So I went Monday night to hear the International Contemporary Ensemble, or as they're sometimes known, "ICE," or "the ICE ensemble," or as I like to call them, "the international ICE ensemble." The international ICE ensemble are actually not, as their name might lead you to believe, from Iceland, but rather from Chicago or New York or something. [Note to self: look up where ICE is from before clicking PUBLISH. Actually, eh, don't bother.]
BUT ENOUGH WITH THE JOKING, I'm just a little punchy, the point is that they were pretty fantastically great. It's such a cliché, and a fallacy, to say that an ensemble can (or should) play so well that they present a given piece umediated by of interpretation, but that was certainly the illusion Monday night—I kept having to remind myself to pay attention to the performers, not just the score, so that I could tell y'all about them.
The program was part of a Mostly Mozart series curated by Pierre-Laurent Aimard, your favorite pianist (I mean seriously, am I the only one who watches this video frame by frame to make sure he hasn't cheated and grown a third hand?), looking at the music of Bach in the context of a giant survey of polyphony, spanning cultures and æons. This concert specifically was about juxtaposing the European/British avant-garde with their interpretations of baroque counterpoint, so the first piece was a Purcell arrangement by George Benjamin, featuring Aimard on celeste, accompanied by just a few ICEpeople who kept sneaking in to realize and resolve the long lines the celeste couldn't sustain. It was eerie and sweet and unsettling, and I wish I had a CD of it. SOMEBODY SEND ME A CD OF IT.
Next was Benjamin's Antara, featuring Aimard on sampler—dueling ICE's Corey Smythe—and Claire Chase and Eric Lamb played (the fuck out of their) flute soli. The piece is an elaborate exploration of a sampled pan-pipe—flutes imitating its breathy sound, violin harmonics imitating its overtones, and the keyboards, of course, supplying the "actual" pipes. It draws the listener into a dense and shadowy thicket of sound, only to be BOMBARDED BY AN AMBUSH OF BRASS BRASS AND PERCUSSION. The samplers controlled their attacks with pedals and noodled through microtonal scales, but still Benjamin was unable to fully liberate the sound of a sampled pan-pipe from the cultural context of somebody scoring a TV show and wanting a naïve Andean sound (TV scores are racist) but being too cheap to hire actual Incas. The flutes aped the pipes, the band aped the pipes, the samplers aped the pipes—I wonder if the piece would have felt more satisfying if there had just been an actual set of pipes onstage. Why not? Maybe that was the point? At any rate, odd, and beautiful.
Next, from Harrison Birtwistle's Bach Measures, two arrangements of Bach's Li'l Organ Book chorales, which were pretty zesty and sparkly and cute. "I think that one's from Birtwistle's Christmas album," said somebody next to me, which has prompted me to do another mockup for you guys in the classical record industry:
It occurs to me that there's something perhaps inherently campy about Bach arrangements for new-music ensemble. It's drag, basically: they put on those shoes and those tights and that big curly wig and they get a little zany about doing those things they aren't supposed to do (Perfect Authentic Cadences, NAUGHTY) while ostensibly underlining those things that are most 20th/21st-century about Bach's own music. You can read about this in my forthcoming dissertation, "SWITCHED ON: Performing Bach and Gender in the 20th Century." I think part of this lurid effect stems from the chamber orchestra's lack of a firm sonic foundation in the form of a large string section: the colors are constantly shifting, every line is broken up amongst the different sections, and we get a lot of coloristic frosting, not a lot of actual cake.
That's fine! It's fun! Just something to be aware of. Another thing that is fine and fun, but be aware: usually with a project like Aimard's "Bach & Polyphonies," the comparison/contrast between old and new is a little skewed towards the contrast. What usually happens is that the tonal stuff ends up sounding a little dry and old-fashioned and the crazy bleep bloop music sounds crazier than ever. Birtwistle, though, a composer I don't know well (not that I know Benjamin well, or Lachenmann), really did open up a bit when his Slow Frieze was paired with his Bach arrangements. Those same contrapuntal voices, chugging along steadily through their material, except that they were all chugging along at different speeds in the Birtwistle, and without a tonal center. But the point is, the piece spoke, and all the more clearly thanks to Bach's intervention.
After intermission it was Berio's Contrapunctus XIX, one of Berio's many "completions" of unfinished works (in this case, the end of Bach's Art of Fugue) and the only piece on the program I'd heard before. The Gimmick is, see, that Berio ends the piece not by completing the fugue but by allowing each voice to trail off and then resolve to a ghostly cluster on the notes B-A-C-H (that's German for B-flat, A, C, B-natural), which Bach had used as a musical signature within the piece. It's a beautiful dedication, and heavily dependent on the ensemble's ability to summon up the appropriate musical color, which they did throughout the piece, keenly and sensitively. I did wish that they'd gotten a little sentimental—it would've been exciting to hear them let loose a bit more passionately on the B-A-C-H section, for instance, when that motif first came up.
But the real meat of the program was the final piece, Lachenmann's Mouvement, an astonishing work that I'm grateful to have heard in person—it's impossible to imagine such a piece having anything close to the same effect when emitted, disembodied, from a pair of speakers. The ensemble was divided spatially into three sections—winds, strings, percussion—which then traded and developed musical material, which was to my delight not, for the most part, pitch or rhythmic material, but pure timbre, created mostly through an incredible array of extended techniques. I never even knew, e.g., that bowing the pegs of a fiddle would even MAKE a sound. But the whole thing cohered, which I suspect is a testament to the band's exceptional musicianship.
Okay, a cranky little voice inside me asks the question of, if you're not going to let the performers play their instruments properly, why write for conventional instruments at all—that is, if you're going to treat the instruments like pieces of wood and lengths of tubing, why not just have them bow pieces of wood and strike lengths of tubing, since you're not really using the performers' training or their instruments' sound-generating properties—but yknow SHUT UP, cranky little voice, for there are plenty of practical and conceptual reasons why you might write unconventional techniques for conventional instruments, and so if you're going to do it this well, I'm not going to complain about it. The piece had basically everything I demand from a piece of avant-garde music—a clear, dramatic form, and arresting new sounds—and I could scarcely have been more satisfied by such an adventurous piece of music. The piece ended; the audience went nuts; ICE deserved it. Thank you, ICE! I shall endeavor to attend more of your concerts in the very near future.