The Modern Ones

A festival of contemporary classical music feeds the ears.

Fascinating as the Seattle Chamber Players' three previous "Icebreaker" festivals have been, it's surprising that they and factotum Elena Dubinets were able to top themselves again. Their latest musical total-immersion experience last weekend incorporated a new venue, On the Boards; a new unifying feature, age rather than geography; and a new programming strategy, inviting writers Alex Ross and Kyle Gann to curate the Friday and Saturday night concerts which tent-poled a packed three days of presentations and discussions. Gann and Ross, easily two of the country's most articulate and passionate advocates for contemporary music, were draws in themselves. The New Yorker's Ross put together a program of seven pieces (including five premieres) by younger-generation composers (25-40-ish), based in the New York City area, whose music has grabbed his ear. Gann drew on his years as new-music correspondent for the Village Voice and brought in longtime favorites from an older generation (45 and up). Most every work used the SCP's core ensemble of flute (Paul Taub), clarinet (Laura DeLuca), violin (Mikhail Shmidt), and cello (on Friday Joshua Roman, on Saturday Kevin Krentz), with sometimes a guest musician or two. Alexandra Gardner's The Way of Ideas made a good concert opener Friday: brightly percolating and attractively sec, to use wine terminology. It was the first of several pieces on the program to show a common fingerprint: a familiar adaptation (almost a cliché) of the relentless pulsing of early Glass or Reich. Call them "Morse code" rhythms—very short notes in little erratically spaced groups against a steady beat (dit ditdit dadadit dadadada dit ditdada dit ditdit . . . ). Anna Clyne's 1987 contrasts an electronic soundscape of gentle tapping and chiming (sampled kalimba and music box) with quiet veiled drones for the instruments. Mason Bates' The Life of Birds is a set of six finely wrought miniatures, charming and mercurial, in a harmonic language that combines, let's say, a dash of Barber with a bit of Stravinsky's Petrouchka. The dappled sounds of Judd Greenstein's At the end of a really great day show a similar craftsmanship and ear-friendliness. Twilight for Adored and Breathless Moments, by Max Giteck Duykers, seemed in a way the evening's most overtly narrative piece, jumping among widely contrasted ideas: a piece that as you listen gives you no clue where it's going. This sensation can be more irritating than agreeable—for example, when you get the feeling the composer has no clue either—but everything that happened in Duykers' piece, full of surprises, made sense in retrospect. Nico Muhly's I Know Where Everything Is, based largely on a repeated chord progression deployed various ways (repeated eighth notes, liquid wind burbles), made a less immediately engaging impression. William Brittelle's Michael Jackson is built out of tiny fragments borrowed from the pop god's recordings and altered—a little riff here and there may be recognizable, but there are no overt quotes, which would have stopped the piece dead. Brief, tasty, unpretentious, Jackson is perhaps a little clumsy, and not fully convincing, as far as continuity; then again, Brittelle is intending here to portray "Jackson's own mental and emotional downfall." Gratifyingly, he's not exploiting rock for its otherness, or worse, its cuteness; Battelle truly integrates the idiom with his own compositional interests, without holding it at arm's length, without any this-is-me-making-a-statement-about-pop-culture posing. Shmidt pointed out this quality in a post-concert discussion, calling these composers' absorption of pop ideas "comfortable," with no sense of conflict in their work. In fact, if the influence of pop showed anywhere in these works, it was primarily a matter of attitude rather than musical material: the sort of unself-conscious, let's-give-it-a-try eagerness and curiosity that musicians from Paul McCartney to Jonny Greenwood (to take examples from both ends of the spectrum of critical acclaim) have shown in recent projects working with traditional classical forms and instruments. For an example of what I mean by self-consciousness, there was Friday's 6 p.m. screening of Stephen Taylor's 2005 film The End of New Music, which follows Greenstein's NOW Ensemble around to two or three gigs in which they play new chamber pieces in rock clubs. The musicians interviewed came off as just a little too enamored of their heroism as barrier-breakers, and I can't help but point out that their mission, interesting and valuable though it is, bears amazing resemblances to what our own Degenerate Art Ensemble (then the Young Composers Collective) was doing in 1994. Similar grunge venues, similar hard-edged, chaos-embracing music for traditional orchestral instruments (flute, clarinet) and rock instruments, similar aggressively hip titles (Electric Proletariat, Free Speech Zone). NOW even had an alt-handsome shaved-head bassist à la Ian Rashkin. As an hors d'oeuvre to Saturday's concert, the SCP premiered Chaplin Street, a concerto by Seattle Symphony bassoonist Seth Krimsky for bassoon and what is basically a very small orchestra. The delicious work shows a film-score influence in homage to Krimsky' teacher Norman Herzberg, a longtime Hollywood studio musician, especially in the first movement's sinuous, exotic melodies, set against an icy-creepy background of instrumental special effects, and the finale's smoky film-noir music, with a walking bass and cool vibes. Gann's Kierkegaard, Walking opened the 8 p.m. concert. As the title suggests, the four instruments amble along, each wrapped in their own thoughts, playing their own ruminating lines and licks supported by pizzicato cello, independent but harmonizing loosely. This ambling is interrupted here and there by contrasting, slightly more agitated sections seeming to evoke some sort of disturbing or puzzling memory or sudden realization. In Elodie Lauten's Scene from 0.02, she recited live alongside a prerecorded electronic track full of energetic burbles. It was a lot of noise for the four instruments to compete with, the clarinet and flute spinning out long tones and the strings offering textbook samples of '60s-style extended techniques—harsh, grinding bowing on the other side of the bridge, for example. The instruments were usually inaudible, in fact, just surfacing now and then for a gulp of air before being re-submerged. Seattle composer Janice Giteck's Ishi, a suite inspired by the story of a Native American who was the last of his California tribe, reminded me of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale: not melodically or harmonically, but in its unabashed storytelling picturesqueness, its transparent counterpoint, the way it paints a mood or scene with great evocativeness and economy and then moves on. Deeply moving, and admirable, is the way Giteck uses episodic structure itself as an expressive device, the six movements' snapshot-like brevity evoking a sense of nostalgia and loss. Ishi's infatuation with, of all things, Italian opera is paid homage to with a salon-orchestra-style arrangement of Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima," with Shmidt giving the melody the full-on schmaltz treatment. Like Lauten's piece, John Luther Adams' The Light Within incorporates a rather overwhelming electronic part, a big sound cloud that very slowly darkens over the course of the piece. Here too the instruments edge in and out of audibility, but without a sense of struggle: they add glints and shadings of color to the overall mass. The electronic part in Eve Beglarian's Robin Redbreast was a more equal partner to the duo of Taub and vocalist Jessika Kenney, consisting of a looming drone and chirping bird noises imitated by Taub on piccolo. William Duckworth's contribution to close the concert was another chapter in his ongoing Cathedral project: an online repository of his previous performances, plus contributions from musicians around the world, is drawn on as seed material for each new Cathedral performance. (Kind of like holding back a bit of sourdough bread dough to start the next batch.) These sounds were blended into a half-hour collage by Duckworth and associate Nora Farrell on laptops and DJ Tamara at the mixing board, with live contributions from Stuart Dempster (trombone, didgeridoo, a pile of toys) and Taub. It was the sort of ambient-chaos-event-happening not at all shown to best advantage in a traditional concert setting, with them onstage and us sitting in rows. For an ideal presentation of this sort of thing, you had to check out the three-and-a-half-hour marathon of music by Morton Feldman (1926–1987) that the SCP staged at the Seattle Art Museum Sunday afternoon. In a third-floor gallery displaying some of the Abstract Expressionists who were friends of Feldman and whose way with paint influenced his with sounds, the SCP and friends played eight works of typically vast length and vaster delicacy, each a gentle unfolding of quiet isolated notes and gestures. Listeners came and went, sat on the floor and on chairs surrounding the musicians, meditated in corners, or just wandered by. Anyone who thinks audience excitement and electricity are incompatible with contemplative absorption should have been there—the listeners were silent but the thrill was palpable. Immediately afterward I grabbed the first SCPer I could reach, Taub, and told him this should be an annual event.

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