Sonic Boom Festival, No. 8

Steve Koenig

[February 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:3.]

Once upon a time in New York, when I was a New Music pup — we are back in the 1970s — there were many great chamber ensembles that played “our music.” They had an amazing talent: every time some group would put out a flyer promising and incredible program, you’d find another equally amazing program by its sibling ensemble for the very same day. These usually seemed to be the first week of December or middle May, if memory serves. The strange part of it all was that these ensembles had overlapping personnel: How did the same person perform in different venues at eight o’clock on the same night? We couldn’t begin to imagine, because we had more difficult things to worry about. Which one would we go to, because you were unlikely to hear the pieces these groups played live or on recording. Once in a while, the delicious conundrum was making a decision whether to hear them live or catch the rare broadcast of the same concert over WBAI or WNYC and tape it for “eternity.”

I would often say to my mate, “Don’t these people have any friends to tell them they’re cutting off each others’ audiences?” Apparently someone did, because eventually The New York Consortium for New Music came into being, and the Sonic Boom series as well. With less downtown cachet with the trendies who liked to Bang on Cans, these “uptown” performers and composers (whom like the Bangers all actually garnered steam uptown in cherished Upper West Side venues as Symphony Space and Merkin Concert Hall) nonetheless carried on an honored dual-tradition of supporting the newest while not permitting the foreparent to lie bleeding in the highway. The ensemble Continuum was the most noteworthy, due to their annual or biannual overview concerts, presenting complete evening’s worth of music of known and lesser-known by worthies one knew, like Ives and Crawford Seeger, or giving me my first earful of the name and music of Gubaidulina in a concert of significant East European women composers.

Rightfully in a “downtown’ venue, The Great Hall of The Cooper Union for The Advancement of Science and Art, Sonic Boom 8 began November 3, with a concert by the New York New Music Ensemble titled “Electricity In The Air,” four of the five compositions being electroacoustic. Rand Steiger’s Thirteen Loops for solo flute, ensemble and electronics began with Jayn Rosenfeld’s flute quavers, electrically shifting to the left and right of the auditorium. I’m loathe to call them “effects,” because they were quite beautiful, as the flute created climbing figures, aided by marimba and interesting, shimmering echoes fading to silence. The piece ended very busily, and what a nearby listener called “a bit too self-conscious.” Cellist Christopher Finckel gave the best performance I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard many, of Synchronisms #3 by Mario Davidovsky. In Finckel’s hand, the piece was not a sound study but a story. He has the pulse, the flow, the measure of the piece and the audience responded appropriately.

Bang On A Canner Julia Wolfe was represented by a new piece Girlfriend, for amplified instruments and tape. Written for this ensemble, Jeffrey Milarsky conducted the piece with headphones on. Beginning with sampled car screech and crash, the sound of Linda Quan’s violin was made to sound like an accordion drone. Daniel Druckman’s cymbals joined, and the volume built making anvils out of his xylophone. Crashes, broken glass, and then the piece took a minor key, rather sad, with seagullish sounds from the flute lost in the grand ensemble. Like most Wolfe pieces I’ve heard, I was intrigued by it more than I liked it, and I heard others seconding my feeling that it went on a few minutes too long. The tape part was excellent, and perhaps showed up the ensemble writing.

Jean Copperud was outstanding in her showcase piece, Spasm for bass clarinet and tape by Michael Lowenstern. Contrasting with the previous piece, this one had fantastic writing for the clarinet and the tape part was weak: mostly simple mid-bass chunks and thunks irritating in their basic sonority. The clarinet line, however, was exciting, and Copperud played it with all the passion and mastery of a jazz improviser on a roll; we went with her every step of the way and the piece was a celebration. I’d very much like to hear other pieces by Lowenstern.

The final piece was by Steven Mackey. I remember, two decades ago, sitting in a concert by composers I didn’t know and one piece, possibly a string quartet, shone through the other earnest efforts that night, and that was my first encounter with Mackey, and though I’ve only heard half of dozen of his works, none has failed to move me, as did this night’s world premiere, his Micro-Concerto for Percussion, in five movements. It began with bells and blocks in interesting rhythms. There were excellent screechy string and wind sounds as if a Chinese opera. The movement “Clack, Clik, Clank” used scrapes and ratchets and not just percussion. The second interlude, for marimba and cello, was emotional, with a passionate cello line. The final movement, “Tune in Seven,” was witty and clever, using spaces, pacing and sonorous pairings to complete the wonderful piece. As always, percussionist Daniel Druckman played with panache.

The Da Capo Chamber Players presented a tribute to George Perle on November 30th, celebrating his 85th year. I know Perle’s music mainly through an LP of his piano music on New World, which is subtle, but rich. The concert began with his Sonata A Quattro, from 1982, and available by Da Capo on GM 2020CD, a disc of Perle and Elliot Carter chamber pieces. Sonata a Cinque was commissioned by Perle for Da Capo’s trombonist David Taylor by the 92nd Street Y. (Seek out Taylor’s excellent1985 LP Bass Trombone, Triple Letter Brand TR520695, featuring Wuorinen’s Archangel and Rzewski’s Moonrise with Memories.) The second movement, “Perpetual Motion,” was strangely formed, not just great swirls of sound. “Chorales and Diversions,” the third movement, offered a sense of yearning, especially notable the interplay between Taylor and cellist Andre Emelianoff, with beautifully slurred tonic phrases. Lucy Shelton sang two Rilke songs and a set of Dickinson songs. I miss hearing this soprano’s voice live (my fault, not hers) and she made the simple texts moving.

Perle’s Critical Moments, for violin, flute, cello and clarinet, was stunning in its use of time and motion. Zephyrs of wind, beautiful quartet sounds, a flute in the forest, the zephyrs flying higher; all were critical moments. The final part stopped and started, the changes of pace striking a silence. Paul Lansky, probably best known for his excellent electronic piece Idle Chatter (Bridge BCD 9050), offered the last piece of the program, a acoustic-instrument tribute to Perle called Odd Moments, a take off on Critical Moments. Its slowly repeated ascending and descending figures should have sounded trite, but didn’t because of the sonorities he chose and the hocketing interweave. Made of beautiful, small gestures, one instrument flowing into the other, all sonorities were complementing and contrasting at the same time; Thomas Kolar’s marimba and percussion especially precise and emotional. Talking about computers, Lansky noted, “It’s not the medium as much as the things you’re trying to do. One reason I went to computers is the lack of performers to play this music.” I highly recommend the reissue of the LPs which first made me a Lansky-lover, now collectively titled Fantasies and Tableaux: The Electronic Music of Paul Lansky (CRI CD 683). From there you can go on to his more diverse and poppy discs on Bridge, especially Folk Images (BCD 9060).

In a preconcert talk, Perle told the audience that Bartók and Scriabin are some of his antecedents Rimsky, he said, was also experimental, using a diatonic scale. He believes the limitation of twelve-tone is being stuck in the same mode; you can’t transpose, noting “the separation of a twelve-tone series and a theme. The issue for me is the piece I’m writing.” He doesn’t write for performability, but “sometime there’s this practical problem” and so he consults musicians when necessary.

When he was younger, “it was important for people to come in from the outside. It was important to not be a student of Schoenberg. The first person I could talk to about music was Ernst Krenek.” Regarding electronic music, he said, deadpan, that decades ago he “tried a few RCA computers. I turned it on, had lunch, stopped it. It sounded great; the best piece I’d ever written.” He plans to write a string quartet, saying “it’s terrifically exciting,” saying it was close in spirit, not in style, to the Bartók of the 5th and 6th string quartets. It’s something Perle’s been wanting to write for twenty to twenty-five years. Working on a piano sextet at the moment, he feels the first movement is “one of the best” things he’s written, but the rest isn’t yet up to par. He’d like to write a third symphony. “I have two, I always thought I’d like three.”

You can find out more about the groups of the New York Consortium for New Music (Da Capo Chamber Players, Newband, Speculum Musicae, Continuum, New York New Music Ensemble, and Modern Works!) at www.sonicboomnewyork.org. I’ll be continually reporting on more of these performances, as well as their recordings, in upcoming issues of La Folia.