Monthly Archives: February 2012

“How do they get all that in black and white?”

On February 25th, I attended the recital given by Wolfgang David, violin, and Timothy Gill, cello, at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber.  David and Gill presented a recital of modern music, 20th and 21st century pieces, for solo violin, solo cello, and violin and cello duo.  As I settled into an appropriate seat in the back of the room, I could not help but consider that I was about to watch a recital of new music in such a historical setting and while sitting in an old wooden chair- with no padding, mind you!  While I consider myself musically literate, I find that I have often had difficulty appreciating modern music and, consequently, proclaim my dislike of it often and at a loud volume.  I expected to have my notions of classical music challenged and was not disappointed in that regard.

In each piece that was played, I attempted to look for something I could relate to back to more tonal music so that I could understand the music better.  By and large, I was successful.  The first piece, “Nomina sunt Omina,” for violin and cello duo by Joseph Dangerfield which uses the Catholic naming ceremony of that name as its formal outline.  After learning this, I looked for “chant-like” qualities and found that the main theme was played as a chant, and antiphonal, with the melody trading back and forth between the violin and cello.  Also, the use of harmonics lend the music an austere quality that is often associated with chant.  By searching for these elements in the music, I found common ground with it and could take enjoyment from it.

The second piece, “Toccatina,” a study for violin by Helmut Lachemann challenged everything about violin playing I knew.  Much of the piece is played by using the screw of the violin bow by tapping it on the string.  This effect expands the boundaries of timbre associated with string instruments.  Along with “Toccatina,” Dr. Gompper’s solo violin piece, “Nuance” expands the colors a violin can achieve by using non-traditional bowing techniques or bow placements.  Another technique that I had not given thought to before the recital was to pluck the string behind the bridge.  I have bowed on the other side of the bridge before as dictated by the music, but never plucked there.  In addition, the solo cello piece “Curve with Plateaux,” by Jonathan Harvey, likened the different registers in the cello to body parts.  Written in an arch shape, it began in the lowest register, proceeded to the highest register, and returned to the lowest register again concluding with chords that were reminiscent of death knell.

During intermission, I conversed with a gentleman about the concert thus far and, knowing that I was a musician, he asked, “How do they get all that in black and white?”  In all honesty, I would like to know the same thing.  The ambiguous “that” spoken of by this gentleman included various bowing techniques, bow placements, and other techniques that I have mentioned that were used in the first half of the program.  Given my limited experience with modern music, I did not have a definitive answer for the gentleman.  From what I have seen, specific markings are made in the music and then demonstrated for the performers or explained by the composer until the desired effect is achieved.  More importantly, though, his words reminded me that no matter if the music being performed is by Bach, Beethoven, or Gompper, it is shown in black and white- there is no difference.

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The Marvin Bell Celebration

With a tradition of fostering new music like the University of Iowa has, hearing new works premiered happens fairly frequently. Dr. David Gompper is the driving force behind the Center for New Music. The concert on Sunday, February 19, was a composite sketch of some of his works for voice and piano, along with a piece for vocal soloists with choir and small orchestra. Dr. Gompper composed the music to fit the words of poet Marvin Bell, former Flannery O’Connor Professor of Letters at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

The selection of poems in Five Love Songs depicted the struggles of being in love and not knowing if there is an ‘end-game’ to love and all its trials. While there are truly romantic sentiments in the poems (‘If I lost you/the air wouldn’t move, nor the tree grow’ or ‘Five oh’s are but a single line of our life together./Five ah’s but a moment of our peace.’) the music didn’t settle into familiar sighing cadences. Instead, the piano never really comes to rest, despite the revelations in the text. In the third movement, ‘Being in Love,’ the vocal and piano lines were a tongue-in-cheek presentation of a backwards, meandering argument about understanding loving someone who does not love you in return.

Possibly my favorite piece of the afternoon was You’re Not Dead Yet! for vocal quartet. It is a hybrid of sorts of an aria/chorus, in which the soprano relates a tale of going to the doctor for various ailments and being told that, although ‘you’re getting older, and maybe colder…you’re not dead yet’. The jolly and bouncy accompaniment is an ironic companion to the idea that one is getting closer to death and listing all the many things that are wrong with one’s body, but still matches the refrain that you’re not dead yet. After the many-layered opening piece, You’re Not Dead Yet! was a change of pace that had the audience laughing.

Marvin Bell is brilliant at writing about love in its many guises, and most of the pieces on the program were reflections on the idiosyncrasies of love. However, the last piece on the program, An Elm We Lost, was premiered on September 11, 2002, the one year anniversary of 9/11. It features solo tenor and baritone, a small orchestra, and a small chorus. The text lists things left to the ravages of time, souvenirs of ‘when there was still time’. The beginning of the piece is quiet, with incomplete harmonies, dissonances that don’t resolve, and smooth rhythms that do not stand out from the texture as a whole. The harmonies become denser with the introduction of the text of Catalog with Illustrations, the second of the two poems utilized in this piece. The harmonies seem hollow, fitting with the recitation of things left behind in a hurry by people in times past. At the very end, the fading chimes recall the solemn ringing of church bells. You can listen to it here. (To listen, click on the button that says mp3 audio.)

The most poignant aspect of the piece is the arrangement of the performers. The two soloists sit, of course, at the front, representing two towers. The harp and piano, located next to each other, also represent the towers, as do the percussionists. In addition, the last three measures are in 3/4 time, comprising of nine beats. Within these nine beats, between the parts, there are 11 sub-beats.

The program as a whole is very thematic, almost chronological. The line from An Elm We Lost ‘we wrote a little essay/about who loved who’ recalled the characters in Five Love Songs, caught up in their small world. An Elm We Lost throws these mundane feelings into rose-tinted relief. It’s also a reminder of how all the people with their love problems left behind artifacts of a life they thought would last a long time yet when the Twin Towers fell.

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De Musica Cagensis

“Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school? Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical? What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?” ― John Cage, Communication (Lecture, 1957)

On Sunday, 100 years to the day after John Cage was born, trucks and Cambuses rumbled by the University Capitol Center as the Center for New Music hosted a performance of the composer’s Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48). Following the recital was a panel discussion featuring Cage scholars and associates, most of whom had personally known and worked with the composer. For me, the two events were an apt microcosm of a polarity that persists in Cage’s music and philosophy: that between “determinate” and “indeterminate” works.

Before his early-1950s explorations into Zen Buddhism and the I Ching led him to an aesthetic grounded in indeterminacy, Cage crafted music of meticulously determined detail. The Sonatas and Interludes epitomize this ideal of determinacy, not only in their musical structure but also in their instrument: a piano prepared with bolts, screws, nuts, and bits of plastic and rubber affecting the strings of 45 notes, in effect creating a sophisticated acoustic synthesizer. The resulting transformations of timbre and tuning evoke a gamelan; conventional and detuned/harmonic piano colors mingle with woodblocks, drums, chimes, gongs, and other percussion.

At the UCC recital, Patricia von Blumröder delivered a performance that was masterful in both nuance and large-scale coherence. The “macro-form” of Sonatas and Interludes features four groups of four sonatas (“S”) symmetrically delimited by four interludes (“I”): S1-4, I1, S5-8, I2, I3, S9-12, I4, S13-16. With some exceptions, the sonatas are in compact binary forms (AABB) and the interludes more freely structured. I came to the recital armed with a chart of the form, courtesy of Wikipedia, though I found that Cage’s clean, spare textures and “spinning out” of each movement’s opening motivic material didn’t require any additional guidance. This exquisitely-wrought, alternately lyrical and dancelike music is very much a trope on early 18th-century keyboard suites, though it would be a stretch to call it “Neo-Baroque.” Harmonies, though distorted by the unusual timbres and tunings, were for the most part tertian, with progressions, motivic cells, and frequent ostinati creating clear pitch centers. The opening timbres featured lightly-prepared pitches, giving the impression of a hammered dulcimer with occasional interjections from the “gamelan,” and as the cycle progressed, the more “exotic” timbres moved into the foreground.

Cage’s determinate compositions are admired by many musicians, though it’s safe to say that the composer’s fame and notoriety is for the most part due to his work with indeterminacy. Thus one finds that though pieces like Sonatas and Interludes evince supreme compositional craft, many (including Cage himself) consider his masterpieces to be 4’33” and its ilk, which evince no musical craft at all.

This oft-repeated and putatively unenlightened criticism brings us back to Cage’s questions about the relative musicality of trucks and people of varying auditory acuity who might be hanging around inside or outside music schools, including the participants in Sunday’s post-recital panel discussion. As one would hope with a birthday celebration, the roster was padded with Cage disciples, but what surprised me was that immediately following a seventy-minute performance of Sonatas and Interludes, the piece was hardly mentioned at all, save for a comment by the director of the John Cage Trust asserting that only after his “pre-chance” phase did the composer become “The John Cage we all know and love.”

So what then, is musical? We know that Cage has said “everything,” but how truly avant-garde is such a contention, and how might all musicians profitably engage the provocations of such a philosophy? Over 1400 years before Mr. Cage was ruffling feathers while forever transforming the ways we think about musical experience, another musical saint, the Medieval philosopher Boëthius (canonized by the Catholic Church as St. Severinus Boëthius) documented four types of music in his De Institutione Musica, only the least of which–musica instrumentalis–corresponds to our traditional concept. Of much higher importance were musicae mundana, humana, and divina, or, respectively “music of the spheres/world,” music of the human spirit and body, and music of the gods. Perhaps with Boëthius as our moderator, we might gain more sympathetic insight into Cage’s musica–a Boëthian all-embracing and ultimately undeterminable musica of galaxies, the interpenetration of all humanity, the metaphysical realm, and perhaps even trucks and music schools.

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What IS John Cage? An eclectic celebration fit for an eclectic human being.

On Sunday, February 12th, The University of Iowa hosted a day-long celebration of John Cage’s life and work.  There were several happenings throughout the day, including a panel discussion with Cage experts, a recital of works for prepared piano, the Musicircus (of which there is also a review in this blog) and others. The culmination to this day of celebration came as a recital of Cage compositions for different chamber groups, which was held at the Riverside Recital Hall at 7:30 pm.

The crowd was not huge, but it was a special kind of audience. What made this audience so special was the presence of many Cage scholars, who came from all over the country to be a part of our celebration. And even besides the Cage scholars, it’s not just anyone who would brave the February cold on a Sunday night to hear this music. The stage was well set for what would be a memorable evening, showcasing more than four decades of John Cage’s work.

I must admit that I did not fully realize what I was in for at this recital. Unfortunately, my knowledge of John Cage’s music is inadequate at best. With the lightness that stems from ignorance, playing and listening at this recital turned out to be a rather enlightening experience for me. In the wider culture, and in my mind as well (to an extent) John Cage is (in)famous for his use of silence and seemingly random musical structures. Almost every musician in the world knows of one of his compositions; namely, 4’33”. This piece was, perhaps, the one in which Cage took his appreciation of silence to the farthest extreme. The beauty of our recital lay in the fact that, although some pieces did make use extensively of silence (such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra), almost every work showed a different aspect of Cage’s output.

The surprises started right from the beginning of the program, with the First Construction in Metal, which dates from 1939. This is a piece that features, as the name implies, metallic percussion instruments. The music is full of verve! Rhythms sound deliberate and driving, not at all like the sparseness that was to come in later works. Incidentally, all of the driving metallic sounds evoked in my mind images of a busy construction site.  I have not been able to ascertain whether Cage had this effect in mind as he named the piece, which is part of a set of three Constructions written between 1939 and ’42 for unorthodox percussion ensembles.

Next in the program was Speech from 1955. In this piece we were introduced to another iconic facet of Cage; his use of chance. Cage’s composition indicates to the performers at what points they need to turn the volume dials on their radios up or down, and also at what point they need to switch to another station. The instructions are very precise, but just what sounds come out of the speakers varies at each performance.

What followed was a radical departure from anything I ever thought to represent John Cage. His 44 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776, from 1976, are fully tonal. Upon careful listening, one discovers that they are, also, fully Cage. There is still the signature silence, and the rhythmic material isn’t as straight-forward as the open harmonies would lead us to believe. Interestingly, this piece, which was the most “conservative” sounding in the program, was also the latest.

What a contrast with the earliest Cage piece in the program, the Six Short Inventions from 1934! In these miniatures, Cage used an unusual chamber instrumentation of strings and winds, often calling for extended techniques. I appreciated his sense of humor in that there was only one of every instrument represented, except for the viola, of which there were TWO! Well done, John Cage! (Disclaimer: at the time of this writing, the writer is a full time violist).

The grand finale of the program was the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra, from 1950-51. This piece is representative of another unique Cage facet: his appreciation for individual sonorities. Each instrument is basically assigned a few sonorities, which cycle again and again through the piece. This has to do with Cage’s use of charts and geometric shapes as compositional tools. You can find a brief explanation here.

All of these wildly contrasting aural experiences got me thinking, and I had to ask myself this question: What exactly IS John Cage’s music, and what is he trying to tell me? Who knows, perhaps everything at once, perhaps nothing at all.

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Yesterday was no typical Sunday in the Old Capitol Mall in downtown Iowa City.  One member of the custodial staff remarked, “Wow – people!”

Yes, there WERE people, many of them, men, women and children, and there were also musicians, who started appearing with all their accoutrements (instruments, music stands, black folders, conducting batons, and little Tupperware containers full of water for the oboists) about twenty minutes before the official four o’clock start of John Cage’s Musicircus.  Premiered in 1967, this composition is characteristic of the works of the revolutionary American artist (whose hundredth birthday is being celebrated this year) in that it is not really a composition at all.  No written score exists for the Musicircus.  It is an event: musicians (and other artists) are simply invited to assemble in an open, public space and perform simultaneously for a set period of time.

Throughout his life, John Cage worked to liberate music from the rigid, stuffy confines of the concert hall, and even from people’s preconceived notions of what music IS.  For Cage, all kinds of sound – even unstructured noise – constituted music.  And unstructured noise is exactly what the Musicircus offers its audience – all kinds of music, played in many different styles by many different performers – all at the same time.

The idea sounds wonderful: free music, and as much of it as you like!  The food court of a shopping mall seems an appropriate venue for this kind of sensory smorgasbord.  But remember: we don’t have “earlids” to shut out unwanted sound.  Just imagine if your Taco Bell Cheezy Cordita Crunch Box came with additional – and obligatory! – servings of Korean bulgogi, an assortment of California rolls, pepperoni pizza slices from Sbarro, and a side of Tandoori chicken, all swimming in a pool of caramel macchiato from TSpoons.  Are you experiencing a gut reation?  Well, some of the audience members (and performers) at the Musicircus suffered the same sense of forced over-ingestion and had to clear the premises before the appointed hour was up in order to keep it all down.

The musical menu on this particular Sunday afternoon included many delicacies (the Taco Bell metaphor was not intended as an insult to any performers).  The UI Chamber Orchestra offered selections from J.S. Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto and Antonin Dvorak’s Serenade for Strings.  The band department – encamped not forty feet away – offered Variants on a Mediaeval Tune by Norman Dello Joio and three Dance Movements by Philip Sparke.   The University Choir (competing valiantly but in vain with the superior decibel levels of the large instrumental groups) sprinkled its performances of Stephen Chatman’s onomatopoeic cycle Due North and Jean Berger’s Devotional Songs  with impromptu Christmas carols, body percussion jam sessions (some mildly alarming), and readings of multiple one-minute stories from another of Cage’s works, Indeterminacy (listen to Cage himself reading these stories at ).  Young students from the Preucil school executed their group renditions of selections from Suzuki Book One and Book Two with admirable earnest – there is hope for the future!  Miscellaneous grad students played bassoon, marimba, and steel drum; several modern dancers emoted and a young man wandered around sticking a melodica (also known as a “blow-organ” – who says you can’t learn anything from Wikipedia?) into peoples’ faces.  The Chamber Singers of Iowa City sang J.S. Bach’s Gloria sei Dir gesungen as well as settings of Cantate Domino by further Baroque composers Heinrich Schuetz and Giuseppe Pitoni –  very classy!  But their best selection was Estonian composer Veljo Tormis’s unpronouncable Parismaalase lauluke, a rhythmically insistent work of anti-Soviet protest based on a Polynesian folk tune.  Hmmm… somehow it just fit.

A distinguished Chinese gentleman I interviewed summed up the event in three words: “Too much noise.”  Two random UI students, however, felt that the Musicircus  served a community purpose: “So many people have never even been to a band or orchestra concert.  This may get them interested in coming to hear some of the groups later.”  I personally enjoyed riding the escalators and listening to the various streams of music phase in and out around me as I moved through all that vibrating space.  And many of the student musicians I spoke with enjoyed the fact that, for once in their university career, they were just playing music for fun – no beta blockers required.  If only for these reasons, the Musicircus represents an intriguing concept, and one worth exploring.


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Teaching-Learning: Outreach and Contemporary Music

“Does music have to be virtuosic to engage us?”

This is the question with which Dr. Alan Huckleberry began his pre-recital lecture at the Piano Sunday concert at the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. “No!” was his emphatic answer. Huckleberry is currently engaged in a project to video record over 7,000 pedagogical pieces on the Iowa Music Teachers Association repertoire list and post the performances to YouTube. As Huckleberry said, the small pieces are often just as well crafted and can be just as engaging as the virtuosic war-horses… if they are given a sensitive, thoughtful performance. Huckleberry’s project aims at giving students access to fine playing, marshalling beautiful demonstration as a powerful pedagogical tool.

On Huckleberry’s repertoire list on Sunday were selections from Japanese composer Yoshinao Nakada‘s Japanese Festival. The miniatures were very much like a 20th century version of Schumann’s Album for the Young–engaging, well-crafted pieces with distinct and memorable characters. The third piece in the set, “A Green Caterpillar and a Butterfly” was particularly evocative, with the sluggish, octave bass melody of the caterpillar contrasting with the major, high treble flights of the butterfly. Throughout, Nakada invokes harmonic idioms characteristic of the common-practice era, but bends the ear with unexpected resolutions. For example, the seventh piece “The Ballet by the Little Flower” begins with a long prolongation of the dominant sonority–so long, in fact, one wonders if V7 has substituted for tonic. Very Schumann. In another humorous nod to our tonal expectations, the “Etude Moderato” veers toward the whole-tone scale at the end, only to be reeled back in safely with an authentic cadence. Nakada’s pieces and Huckleberry’s playing are, simply put, a delight.

On the second half of the program, Dr. Réne Lecuona gave inspired performances of Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 No. 1 and the first movement of Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata Op. 53, replete with all of the orchestrational changes of color and timbre that she reported were a part of her imaginative interpretation of the works. The most intriguing piece that she played, however, was the newly composed Imprimitivity by UIowa faculty composer Dr. Lawrence Fritts. Fritts is known for his work in the UIowa Electronic Music Studios, but this piano work was completely acoustic. It began in the upper reaches of the piano, with the hands playing in complex rhythmic relationships like 5:4 and 7:5. These tuplet relationships between the hands are a major technical and intellectual challenge for the pianist, but Lecuona handled them gracefully and accurately. Given the repetitive texture, the mind and ear begin to play tricks, separating the highest pitches from the lowest. Do we hear two streams (high and low), or three (high, middle, and low)? As the patterned hands fell into a flexible, shifting ostinato working gradually lower toward the middle of the keyboard, I began to experiment with my perception. (What happens if I shift my attention to the lower stream, or the higher?)

A few minutes into the piece, the texture thinned considerably, the meditative tuplets disappeared, and the two hands engaged in what sounded like a free improvisation–a conversation of gestural counterpoint. The quasi-minimalist texture returned to close the piece, with the hands following one another down into the bass (LH) and baritone (RH) ranges. The left hand seemed to fall off the keyboard near the end, running out of keys to play all of its tuplet pitches, and interjecting only intermittently as a result. The dramatic trajectory of the piece is available to the listener upon a first hearing (like this Ligeti piano etude), and is a feature that welcomes the listener and encourages interpretation. For me, the tuplet relationships between the hands were like two friends walking or breathing together and falling slightly out of phase. The global direction of the piece was almost never in doubt–you and your friend continue walking in the same direction–but the moment-to-moment relationship is always shifting and flexible.

Both performers engaged the audience through expert and beautiful playing, but we should not overlook the power of the spoken word. Both performers spoke to the audience multiple times, contextualizing their work, as well as the composers and pieces on the program. This type of dialogue and engagement with the audience is surely one of the best ways to draw audiences toward contemporary music and its delights.

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