Friday, June 20, 2008

SICPP, day four

Steve Drury taught the final piano master class of the week this morning, which included John Cage's Two Pieces from 1946 and Gyorgi Ligeti's Etude No. 5 (Arc-en-ciel). The Cage pieces have both a graceful feel and a touch of the avant-garde austerity, and Drury gave us several guidelines for these pieces based on his years of working directly with Cage. The Ligeti is almost sentimental in nature — Drury described the piece as "Bill Evans playing a Chopin nocturne at 4 AM" — full of lush, romantic chords "that your mother would like."

Then Louis Goldstein took everybody upstairs for a fascinating discussion of piano preparations in connection with a student working on Cage's Sonatas and Interludes. Cage is very specific about distances from the dampers to the preparations, and Goldstein (who has recorded the piece — Drury says it's the best recording available) said that he spent lots of time converting the measurements to get the equivalents for his piano, and deemed the effort worthless. What matters is how the preparations sound, which will be different on every piano, and which the pianist must judge for him or herself. Cage is also fairly specific about using screws or bolts. Goldstein doesn't really hear a meaningful difference between them. Cage sometimes specifies that preparations include bolts with loose nuts that create rattles, but pianists have to be careful about the sympathetic vibrations causing unwanted sounds. We discussed various preparations in addition to the ones in this particular piece. In Zorn's piece on last night's program, Drury used gaffer's tape, kind of like duct tape, to mute the high strings. There are also historical questions about preparations. Cage calls for weather stripping in some of his early works, written when he was still in Seattle. Weather stripping technology has changed considerably since the early 1940s, and there is some doubt about what material was used for weather stripping in that time and place (Seattle being extremely rainy, and building solutions being tailored to the region). Weather stripping today is a thin tape with adhesive on one side, which is an inappropriate material for piano preparations.

The concert was, like Tuesday's, a mixed set of chamber music played by Callithumpian Consort members and solo piano work from Louis Goldstein. All of the pieces were new to me except for one of the Kondo chamber works, and, like a lot of contemporary music, difficult to absorb in a single listening. In the first half, piano faculty member Yukiko Takagi and flautist Jessi Rosinski played Toshio Hosokawa's Lied, which started with a soft melody, grew increasingly complex and noisy, then returned to the opening material again. Goldstein played two piano pieces, a relatively conventional and lyrical twelve-tone sonata by James Ronig, and a more erratic piece, Rendering, by Stephen L. Mosko. Mosko's piece changed tempo often, sometimes stopping altogether while Goldstein plucked a single note from the inside, then taking off again with another odd gesture.

After the intermission, Takagi returned with percussionist Jeffrey Means to play Jo Kondo's Aquarelle, composed in 1990. A fairly unadorned melody passed back and forth between the two performers, with Means playing vibraphone most of the time, with occasional interludes on cowbells or with more complex scoring. The second piece was Kondo's Retard for unaccompanied violin, played by Ethan Wood, which used microtones to create unusual harmonies, but kept to a relatively slow pace, similar in that regard to Aquarelle, despite its earlier composition (1978).  But Aquarelle had more of a sense of contiguous lines, whereas Retard seemed to epitomize Kondo's stated preference for individual sounds: “I am interested in words more than in sentences, in sentences more than in paragraphs, in paragraphs more than in a whole page. Thus, it could be said that in music I am more concerned with each sound than with the phrases they create.”

The final piece on the program was another trio by Helmut Lachenmann, temA for soprano, flute and cello, played by Jennifer Ashe, Jessi Rosinski, and Benjamin Schwartz. I was unfamiliar with Lachenmann's music before this week, but it has been a real revelation. He gets the most unusual sounds from the instruments, finding ways for all three of these instruments tonight to get nearly identical timbres, then each instruments goes off in unique sonic gestures. I look forward to learning more about his music in the coming months, it is simply amazing.

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