Saturday, June 21, 2008

SICPP, day five

Today's master class was led by composer-in-residence Jo Kondo and focussed exclusively on his works, several of which are being performed in tomorrow's Iditarod concert. Most of the works are for small chamber groups, most of whom performed today. First up was Elder's Hocket, for piano, vibraphone, flute and clarinet. Kondo has written several hocket pieces, using a technique of passing a melody around through several instruments. Here, the piano and flute are paired against the vibraphone and clarinet, and one of the first changes that Kondo made was to rearrange the instruments on stage better to clarify the relations.

Next, I had the opportunity to play High Window, and I must humbly confess that nearly all of the decisions I had made about the piece, and documented in this blog, were the exact opposite of Kondo's interpretation. Where I had opted to separate the chords, Kondo wanted them connected. Even though Kondo said in his program notes that the piece was a chorale, I had not detected a melody. Apparently I hadn't tried hard enough, and Kondo described each chord as hanging down from the top note (except for the handful of chords played in a slower tempo, which he wanted built up from the bottom), and the melody should sing. This was a constant theme through his comments on many of his pieces, that there was a clear melody that should be brought out. Another student played his solo piece A Short Summer Dance, but her work required much less correction than mine. In fairness, he was extremely gentle and constructive with his comments, treating the issue as merely a difference in interpretation. The ultimate test is what sounds the best, and I believe the piece does sound better with Kondo's suggestions. High Window was probably the closest work to Feldman's that anyone played today.

We moved to the percussion room for a performance of Luster Gave Her the Hat And He And Ben Went Across the Backyard for three marimbas. It's a process piece, similar to Steve Reich's compositions, and the wonderful title is a quotation from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. Then we heard A Shape Follows Its Shadow for two pianos, or, as Kondo phrased it, for one piano and double keyboard. The intent of the piece is to sound like a single piano is playing, with the performers playing the same chords with different articulations, so that the resonance is picked up by the second piano. Although the piece is very slow and sparse, there is a melody here that he wanted brought out as well.

One of Kondo's earliest pieces is Standing for any three instruments of different families. This is a hocket piece as well, and the intent of the piece is for the melody to travel between the instruments. The grouping here was for piano, harpsichord and celeste, and Kondo asked for the celeste to be changed to something else because the sound cannot be dampened, and the piece requires sharp and clear articulations. There's very little room for interpretation here — once the piece starts, it basically continues in the same rhythm, with each pitch change signifying a downbeat.

We had a little time left in the class, so Kondo took questions from the participants, and his answers were fascinating. The first question asked for clarification on his stated art of ambiguity, and he responded with a long anecdote on how Standing was composed. He seems to consider this piece as his opus one, with few earlier compositions still acknowledged. With Standing, he made a conscious effort to get away from his training, so he created an arbitrary scale of around fifteen notes, selected an order randomly with throws of dice, then added a regular pulse to the notes chosen. During the composition, he introduced a bias toward certain pitches and intervals, which tended the piece towards a kind of tonality, and the sounds were grouped according to the perception of this tonality, but it's not a tonality that anyone else would recognize as such, hence creating a pitch-based ambiguity. In other pieces, such as A Short Summer Dance, the ambiguity is in the overall structure; in others, the ambiguity is rhythmic, and so forth. His works are always going somewhere, even if the goal is not clearly stated, more of a nomadic wandering.

He talked about his influences for a while. He is constantly surprised that he gets so much credit for being influenced by traditional Japanese music because he heard very little of it until he was in his twenties. Most of this music he heard in his childhood was westernized. He did read a lot of Japanese literature and philosophy, so perhaps some common attitudes originated there. As for minimalism, the only piece he had heard before writing Standing in 1973 was Steve Reich's Piano Phase, which was performed in Tokyo in 1970. Otherwise, his exposure to minimal music came on his first trip to New York in 1979. One of the few pieces with an overtly Japanese influence is Strands II, a piece for multiple pianos all playing in unison (a version for three pianos will be at tomorrow's concert). He got the idea from Gagaku, which usually has only a single dancer, but which for important occasions will use up to four dancers performing exactly the same dance. He found that this gave the dance a certain added weight, and wanted to achieve the same effect with the piano.

His biography mentions his work with tape and electronics, but this was all in the youthful phase that he no longer acknowledges. He was selected to work at the NHK studio, where Stockhausen composed Telemusik, and created a number of collage pieces. One of the few works that he has retained was very similar to the percussion piece Under the Umbrella, and he wrote it all out on paper and gave it to an engineer to make the realization. He prefers to work with live performers and to arrange them on stage, which can dramatically change the sound of a piece. He told a story about Feldman, who came to a rehearsel of one of his larger chamber pieces and made suggestions about placement, which is now an important part of his aesthetic.

This post is already getting quite long, so I'll only say a few words about tonight's concert. Billed as the SICPP Percussion Spectacular, the program comprised mostly solo percussion work from SICPP faculty and Callithumpian Consort percussionists. Nicholas Tolle played Kondo's Pendulums, a relatively sparse and slow work loosely based on a striking clock motif. Mathias Reumert played two pieces, a virtuosic Bone Alphabet by Brian Ferneyhough and a remarkable work for a plexiglass percussion device entitled Edges by Christina Viola Oorebeek, which seemed very spontaneous but was actually very precisely notated. The score even contains detailed instructions on how to build the instrument. Scott Deal played a declamatory piece for drum set and vocals with the text from the workers from a furnace factory in Birmingham, Alabama (now a museum), Tapping the Furnace by Dorothy Hindman. Inspired by the terrible working conditions in the factory for the descendants of slaves, the music had African rhythms that started quite loud and assertive, but got progressively quieter as the work progressed. The sole piece on tonight's program that didn't use percussion was Kondo's Trio (The Moor) for piano, viola and bassoon, and the second half of the program was devoted to Steve Reich's Sextet for two keyboards and four percussionists.

One other personal note. Since I got some coaching on Kondo's High Window, I will be playing this piece during tomorrow's Iditarod rather than the Feldman duet. The concert will run late, and since I have an early flight on Sunday, this will be the final dispatch from the 2008 SICPP (although I hope to write something up about the Iditarod next week). It's been a real blast hanging out with wonderful musicians, full of energy and talent, and seriously committed to new music.  Many thanks to everyone at NEC who made this such a wonderful experience.

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