Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An other mind

This past weekend, my wife and I flew to San Francisco, where we attended two of the three concerts from the 15th Other Minds festival. Focussing primarily on new chamber music, the concerts also featured electroacoustic composer Natasha Barrett and an ecstatic jazz performance by Kidd Jordan with William Parker and Warren Smith. But the majority of the pieces we heard maintained the composer/performer dichotomy that is one characteristic of classical music, and it was a real treat to hear recent works, all of which were new to me, performed at such a high caliber.

The opening work was Jürg Frey's second string quartet, performed by the Quatuor Bozzini. Frey is one of the Wandelweiser composers, a loose-knit group based in Germany whose aesthetic aligns with the quiet stillness often associated with Feldman and late Cage. This quartet, almost a half-hour long, is composed entirely from the gentlest possible bow strokes, each one around five seconds long, played without vibrato, as if the bow barely brushes the strings, and followed by a silence of almost equal length. All performers play together, so the piece is a series of very quiet chords. I've never heard such an extended tranquillity performed live before, and the performance was completely riveting. Some of the strokes seemed so quiet that a sense of pitch was missing, and they became more like breathing or whispering. Minute changes in register became major events, as were the slight glissandos introduced in the later sections of the piece. The violinists and violist performed standing, which is unusual in my experience, but I think it was probably quieter than if they had been sitting in possibly creaky chairs. The Quatuor Bozzini has recorded this piece, so I can look forward to hearing it again.

The second and third pieces were by Chou Wen-Chung, born in 1923 in China but a resident of the United States since 1946, and unfortunately unable to attend the festival due to health reasons. We heard one of his most recent works, a chamber piece for a double trio of winds and strings, Twilight Colors, and his only solo piano piece, The Willows Are New, from 1957. Twilight Colors, performed by the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble and conducted by David Milnes, was very intimate, with relatively few tutti passages. Inspired by Chinese calligraphy, many of the gestures would start with one instrument and be completed by another, often the counterpart in the other trio in the same register. For example, a melodic gesture would start with the bass clarinet and be taken up by the cello, played in such a way that the timbres would merge. It was a very effective and beautiful piece. The Willows Are New, played by Eva-Maria Zimmermann, is also calligraphically inspired, with brushstroke movements across the entire range of the keyboard, especially in the deep bass. Chou's two pieces, although in a completely different tradition from Frey, were slow and tranquil, continuing the intimacy established in with Frey's quartet.

The closing work on the first night was Kafka Songs, composed by Lisa Bielawa and performed by Carla Kihlstedt on violin and voice. With words taken from Kafka's journals, Bielawa has composed a suite of seven pieces, and Kihlstedt's performance was quiet and dramatic, a powerful conclusion for the evening. Kihlstedt has recorded these pieces for Tzadik, and has also been a member of the experimental rock group Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and the chamber jazz group Tin Hat, all of which sounds like it would be worth checking out. Unfortunately, given that we had to hit the ground for a very early flight, I was so relaxed by the end of the concert that I didn't take any notes for a more cogent review.

The second evening was more extroverted, featuring two pieces by Natasha Barrett, spatially distributed through the auditorium on eight speakers placed on the stage and on the ceiling. The first was an excerpt from her longer work Trade Winds, a narrative piece centered around a Norwegian sailing vessel, and incorporating sea chanties and some spoken narrative from an interview with the retired captain of the ship. The second piece, Kernel Expansion, was a bewildering amalgamation of sounds and transformations, difficult to absorb on a single listening, but very much in line with the Montreal-based empreintes DIGITALes label which has released most of her solo work. Barrett was the primary attraction for me and this festival, as I had read about her work with spatialization and have a couple of her CDs. But frankly, even though I enjoyed the music, the spatialization was a little disappointing because of our seat placement, where one of the speakers was directly overhead and therefore a bit skewed aurally. I'm not sure how one might solve this problem.

Kidd Jordan played two pieces, but ecstatic jazz is one of my least appreciated art forms, and I couldn't hear any connection between the players. As a side note, my wife didn't like any of the second concert up to this point, as the electroacoustic sounds came suddenly out of nowhere, an effect that has never impressed her very much.

The final two pieces were by another composer new to me, Paweł Mykietyn from Poland. With Epiphora for piano and tape, and especially his String Quartet No. 2, the evening was salvaged. Epiphora, performed again by Eva-Marie Zimmermann, begins with the sound of a nuclear explosion ("very cheap in Russia," said Mykietyn during the panel discussion, hopefully tongue in cheek), out of which emerges the piano. A series of chords leads to passages where the live pianist plays with and against the recorded one, the origins of the sounds blurring into each other. The quartet, performed by the Del Sol String Quartet, was dazzling, constructed mostly from rhythmic hocketed harmonics, at times sounding less like a string quartet than a deranged ice cream truck. Both pieces were well worth another listen. Few recordings of Mykietyn's music are available, although Kronos has recorded this quartet on a DVD. Other Minds has made some of their previous festivals available for streaming; one can only hope that they do the same here. (UPDATE: they have: first, second and third evenings.)

The final concert had world premieres by Gyan Riley and Carla Kihlstedt (for the ROVA Saxophone Quartet) and two pieces by Tom Johnson. I was sorry to miss it, but I had an opportunity to chat with Johnson and bought a copy of his book, Self-Similar Melodies. I look forward to future festivals.


CraigM said...

Great review, Caleb. I attended the first night. So glad to see you mention, in Chou's "Twilight Colors," the mixing of timbres as a phrase got handed from one instrument to its counterpart... I noticed that, too, and it was a very nice effect.

You'll definitely want to check out Carla Kihlstedt's other work. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum is more metal-influenced; Tin Hat comes more from a gypsy-music place but not quite. I also like her band 2 Foot Yard.

Wish I could have seen the ROVA piece (wish you had too, so I could live it vicariously!)

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Craig, thanks for the recommendations. I found the score to Chou's The Willows Are New, not as easy as she made it look!

maready said...

Thank you for your impressions --- do you have any idea how to get the Editions Wandelweiser releases in the U.S.? None of the usual sources carry them. I am particularly interested in Jurg Frey, and also very much want a physical copy of Christian Wolff's "Exercise 15" as played by the POST NO BILLS ensemble ... I found an illicit digital copy and it is one of the most astonishing recordings I have ever heard of anything. (There's a copy on Amazon.De, but they won't export to the U.S.)

Thanks also for the Chou information --- I had no idea he was still active, and must admit I haven't heard his music since I was in college. As I recall, he was one of Varese's few pupils, and completed the two works that were left unfinished when Varese died.

Caleb Deupree said...

Hi Maready, the best place to get Wandelweiser CDs in the US is Erstdist, the distribution arm of Erstwhile Records. They currently have a number of Frey CDs in stock, as well as the Wolff Exercise 15, a very nice recording indeed. Very prompt shipping too.

Richard Pinnell said...

If I was forced to list my favourite ten albums released over the last decade the Bozzinis' disc of Frey's quartets would make it in there. Wonderful music.

I'm jealous you got to see it live Caleb, certainly check out the CD.

Caleb Deupree said...

Thanks, Richard, I will. I've been enjoying the disc of Frey's piano music for a while, but that was all I had heard to date.