Give me that old-time avant-garde
A million years ago, when I was in music school, the avant-garde frowned upon tonal centers and pulsation. (Been there done that since 1600, can’t do it any more and remain intellectually respectable.) Then Minimalism ushered in the post-modern age and composers could play triads on banjos with impunity.
A few holdouts are still fighting the hopelessly obscure fight, rather like Japanese soldiers incommunicado on remote Pacific islands after WWII was over. We heard from a few of them — composers, not Japanese soldiers — Thursday, opening night of Chris Burns’ four-night Unruly Music Festival.
Memories of grad school composers’ concert flooded back as C2, comprising cellist Franklin Cox and flutist Lisa Cella, played extremely difficult music brilliantly for a tiny audience comprising mostly other composers. (Ah, just like old times.)
David Ward-Steinman’s 1981 duo, Epitahlamion, set the tone: dark, earnest, dense, free-ranging, gestural, restless, loaded with big jumps to dissonant intervals, with no hint of metric/rhythmic impetus or a home-base note. I could sense just enough coherence to suspect that the composer was weaving structure and making an argument, but not enough to make the structure or argument clear, at least to me.
Stuart Saunders Smith’s Willow (solo flute) made the same sort of impression, as did Sidney Corbett’s mournful duo, Della Pieta, but with microtonal inflections.
All 10 pieces on this program did not fall from the same mold. The best of them celebrated the instruments and virtuosity: Ben Johnston’s cello Toccata looks back to Bach and was the one piece that does move from one tonal center to another. Johnston’s twist, though, is a pure, mathematical tuning system that leads to microtonal alterations and exaggerated dissonance as he moves through distant keys. Cox hit them with astonishing precision at high speed, and the result had G-forces, the kind you’d feel on a harmonic roller coaster. Cox’s own solo, Clairvoyance, is a cello rave-up of epic proportions, a sort of high-brow cello answer to Jimi Hendrix, and it was a gas. Cox also killed in Burns’ Engravings, a stupendously dense overlay of nine previous studies for cello.
Cella had her showy virtuoso turn in Berio’s Sequenza for Solo Flute and made something more of it. She brought Berio’s lyrical phrases to extravagant flower and endowed his clever, feinting rhythms with great wit. Multiphonics — extracting more than one pitch at a time from wind instruments or voice — has been an academic avant-garde obsession for decades. Cella has mastered these techniques to an uncanny degree and displayed them impressively in Mario Lavista’s low, hushed, repetitive Lamento, for bass flute, and in John Fonville’s Music for Sarah.
Fonville begins with a barely audible whistling through the flute, a lip-driven scanning of the overtone series, as charming and lovely as the song of a distant bird. The second bit, Chant, brings Cella’s voice into the mix. She sings and blows just so to create as many as three pitches at a time, in the way of Tibetan throat singers. Whirling Dance demands sharp rhythmic exchanges between flute sound and vocal sound at high velocity. Wow, and beautiful.
The Unruly Music Festival continues in Marcus Center Vogel Hall, 123 E. State St. through Sunday (April 18) with very different sorts of programs. Check them out here.
Tickets: Marcus Center box office, (414) 273-7206, $15 general/$12 seniors/$7 students.