Leonard Bernstein said, “The nineteenth century dies hard.” By that he meant his American concert-going audience would rather hear the lush, romantic music of over a hundred years ago –Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Verdi — than the angular, anguished music of the twentieth –Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Shostakovich.
Personally I love 20th century music, especially Britten, Bartók, and Ives, but when it comes to the classical contemporary concert music of this very moment, what composers have written from 2000 to today, I admit to a gaping hole in my knowledge (although I do know and love the contemporary opera scene). My New Year’s resolution last month was to address that gap. So, I boarded the Q train to Atlantic Avenue in uber-hip downtown Brooklyn to revisit the 400-seat jewel-box theater known as Roulette, the gorgeous and red-hot center of the contemporary music universe.
The moment I took my seat I had a panic attack. There on the stage, in addition to a set-up for a traditional string quartet, was a bright red toy piano. Allow me to explain. A few months ago, in a nascent attempt to experience more contemporary music, I attended a concert featuring “the foremost virtuoso of the toy piano.” This artist performed for twenty minutes, which felt to me like twenty years. Each tinny note was a pinprick to my soul. My concert-going buddy Christopher didn’t speak to me for a month.
As the audience at Roulette filled up, my dread began to ease. I was thrilled that the orchestra was quite a full one, allowing me to breath freely and stop my silent prayer of “Please don’t be a toy piano concerto, please, please, please.”
I was in luck.
First on the program was Quatuor Bozzini, a Canadian string quartet, three parts woman one part man. The program describes the group as “an original voice in new, contemporary, experimental and classical music.” Their first piece Contact; Vault (1997), despite indecipherable program notes by the very talented Canadian composer, Martin Arnold (who is also a landscape designer but, perhaps, not a writer) was an intensely moving composition with a single melodic line extended over the entire piece. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a softer piece played in a concert hall. It reminded me of an Agnes Martin painting where the stillness and quiet of her delicate pencil marking bring a much-needed sense of calm to our boisterous, exterior world. Even at its loudest, the piece never graduated beyond a quiet piano, and I particularly liked how the first violin played the subtle but angular melody while the second violin doubled the first using softly plucked pizzicato, the plucked sound disappearing instantly while the bowed notes lingered in the air.
For their next piece, the members of Quatuor Bozzini all put in earpieces which were clearly connected to two toy pianos on stage (there was a second, black piano that, in my panic, I had not seen). OK, I told myself, Remain Calm. You are facing not one but two amplified toy pianos. Stay strong.
I was happily surprised. The piece, Hitchcock Études, turned out to be a multi-media composition, about as contemporary as it gets, and yes, it was about Hitchcock! Projected on the screen behind the players was a mashed up, Vine-style sequence of well known scenes from the British master of suspense: The Birds, Psycho, Vertigo, the familiar images playing over and over, in slow motion, backwards and forwards, cut up and re-cut, complete with a sliced-and-diced Bernard Hermann score playing while at the same time Quatuor Bozzini played Nicole Lizée’s equally arresting score, punctuated by — here it comes — the childish plunk of amplified, twin toy pianos. And surprise of surprises, the toy pianos were a wonderful addition to the string sound of the quartet (played by Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung, momentarily putting down their violins) and the string orchestra of Hermann’s score. This piece had the players (and composer) interact with “the lost, forgotten or even dead icons, simultaneously breathing new life and emotions in the function and storyline.”
The quartet also performed James Tenny’s Koan (1984), a minimalist, microtonal creation, the perfect way to end the act.
After the intermission came the act that had drawn me to Roulette: String Noise, a violin duo consisting of husband and wife Pauline Kim Harris and Conrad Harris. Even I, with my limited knowledge of “what’s happening,” knew this dynamic duo. As did the audience for they were greeted with a thundering ovation, more common for American Idols than classical musicians. String Noise premiered a new piece written for them by super-nova, interdisciplinary composer Spence Topel, an influential force in the contemporary music and sound art scene, direct from Dartmouth College where he teaches in the Department of Music and the Digital Music’s Program.
Topel’s piece needed no toy piano or deconstructed film: in fact, Palavers (2014) was the only piece on the program that, because of its astonishing emotional depth, I felt could easily fill the stage at Carnegie or Avery Fisher Hall.
“Palaver” is defined as 1) Talk that is not important or meaningful, and 2) Excitement and activity caused by something that is not important. Topel’s choice of title must be either ironic or counter-intuitive as there is nothing “not important” about this piece. Far from a dialogue of inconsequential chatter, this composition offered a conversation as intense, witty and at times as violent as the dialogue in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, its two violins competing and counterpointing like Martha and George. In fact in the first section of the piece, Ms. Harris’s bow struck the strings with such ferocity that an unexpected puff of resin exploded from her instrument and sailed toward the ceiling. (I wondered if that was notated in the score: “Strike the strings hard so to cause a resin explosion”?)
In the hands of these virtuosos, Palaver explored the life of a particularly vivid relationship: the tender courtship, the passion and hunger of new love, the intensity and catharsis of fighting, (complete with string pizzicatos thundering as the hammer blows do in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony) the reconciliations and, finally, peace and acceptance. This piece was “absolute music” and absolute joy.
String Noise also performed Dan Siegler’s “Read the Following Before Playing,” which challenged the duo to accompany pre-taped dialogue that they had never heard before. Fascinating. September (2013) by Petr Bakla was an exploration of open strings and high stopped notes, with “strangely meandering tonal constellations,” another tour de force. The vivid finale of the program was an excerpt from Monodologie XXVI (2013) a rollicking roller-coaster of a composition by Bernhard Lang which will also be on String Noise’s first CD to be released in the Spring. I can’t wait.