From violins to laptops, post-tonality knows no limits.

The CNM (Center for new music) ensemble, performed on Sunday September 30th at the University of Iowa Riverside Recital Hall, featuring the music of composer Stephen David Beck.  The program also included pieces of contemporaries John Aylward, Jose-Luis Hurtado and Neo-Classicist Igor Stravinsky. At a first glance at the program it already seemed like an exciting evening was about to begin.

The first set was an exclusive presentation of some of Stephen Beck’s works. The first one, Meditations on Hiroshima (1993), composed for vocals, flute, classical guitar and two percussionists conveyed exactly what the title suggests; a relaxing atmosphere filled with micro-tonality. Oriental music naturally defies the rules of traditional western music and this piece was no exception. Soprano Janet Ziegler does a great job interpreting this piece. The vocal part is full of ornaments and hovers around the pitch center in an intricate manner, exploring the possibilities that micro tonality can offer. The complexity of this piece combined to its exotic character astonished every member in the audience.

Eine Kleine Yiddisher Spaß for trumpet and piano starts in a playful manner, almost circus like. The use of a plunger on the trumpet emphasizes this ludic characteristic of the piece. No big surprises in this piece as far as tonality. What makes this piece interesting is the way it goes from one atmosphere to the other. Changes in dynamics, tempo and tonality set up passages to modal, more intense areas. These changes keep happening over and over, from a Cabaret style to something that almost sounds like a tango, and finally to something that resembles a marching band. If the transitions weren’t so well planned and executed this piece had the potential to become a complete freak show from top to bottom.

The next piece was my debut as an audience for laptop music. I can say it was a different experience and the curiosity on how this is composed and “played” made it interesting. Six laptops triggering melodic and rhythmic motives, all varying from one another. I was pleased to hear it for a couple of minutes and imagine where else it could go, and it got to a point where the constant repetitive motives and timbres start to affect the way you hear things. For instance, the higher the pitch of the sequenced sound (seemed like plucked strings), the more it sounded like a glockenspiel. Definitely something to experience.

After the intermission a quartet played John Aylward’s Functions of Consciousness for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. Under the conducting of Bert Van Herck, the quartet played amazingly well. In the opening gesture, there’s a variety of textures produced by each instrument. This introduction already tells the audience that a tonal center shouldn’t be expected. As the music goes on, the melodies played in counterpoint gain a lyrical quality yet maintaining its atonality. Melodic motives are repeated and inverted over and over. I’d guess confidently that Bartok was an inspiration for this piece.

Terréne by José-Luis Hurtado for three percussionists and a flute was the next piece in the program. It seems like the composer strived for exploring different sounds and textures with this work. The percussionists use bows on cymbals, vibes and on Styrofoam to get squeaking sounds, while the flute is playing sparse atonal melodies while singing through the flute. Eventually the percussion parts start to get busier and there’s a dialogue between the snare drums played by two percussionists. What I found interesting is when this organized chaos ceases the flute brings in melodies that are variations of the melody in the beginning (same pitch center). In between phrases the flutist shouted some rhythms that seemed like a citation to the call and response on the snare drums in the previous section. This music will get your full attention.

To conclude the night the whole CNM Ensemble gathered together to play Stravinsky’s Suites For Small Orchestra 1 and 2. On Suite n° 1 we hear what was left from the Romanticism in his style but starting to break away from the traditional sense of harmonies and melodies . On the second Suite, we hear some of the same characteristics from Suite n° 1. This could be easily fitted as music for a ballet.

The Sunday night concert represented well what post-tonal music can sound like. From late Neoclassic style to music produced by machines, the audience could experience a good variety of what has been produced since the post-tonal period.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “From violins to laptops, post-tonality knows no limits.

  1. acericks21

    I wish I could have been there to hear the flute player singing through the instrument which sounds interesting! It seemed that Center for New Music offered a great selection of post-tonal music and it is crazy to even to think about how composers wrote micro-tonality. Plus, to hear a singer execute the pitches with there being many variations, I would have loved to have heard this one, too.

    With the lap top piece, if one computer was off, would we have noticed?
    The newly composed post-tonal pieces, well any new piece may be hard to tell what the composer wanted if it had not been heard before. But then again, someone at the concert may have heard their friend play the piece beforehand and would know if the music was off.

    In all, it sounded like an inspirational night of new post-tonal music which I wish I would have been there to enjoy, too.

    • Lori Palamara

      Thanks for your description, Marcelo. I am especially intrigued with the idea of laptop music, and wish I could have seen this piece. It seems like laptop ensembles are the hot new thing popping up everywhere, like the PLOrk and the SLOrk (Princeton’s and Stanford’s Laptop Orchestras, respectively).
      The advantage to laptop music is that the performer has a world of sounds and techniques at his or her fingertips, but there are many problems facing composers in this medium. The piece must be justifiably good in content and form, not just an excuse to show off some technology. Technical and programming concerns must not be allowed to overtake compositional reasoning. Digital delay makes coordinating musical events and unisons between musicians difficult. Lastly, it is very difficult to have a visually interesting performance, as it usually looks like a bunch of people checking their email on a stage (as a friend of mine once so eloquently stated).
      This being said, I think there is huge potential in this medium and I am excited that U of I is joining the trend. I can’t wait to see what kind of music is created in this genre.

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