A gonzo take on Mexican food and music snobbery

When someone tells you they’ve been to a “new music” concert, it’s like saying you’ve been to a Mexican restaurant: “What do you mean?” you want to ask. “Do you mean some dive under the highway that some guy on the bus told you about, or Chipotle? And is the food there really hot?” Maybe we should give “new music”—a term that scares some audiences—ratings on a “five-tritone” scale; one being, say, the Barber Adagio, and five being the Penderecki Threnody.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Chipotle. But as a musician, I belong to the “some dive under the highway” crowd. Sorry. I want to be forced to have a really divisive conversation with the other “New Music” snobs at intermission about how you just don’t get it!

Alex Ross recently wrote of people like me [subscription required, or you just don’t get it!] that New York’s new music scene in the early 1990s often gave him “the feeling that I had crashed a private party, getting the ‘Who are you?’ glance as I walked in,” and complaining of “its faculty-lounge chatter and its tortuously long pauses as mallet instruments were transported around the stage.” Like Mexican foodies, new music fans suffer from a chronic case of hipster exclusivity. (Spectralism is, like, “so over.”) New Music groups, though, are increasingly catering to wider tastes.

If I had to locate tonight’s Center for New Music concert along my Mexican food continuum, it would be most like El Banditos, a neighborhood joint in Iowa City that provides fresh takes on inviting dishes —except that, unlike Banditos’ ingredients, none of the compositions were local (a rarity indeed for CNM programming).  Tonight, I would rate the CNM programming and performance between 2 and 3 peppers: like Banditos, tasteful and sometimes surprising, for a mild to medium palate—with some tart notes where you least expect them.

One major piece was Carter Pann’s clarinet/violin/cello/piano quartet Antares. To me, the celestial six movement work—one apiece featured each soloist, bookended by a nostalgic, repeating movement—was like an enchilada: there were some delicious, quite varied tastes on the inside, but the outside was just too cheesy for my tastes.  A highlight was the second movement, “Eric (Etude),” that answers the question: what if Berio orchestrated Godowsky?

A couple of weeks ago, I had delicious southwestern scrambled tofu at a vegan joint inSan Francisco to accrue hipster points. I thought of it when hearing California composer [see what I did there?] Leslie Hogan’s striking premiere, Life Cycles, for large chamber ensemble. Hogan’s remarkably reflective notes describe the piece as

 a work of strong contrasts… dichotomies—stasis and chaos, the lyrical and the disjunct, extreme dissonance and extreme consonance—and in transformation and recombination of those materials. Eventually, the music fell into a loose three-part structure with an extended introduction.

What was fascinating about this meal was the separation of the ingredients. Unlike an enchilada, I was giving form to the meal, with each combinatory bite… but this form depended upon the contrast between ingredients. Hogan’s piece begins with a wail of dissonant woodwinds, a welcome note of serrano that lingered in my ear even after it kaleidoscopically dissolved into grave, low unison. If I had a complaint about the performance, it is that too little was made of the contrasts—the sweeps not epic enough, the whimpers not gentle—after the dramatic opening, even if the counterpoint came through with remarkable clarity. Each ingredient lost its distinct performance later in the piece–or maybe we were just digesting it– sounding “refried” where the form cried out for angularity.

Speaking of sharp edges, why can’t classical players groove sixteenth notes? Art-i-cue-late. Say it four times fast, and you’ve got one measure.

One notable exception to the groove: pianist Grethe Nothling, whose rendition of John Cage’s Amores captured its exacting metric restlessness; it depicts two deeply incongruous Indian moods, was phrased as gently as a baroque prelude, and sounded like a whirring machine sputtering itself on. The Cage percussionists played their awkward part—it’s close enough to grooving that it feels disappointing (or maybe you just don’t get it)—gamely, with some lovely phrase arches. Speaking of phrasing, Janet Ziegler’s singing of  Cage/cummings’ Forever and Sunsmell was a true feat of quiet, naked courage (as were Dan Spencer’s exposed lines in Frigyes Hidas’s sweet and sonorous brass Trio) in a performance that left the pentatonic melody exposed, silent, and unadorned.

Now, close all of these windows and get something to eat.

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