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Time Passages

I’ll be honest; I’m a little skeptical of new music. I don’t always “get” what’s going on, which leads to a sense of questioning the reasoning behind the composition. But little did I know that I was going to be pleasantly surprised by the Center for New Music (CNM) concert on Sunday, 8 December.

It was a big concert, according to a number of composition students and performers. I looked through the program and saw only four pieces. “Big concert?” I thought. They then went on to clarify that it was big in relation to the size of ensemble for a CNM concert. The program consisted of Abiogenesis by Brian Penkrot, Rebonds A pour percussion solo by Iannis Xenakis, Time’s Vestiges by guest composer Anthony Cheung, and Vortex Temporum by Gérard Grisey. Of the four pieces, all but the Xenakis are programmed with the idea of the passage of time.

The Grisey started off the concert. Little did I know that it was one of Grisey’s most famous pieces. According to the composer in the program notes, “Vortex Temporum is perhaps only a history of the arpeggio in time and space.”

 Dr. Gompper introduced the piece by explaining how the piece was composed in three sections. The first section was minimalist in nature, with a repeating rhythmic motive in the clarinet and flute. This was passed around between the wind instruments, the stringed instruments, and the detuned piano. As this first section drew to a close, the motive began to dissipate, and slowly faded into a piano solo. The piano interlude created such a harsh and distinct atmosphere, compared to the first section, that at times, it reminded me the old Twilight Zone television show. The section covered the expanse of the instrument, not only in pitch, but also in dynamics. It ended with Casey Rafn, the pianist, slamming his arm down on the keyboard. As the final notes faded into the air, the second section began with a sighing motive played by the alto flute and cello. The third section was a return to the beginning motive, but was accompanied by pizzicato strings this time. The motive was interrupted by chaotic episodes in the strings, creating a disjointed feeling.

The second piece performed was Abiogenesis by Brian Penkrot. Abiogenesis is the theory that inorganic material came together to create living cells, which then became all life. The composition encompasses this idea through and through. Beginning with short bursts of musical motifs, the ideas gradually grew in length and complexity. As the percussion entered, the “central nervous system,” form and patterns began to emerge. But, as life continues to be in flux, the motifs would constantly change between shorter bursts and the longer ideas.

The third piece, Rebonds A pour percussion solo by Xenakis, was probably the one that I enjoyed the most. It began with single hits on the bass drum, toms, and bongos. As the piece continues, it becomes increasingly more involved rhythmically. The pattern set up in the first few seconds, rapidly dissolves into the background. You can check out a performance of the piece here:

The fourth and final piece was by Anthony Cheung, a guest composer from the University of Chicago ( Time’s Vestiges depicted the unending chain of cyclical time. The first section, according to the program was in a static structure and moved into a “ceaseless motion.” The final section depicted erosion. The strings gradually detuned their instruments over the course of the last section. The ensemble gradually being reduced to two players further depicted the idea of erosion.

Afterwards, I spoke with a few other audience members and they all had enjoyed the performance. Although the performers had to be flexible in their programming as the order of the concert was reversed due to inclement weather, the concert was a job well done. I always find it fascinating how 20th and 21st century music utilizes tone colors that previous music never touched. I was impressed by the amount of extended techniques used in the performance. These techniques helped solidify the concepts and ideas that the composers were trying to convey, without them, the pieces would have fallen short. 



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