In a social environment that almost seems to take pride in its willful ignorance of history, the final quarter of the twentieth century must seem even more remote than the fictitious distant past of the Star Wars movies. In such a context the decision of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) and its Artistic Director Steven Schick to present a program consisting almost entirely of music written between 1975 and 2000 may be perceived as laying somewhere on the spectrum between total irrelevance and utter chutzpah. Nevertheless, for those taking the trouble to listen, there is very much a vibrant immediacy in the music of composers like Morton Feldman (who died in 1987) and Louis Andriessen (who is still going strong and has been pushing the envelope since the early Seventies).
The result was that last night’s SFCMP performance in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was one of the most daring and stimulating gestures to launch the new year. Not only did Feldman and Andriessen fill most of the program, but also they did so each with a single composition performed by a large ensemble. To be fair, the number of players for Andriessen’s 1975 “Workers Union” is left unspecified. All that is required is “any loud-sounding group of instruments;” but Schick decided to go for strength in numbers with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, and violins. The ensemble also include a tuba, a harp, a piano, a cello, a bass, and a vibraphone played by Schick himself.
The only thing strictly specified in Andriessen’s score for “Workers Union” is rhythm, using conventional notation but a staff consisting of only one line. The notes are written as contours that rise and fall above the staff line, corresponding to the upper and lower ranges of the instrument; but pitch is never specifically determined. For most of the quarter hour of performance, all instruments follow the same contours; but, as the piece draws to a close, different groups of instruments go in different directions.
There is relatively little rhythmic variation, so most of the contours are determined by a series of rapid-fire pulses. In that “loud-sounding” context the result suggests some infernal perpetual motion machine. However, because specific pitches are never specified, the overall effect also suggests a study in tone clusters. Nevertheless, these large masses of different pitches can also yield a curious side effect.
Those familiar with the analysis and synthesis of speech know about formants. These amount to “colored noise,” a random distribution of frequencies all sounding concurrently but within a narrow band delimited the highest and lowest of the frequencies. Vowel sounds are often synthesized through the specification of such formants; and one of the results of the combination of instrumental resources and the clustering of their pitches was that, every now and then, the sonorities would take on speech-like qualities, reinforced by the declamatory connotations of the rhythms. Thus, the overall effect tended to recall (for those of us who still have a sense of history) Kurt Schwitter’s “Ursonate,” a poem consisting entirely of nonsense syllables organized in sonata form.
The title “Workers Union” clearly has political connotations. However, it should not be mistaken for the sort of people’s uprising that is associated with, for example, the Russian Revolution. Rather, it is about the discipline of large numbers of players remaining “in step” with the rhythmic specifications. Andriessen’s own comments compare that discipline to “organizing and carrying on political action.” In that respect it is worth noting that “Workers Union” was completed while Andriessen was working on “De Staat,” a much longer cantata setting excerpts from Plato’s “Republic.” Perhaps some day SFCMP will arrange to perform these two compositions on a single program, since their political perspectives are so complementary.
The Feldman composition, which filled the entire second half of the program, was one of his last. “For Samuel Beckett” was written in the year of his death. As has been previously observed, Feldman’s progress as a composer involved working with longer and longer durations, the culmination of which was his 1983 second string quartet, which was accurately reported on the New York Classical Review Web site as “Six hours of one uninterrupted piece of music.” While that quartet may have been the apex of Feldman’s durational extent, he also followed a parallel path in deploying larger and larger ensembles for the realization of his compositional techniques. Thus, the instrumental resources for “For Samuel Beckett” were the same as those deployed for “Workers Union.”
The discipline, on the other hand, was entirely different. Rhythm was still a critical element, but uniformity was not. Feldman’s score was one of superposition of relatively simple patterns, which are distinguished by changes on an almost microscopic scale. One useful metaphor might be that of a glass of water, which appears to the eye as static but whose liquid state depends on large numbers of molecular movements invisible to the naked eye. Feldman’s music does not “churn” like those molecules. Rather, he creates the effect of stasis; and then, over the course of his extended duration, he reveals to the ear subtle perturbations of that stasis. The effect can be hypnotic (if not soporific) on the audience, while the performers on the other side of the proscenium must adhere to the same constraining disciplines that lie at the heart of “Workers Union.” If the listening mind may not take in all of that discipline for the hour required for the performance of “For Samuel Beckett,” there is still much to be gained from “sampling” the experience, as one might sample the passing landscape during a long railway trip.
The program began with a much smaller ensemble consisting of violin (Hrabba Atladottir), cello (Helen Newby), flute (Tod Brody), clarinet (Bill Kalinkos), and piano (Kate Campbell with rattles on her left ankle). However, these five players were distributed widely across the Concert Hall space with the two wind players behind the audience, the violin at the far rear of the stage, and cello and piano towards the front of the stage at right and left extremes, respectively. The music was the West Coast premiere of Zosha DiCastri’s “La forma dello spazzio” (the form of space), inspired in part by the mobiles of Alexander Calder.
The music was an intriguing study of coincidence and differentiation. An individual tone might begin on one instrument and then resonate on others, thus distributing itself over a wider spatial extent. However, there were also “punctuations” of more rapid passages concerned more with the individuality of the single instrument doing the playing. The piece was less than ten minutes in duration, but it acclimated the attentive year to the significance of spatial relations. That significance would subsequently be reinforced through the performance of both the Andriessen and Feldman compositions. Thus, DiCastri’s work served as a highly suitable “overture” for the remainder of the evening.