Last night the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) began their one-week residency at Z Space with the first of two performances of their program Oscuroscape. The synthesized word was a reflection on the major work on the program, David Lang’s 2010 “darker,” scored for twelve solo strings (with, alas, only eleven names printed in the program book). This one-hour composition was the major work on the program, sharing the duration of the concert only with Lang’s 2006 “warmth” for two electric guitars (Travis Andrews and David Tanenbaum), a seven-minute piece that provided the “overture” for the evening.
Obscurity was served through not only Lang’s choice of a comparative adjective for his title. By the composer’s own admission, even the connection to the very act of making music seems to be somewhat obscure. Consider what Lang has written: “darker is in many ways more like an object than a piece of music. It is a long, slow passing from something mostly even and pleasant to something a little less pleasant. My piece, like life, expends a lot of effort to go a very short distance, from beautiful to a little less beautiful, from a little light to something a little darker.”
Robert Kirzinger’s notes for the program book added Lang’s suggestion that this final comment could be reinforced through a change in stage lighting over the course of the performance. On the other hand the program book failed to say anything about the projected film by Suzanne Bocanegra. This was basically a study in the subtractive mixing of colors, realized through the dispersion of colored dyes in shallow transparent bowls of clear water. As more colors were added, the blend got progressively darker, but Bocanegra’s film was a more diverse journey in and out of darkness involving the manipulation of the glass bowls, rather than just the dyes. In other words the “agenda” for the film was entirely independent from that of Lang’s score. Furthermore, the general brightness of the film, along with the bright lights on the individual music stands, cancelled out any effect of dimming the overall lighting of the stage area.
Given the intentional obscurity, so to speak, of the very nature of being behind Lang’s score, once can appreciate that transition to “something a little less pleasant.” Indeed, over the course of an hour, one might well be inclined to dispense with the adverbial “little less.” From the listener’s point of view, there is only so much that can be apprehended in Lang’s use of his materials. The low strings provide a cantus firmus, which may or may not involve strict repetition but definitely involves strong “family resemblance” from one phrase to the text. The seven violins then provide a descant arising, often through hocket effects, from the superposition of short motifs played by the individual instruments. Given that the overall structure may have its roots in medieval counterpoint, it would not be surprising if there were repeated rhythmic patterns, as well as repeated pitch motifs but not necessarily in synchronization. One might almost think of the piece as the isorhythmic motet’s worst nightmare.
Another possibility is that “darker” has more impact as a piece of conceptual art than as a listening experience. This would make it an auditory complement to Andy Warhol’s eight-hour film of the Empire State Building seen in slow motion from a single point of view at dusk. On the other hand violinist Roy Malan, during the discussion prior to the performance, talked about the possibility of a meditative state arising through the attention required to execute the score properly. Judging from some of the hissing that came from the audience at the conclusion of the piece, there were some in the audience who never achieved that meditative state.
Lang’s description of “warmth,” on the other hand, was “something completely different,” a guitar solo that, in Lang’s own words, “two people play … almost exactly at the same time.” The result is an extremely difficult piece in which Lang meticulously documents the rhythmic discrepancies between those imagined “two people.” Listening to Andrews and Tanenbaum play in and out of synchronization with each other thus emerged as a mind-blowing experience that could almost (but not quite) amount to the unbridled spontaneity of some serious jamming.
This may be what makes Lang most interesting, at least at a cerebral level. As an observer he can document the subtleties of performing practices down to an extremely meticulous level of detail. He then captures that detail in notation and expects other performers to reproduce the experience through a faithful account of that notation. This may be the common motivating idea behind both “warmth” and “darker.” On the scale of about seven minutes, this amounts to an awe-inspiring etude. On the scale of an hour, on the other hand, it is just too much.