Please enjoy a sneak-peek into our Artistic Director Steven Schick’s notes for our February 22, Rabbit Hole program.
It’s springtime. Or at least it is in Southern California, where I am writing these words. With desert flowers in the offing and blooming jacaranda not far behind, our attention turns to things that grow.
Or, in the case of this concert, to things that change.
On the surface tonight’s concert looks like a crazy quilt of divergences, but dig a little deeper and you’ll note that everything grows from a common ground. All of these pieces started from a remarkably similar impulse, but each has grown in its own way. To torture the metaphor a bit more, from the same soil will grow fantastically varied flowers.
Tonight we present five composers. Each is rooted in a particular branch of the American experimentalist tradition. Each was an accomplished performer before becoming a composer. And for each, the elaboration of a known tradition has been guided by forces external to that tradition. Those external forces are what Robertson Davies has referred to as the “Fifth Business:” they are catalysts designed to destabilize an otherwise balanced system. Without such a force nothing can change; with it everything does.
Take Paul Dresher for example. Paul has been a central figure in the Bay Area music scene since he relocated here after his studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he worked with Robert Erickson. The Erickson philosophy, with no small influence from Harry Partch, Lou Harrison and musical visionaries from African and Asian traditions, led Dresher along a path of musical invention and instrument fabrication that has made him an iconic and profoundly influential West Coast composer. The instrument you’ll hear tonight, the “quadrachord,” is just one of his many inventions. But Paul has also worked as much in the theater as he has in the concert hall. And his theatrical disposition has led him to understand not just how music sounds but also how it acts. The result is a lively, virtuosic, and fully embodied variation on the California experimentalists.
Iconoclast, intellectual, and sensualist, Eve Beglarian, is represented by I’m worried now but I won’t be worried long, a brief but alluring work for solo violinist and a pre-recorded tape of the processed sounds of leaky pipes. If the standard trope of American Experimentalists has been, “it’s all about the sound,” Beglarian’s take on it may well have be, “it’s all about the experience of the sound.” For Eve, music is about what happens to you when you listen. Her most effective pieces are always the most affecting ones. This is a small-ish sample, but imagine what can happen when she uses a big canvas. For more see her evening-length piece for the cellist Maya Beiser or her continuing musical essays on a one-woman, human-powered trip she made down the length of the Mississippi River in 2009.
Stuart Smith’s version of the American impulse comes from the other side of the country. His work has drawn self-consciously on the tradition of American Transcendentalism. Indeed much of his work has been informed by a world-view that places humans and nature in correlative resonance. Beyond that a long series of pieces written for remarkably similar instrumentation alludes to Emerson and Thoreau. Note his set of eleven “Links” for vibraphone solo spanning more than twenty years. Smith calls these works “essays,” and they vary so little from one another in terms of color, texture and musical language that they function more as journal entries than as pieces of music. With Smith’s music the outlying force is his love of jazz and his willingness to quote it overtly, both as material and inspiration. Pinetop for piano solo refers to Pinetop Perkins, who lived nearly a hundred years and influenced practically everyone who has played any kind of blues or rock music.
No simple categorization of George Lewis is possible. But if you trace his roots back far enough they will lead you to the trombone and to the communal musical-making of the African American tradition. But that’s just the beginning. On a recent trip abroad I had to fill out a visa form. When I got to the line where I listed my occupation, I suddenly smiled and thought of George. What would he do here? There was not a box for: scholar, designer of nearly the first real-time interface between performers and computers, teacher, advocate of musical communities of extraordinary diversity, performer, and more recently and very fruitfully, composer. George is all of the above and has touched nearly every area of music and nearly every musician I know. We are very pleased to give the first performance of his latest work, Hexis.
My first act as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was to ask Mark Applebaum to write a piece for us. I told the board to consider the commission “truth in advertising.” I wanted to SFCMP to retain the identity of its distinguished past while aggressively re-evaluating the impact of that past on the future. I knew that Mark would write our anthem. Rabbit Hole did not disappoint. It is a work firmly rooted in the most rigorous practices of contemporary music, but one that produces a singularly ludic and seemingly undirected flow of events. It could have been written by one of the Marx brothers if he had studied with Webern and Derrida. It is a piece full of detail: from sounds that are almost but not quite played, to highly virtuosic instrumental passages, detailed stage movements, dada-esque hand signals, and special wristwatches (I am not kidding.) You will soon experience it, so there is no reason to describe it further. Suffice to say that it is extremely aptly named.
Yes, thoughts have turned to spring: to the way we start as one thing and become something else. It’s the becoming that’s so sweet, the way that things, even when you think you know them well, can become something unexpected. One of the fondest memories I have of my father was watching him walk out onto the black plowed earth of our Iowa farm and sniff the warming spring air. “We’ll plant now,” he announced, and with that everything began to change.
We send our warm thanks and vernal greetings to the four wonderful composers on tonight’s program and to you, our intrepid listeners.
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