Unruly Music violinist Andrew McIntosh fine tunes

By - Apr 18th, 2011 10:31 pm
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Andrew McIntosh

Andrew McIntosh

Andrew McIntosh left no doubt of his talents as a violinist (and violist) Sunday evening (April 17), at the final concert in the UW-Milwaukee Unruly Music series. The program challenged both player and audience as it explored the edges of musical tonality.

The program opened with an exploration of music that seemed to be studies or exercises focused upon small distinctions of pitch within the scale. Music that tested the McIntosh’s technical skill followed. In those pieces, musical elements remained limited to simple conceits; they were not fully realized compositions in the traditional sense. McIntosh closed with a “classic” contemporary work that integrated the elements of small variations in tone and interval into a fully structured, if unconventional, composition.

Marc Sabat composed a series of exercises that cycled slowly through a series of paired notes at finely defined intervals. In Two Commas, Sabat subdivided the usual scale to allow microtones we don’t usually hear. They lie in the cracks between piano keys, but a violin can play any interval by merely adjusting the placement of fingers on the strings. The works reminded me of student piano exercises, repeating sequences up and down the keyboard. These sequences were much more difficult, of course, because small distinctions were being explored. Intervals were frequently large – high tones pushed the violin to its limit.

Sabat’s Intonation Study after Morton Feldman No. 2 involves simultaneous bowing of two strings – one “open,” the other stopped. Small differences between the pitch set up vibrations that introduced a third, often prominent, sound. Tempo and dynamic remained constant. Bowing and “melodic” line varied little. The music was not designed to inspire an emotional response; it is a sonic lecture on the role of intonation in music composition.

Morton Feldman‘s Composition for Violin (unfinished) shares characteristics with Sabat’s works. Lengthy series of repetitive steps traverse a pattern of notes and intervals. Again, most pitches fall between the usual ones. Feldman has written many works that share the pace and essential character of this work, but move through interval series that succeed in creating a satisfying meditative mood. This one left no such intent or impression.

Section of score - John Cage's Freeman Etude No 18

Section of score – John Cage’s “Freeman” Etude No. 18; brief excerpt from the score, published by CF Peters.

John Cage‘s Freeman Etudes stretched McIntosh’s virtuosity to the limit. Cage did not compose these works so much as create rules for them. He worked from star charts. Cage noted a star’s location along a 360 degree circle and its distance from the horizon. He spaced notes in each of the 32 etudes to match the location of stars along an arc segment and pitched to the “height” of each star. He used the I Ching to randomly set such parameters as duration, volume and bowing technique. More densely clustered stars make the corresponding part of an etude more difficult to play. Cage sought to make the works nearly impossible to play and he largely succeeded. Selections can be sampled here.

Cage gives the listener no framework to follow or with which to anticipate the progress of an etude. One daunting non sequitur and instant transition after another confronts the player, except for those few stretches of starless sky.

Jürg Frey‘s A Memory of Perfection explored intonation patterns while confining the music to a very high range. Extremely light bowing produced an evocative breathy, raspy sound.

György Ligeti‘s Sonata for Viola sounded fairly standard after all this. The movements evoke a Romanian folk song, scherzo motifs, an anguished lamentation – even a chaccone framework derived remotely from the Baroque structure popular with many, including Bach. Ligeti also pushed the framework of traditional structures, but he established the framework before breaking out of it. Ligeti returned this listener to familiar ground. McIntosh played the Ligeti with casual skill; he avoided an emotional reading, but delivered a satisfying performance. (You can listen to a complete performance of the sonata here – part1 part2 part3.)|

To catch up with the Unruly Music Festival, read the preview here and the prior reviews: – Thurday’s Yarn/Wire percussion quartet , Friday’s music/theater mix created by David Bithell and Saturday’s concert featuring Christopher Adler‘s on the khaen.

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