I just had one of the most inspiring, motivating afternoons in recent memory. I don’t even know how to talk about it.
This time of year is one of graduations and recitals and concerts, academically and otherwise. The National Concert Hall will be getting some renovation done over the summer, so it will be closed for the next three or four months, and it seems that some of the ensembles or performers are getting in under the wire. In any case, May has been a busy month for concertgoing.
I’ve attended a number of concerts at the same university, in this very auditorium, but they’ve all been recitals, performances by pianists of the works of others, as would be expected. Famous works in the repertoire have made their appearances, from Bach and Beethoven (and Brahms), to Liszt, Debussy, Scriabin, and even Kapustin. One knows, to some degree or other, what to expect when they have a glance at the program. Not today.
Today’s concert was different. It was for a composition student and friend/teacher of mine. We chat often about music: I’ll throw a question his way about something I’m having trouble understanding, give him a look at something I’m trying to write, etc. We’ve attended a few concerts together (last week’s incredible Bavouzet recital being one of them), and I was really excited to have the chance to sit and listen to some of his compositions in a rather intimate setting, made more intimate by the less-than-packed house.
There were five pieces on the program, and again, I have no idea what to expect. I’m also the
odd man out. I was (as usual) the only foreigner (sometimes one of a few), and I have the most tenuous relation to the university; everyone else in attendance is a professor or a student (or I assume so, perhaps also friends or family), and then there’s me. The foreign amateur.
In any case, it’s 2 pm and I’m glad to be in the air conditioning and the opening announcements are made about not doing rude things and making sure your flash is off if you want to take pictures. A young woman walks out to stand in front of two side-by-side music stands. Applause began on her way out, but when she started fidgeting concentratedly with the music, I thought perhaps she was not a performer. But she was. She began to sing.
The first piece gave me chills. It was sung, spoken, hummed, whispered, sometimes through a hand placed as if one had gasped or were going to yawn. There was some measure of performance element to it, but it wasn’t acted out. My first thought was Sprechstimme, but it wasn’t that. My next thought was something like Babbitt’s Philomel, which I’ve been interested in lately. There were words spoken between long lines of hums and gorgeously sung vocals: ‘plus,’ ‘double plus’ ‘yesnoyesnoyesno,’ and at the end of each movement, “Big Brother is watching you,” whispered before the next movement began. 1984. It gave me chills. There was a lot to pay attention to in the details of the piece, and my initial response was to try to process it in the context of serial techniques, which it clearly did not use. It was a captivating, brief but tense, very interesting and mildly unsettling piece, and a fantastic performance by the vocalist, with whom I had the chance to speak afterward. Turns out she’ll be having a recital in a few weeks herself, and I told her I’d be there.
The next piece was for solo piano. The composer himself came out to get the piano set up, and the performer walked out.
In contrast with the highly modern nature of the first piece, this one felt extremely traditional. If the first was Berio or Ligeti, then this was some kind of Russianesque Ravel, very beautiful and somewhat… somber is the wrong word. Pleasing to the ear for sure, but simple and Romantic and (not melancholy, but….) I don’t know. I liked it, but it was certainly the most ‘traditional’ of the five.
Next came a cellist and the composer on piano. I know it’s perhaps amateur and even wrong to continue to associate each work with another composer’s or identify it in such terms, but it is as if Webern had written Schumann’s op. 73. I perhaps say that only because I watched a video of that piece being performed on cello last night. The interaction between the piano and cello in this piece was equally as lively and balanced, though, but chock full of dissonances, interesting harmonies, shrill, glassy lines from the cello, glissandos and pizzicatos here and there. An interesting conversation, one that kept the attention of those watching from the sidelines. And it was cool to see/hear the composer at the piano.
Up to this point, I had thoroughly enjoyed each piece, and things had been rolling around in my head about the ‘job’ of the student composer, composing as homework, a composer’s relationship to his audience, his teacher, his performers, and (eventually) his publisher. Those kinds of existential, philosophical, very subjective questions like “For/to whom does a composer write?” went through my head as I was contemplating the perceptions of others to the music being performed. By no means did it feel like a compulsory homework exercise. It was thought and feeling and very personal to put something like this on and present it to people. Sometimes I don’t even feel like talking to people; there’s some kind of security or safety in anonymity, but being present to have your works performed by whoever decides to walk in is an interesting mental and emotional exercise, I’d guess.
Anyway, those were the things I was thinking when a string quartet walked out on stage (different cellist). I was super excited.
It’s perhaps very convenient that I’ve been listening to lots of early works of the Second Viennese School lately, and recently really brushing up on Berg’s string quartet (op. 3) (spoiler alert); it’s been on repeat for a while.
I was surprised (shocked, even), and pleased, then, when this three movement string quartet, 動作, began. Cast in three movements, it was stunningly beautiful. It straddled perfectly the line between modern and traditional. It was nothing extravagant; no misplaced trickery or modern gimmicks, just lush, beautiful writing for this ensemble that I’m growing to love more and more. It was intricate, detailed, expressive, exciting. It was a dead ringer for like, a very early (even pre-) Second Viennese string quartet. Not too long, not pretentious; everything was in its place, with balance and expression that really blew me away. It was by far my favorite piece of the day. I meant to ask the composer if there was any way I could get a recording of the concert, if for nothing else than that piece alone. It is something I would listen to regularly and enjoy. Perfection.
The last piece was the largest, for flute, clarinet, violin (from the previous quartet), cello (from the earlier cello piece) (?), piano, and percussion. It was the most intense of the set, in just about every way. The orchestration was unique, the themes were striking, the harmonies were interesting, and it was the most…. violent? varied? widely expressive? of the bunch, from quiet col legno moments to searing climaxes backed by the piano and percussion. Perhaps it was just me, but I was tired by the end after trying to keep up with what everyone was doing; there was lots of texture and energy and drama. The piece must not have been any more than ten minutes or so, but it made an impression. Unlike the string quartet, though, it is a piece that would demand multiple listenings to really sink one’s teeth into and digest.
All in all, it was not only a fantastically interesting and enjoyable concert, but a very real experience. This may sound terribly cliché, but it’s kind of the most… organic concert (or musical thing) I’ve ever been to. It was not about the technical performances of widely-accepted pieces (although the performances themselves were excellent), nor about interpreting something everyone’s heard since they were young. It was a ground-level experience. This is where music comes from; when you read on Wikipedia about a composer’s upbringing, his path to the height of his career and the successes and tragedies and relationships along the way, early performances and the building of history, it’s all there, and this was one of those moments.
Don’t get me wrong; it isn’t like I’m best friends with the composer or have known him for years. I haven’t. But again, it gives you a different kind of a perspective (or it does for me as an outsider looking in on the academic world) to see the beginnings of a composer’s career.
What concreted that sentiment was when a teary-eyed composer walked out on stage with a bouquet of flowers, stopped by a few “get it together” gestures, and thanked his professor, who happened to be the woman sitting behind me, a graduate of Stanford and former student of one Brian Ferneyhough.
It’s a small world, and even smaller within certain communities. You may not realize it next time you go sit down in some recital hall on an island in the Pacific, far far away from Berlin or Vienna or London or Lincoln Center, but you are in the presence of greatness, enjoying the process of the creation of music as digested and produced by a young, talented mind making decisions in the early stages of his career. It was just fantastic.
I had a chance to sit and chat with some of the performers, the professor (briefly), and the composer after the concert; the campus (or the music department) was abuzz with performers and composers and people coming and going; the recital hall was busy, with one shift after another.
I was very pleased. While I personally did nothing but show up, sit down, and leave sometime later, it was very much a privilege to attend, so thank you.
I look forward to the next one!