there’s no way to end this piece – at some point there can only be a halting of attacks, which is not an end (this argument will allow a counter-argument against the necessity of “endings” but not against its essential principle of what it means to end (which I haven’t, and won’t, explicate)). After a while, though, since this piece was really long, it stopped being music at all for me, and just something of a performance, in that I was engaged only at the level of being bored and wanting to leave but being compelled as a polite contemporary audience member to sit quietly and only think internally over the authoritarian dynamic of performer-to-audience. Eventually, the players started to drop out, and suddenly a 3-part Major chord was come upon. Suddenly I thought that maybe there was a way to end the piece after all – but of course, the piece wasn’t actually over. Too bad – had the piece actually ended on that single Major chord I would have been totally satisfied and totally on board with it. But as is, since the piece took another five minutes or so to finally die away to its end in a very boring kind of “Oh look, a couple of the players haven’t finished all their previously-established tuning fork routines just yet.” way, I’ve got to give it a thumbs down (and, again, if you find me in person some time, ask me again, and I’ll give you a thorougher rundown).

“Aquas,” as I put it to Maggie as we walked away from the concert, was, like, totally about water, or something. Probably the best piece on the program. It had a dance too. I’m totally making this concert sound worse in writing about it than it actually was. It was good – interesting music. Super glad I heard it. Wish I was making new music or at least performing it myself. Though I have found myself parodying some of the stylings during the week since this concert, it was still more than worth hearing (and, of course, any time you get to parody something by singing random pitches and waving your arms around slowly is a good thing).


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