What is music?

By Nicholas Betson

As composer Shulamit Ran, the new artistic director of the Contemporary Chamber Players Series, reminded concertgoers at the beginning of this performance, Chicago is in no shortage of concerts of new music. Indeed, the very day of this concert (January 19) testified to this. Aside from having to choose the CCP concert over the “Chant” concert at Rockefeller Chapel, listeners were also forced to choose between performances of Messiaen’s piano masterpiece Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus at Symphony Center and later in the evening a concert of works by Ralph Shapey (former artistic director of the CCP and professor at the University) given by Pro Musica. The wide variety of events on Sunday resulted in a rather small audience for the Mandel Hall concert, although the intimate atmosphere consequently created was a nice relief from the blistering cold outside.

The concert featured, among other performers, one of the two University Ensembles in residence: the six person group eighth blackbird, whose hip appearance and energetic playing always gives a certain verve to their concerts. This was especially apparent in the first on the program, Yinam Leef’s Triptych for piano, clarinet, violin, viola, and cello. The first movement, marked “energico,” had a strong forward drive to it that managed to leave room for a dark, expressive quality. This latter quality might have been attributable to Leef’s excellent writing for the viola, a frequently “unsung” instrument that was here allowed to come to the fore.

The centerpiece of the concert, if one can say there was one (all of the pieces were relatively equal in length and expressive content), was Fred Lerdahl’s Time after Time, performed by the six players of eighth blackbird. In addition to being an accomplished composer, Lerdahl is also a well-respected music theorist and had been around campus the entire weekend to discuss both his views as a theorist and a composer. These views tend to be expressed by Lerdahl as one and the same (although their unity is left somewhat to question upon closer inspection) and it thus surprised no one in the audience when the composer took the stage to describe some of the theory behind his piece before the performance (Lerdahl spoke of “decomposing” the work). To be able to hear the composer explain his own thoughts is one of the peculiarities associated with modern music, and it is always a treat to have the privilege to experience it within the concert setting. But its somewhat unexpected presence (here unexpected because of its rarity) can also provide a shock and create disorientation. I offer the following description of the talk at the concert as example: Lerdahl described a process in the music he calls “expanded variations,” one in which a short theme is repeated in elongated form and then the entire process is repeated recursively. All in all, the “expanded variation” procedure is one that can be demonstrated rather easily by having the performers play the successive variations. So Lerdahl had eighth blackbird do just that. So the performance became an incorporation of Lerhdahl’s narration and the musician’s demonstrations. After a bit of confusion in negotiating the sequence of things–and after a good deal of tentative playing by the ensemble–things got back on track. And then the violinist said, “Ah…it all makes sense now!” Aren’t we glad that we have the composer at hand?

Lerdahl’s work, aside from its tight theoretical construction, was actually one of the more cogent (and cogently-presented) pieces on the program. Of special note was the amount of dramatic narrative, in the second movement in particular, to be found in the work. The second half of this concert continued the drama that seemed so present in Lerdahl’s piece. Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Three Watercolours for soprano, flute, and prepared piano utilized a very strong sense of melody, as opposed to concentrating and developing harmonic sonorities, to convey the narratives of its three texts. Soprano Julia Bentley’s histrionics, which at times approached musical theater, also were effective in this regard. The program closed with George Benjamin’s At First Light for chamber orchestra, conducted by Cliff Colnot. While Benjamin’s work displayed all the modernist trappings that are perhaps inspired by his teacher Alexander Goehr’s compositions, it, too, came across as dramatic spectacle.

Contemporary music fanatics will, of course, already be looking forward to the next big event on the U of C campus–the Pacifica String Quartet’s recital of Eliot Carter’s complete string quartets. These quartets allow us to glean all the essential developments in the career of one the most important American composers of the last century. The concert will take place at Mandel Hall on February 21.