Monday, June 22, 2009

The Ojai Diaries: Part Four

V. The best of David Rakowski's four (out of how many?) Etudes on the Ojai program was "Schnozzage," which you'll recall from our earlier post on the subject as the ideal blend of solemn counterpoint and comic spectacle, and Amy Briggs certainly earned her laughs and applause. Andrew McCann and eighth blackbird's Matt Albert also earned a few chuckles with Stephen Hartke's violin duet, Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen. Oh Them Rats Is Mean in My Kitchen is divided into four movements— I. Oh II. Them Rats III. Is Mean IV. In My Kitchen —which gives you some idea of the piece's sense of humor, but not much idea of how blasted good it is, so you can imagine my surprise at first hearing the piece, back in my college days, and discovering it to be a substantial musical achievement. It's an exploration of classic blues through classical music, but so was Tall P by Pete Rose, from the QNG set, and as we have established, that piece was kinda gay. The difference is that Hartke manages to go beyond those blues gestures composers keep reheating, and instead dug deep into some of those techniques that make historical blues recordings so weird and thrilling—the vivid, disorienting asynchrony, the elaborately ornamented heterophony. The fiddlers dug into the score and came out with a great show. A man sitting behind me said, "I've got to find out if this Stephen Hartke wrote any piano music." A pianist, evidently. Yes, he did! His first sonata came out on the CRI label back when there was a CRI label, on Vicki Ray's From the Left Edge, with one of the composers' names misspelled on the back. (QUALITY.) Now it's out on New World. I wonder if they fixed the typo. Sounder by Nathan Davis (who had played Cage's in Third Construction earlier in the day), composed for 8bb, percussion and Trimpin instrument, (TRIMPINSTRUMENT?), was actually a little of a disappointment. Libbey Park hosted a number of installations by Trimpin (TRIMPINSTALLATIONS?), the most dramatic of which was the Sheng High. An enormous water-organ, the Sheng High operated on sort of a player-piano or music-box (or barrel-organ) principle, only instead of using clockworks to read a rotating paper roll, it used electronic eyes to read a graphic score made out of strips of mirror on a giant revolving disc. In Sounder, Trimpin's Percussion Tree, literally a tree hung with cymbals, wooden shoes, and toy pianos, was less dazzling in action: I found myself wishing the Trimpster had wired everything with LEDs or something in addition to the mechanical beaters, so that the audience could make out which instrument was playing when from the other side of the theater. The instrument looked good, and it sounded good, but without that essential corporeal dimension connecting the image to the sound, I almost might as well have been listening to a sampler for much of the work. Davis's writing, though full of rhythmic interest, didn't quite sustain itself as much beyond a showpiece for the cybernetic ensemble. Okay I get to review one more piece and then I am FREE. Workers' Union by Louis Andriessen is probably one of his best-known works, for any number of loud instruments, written in rhythmic unison (occasionally divisi à 2) with only the contour of the "melody" notated—the exact pitches are left up to the performer. Now, "political" music is a funny thing—Andriessen's Marxist ideology paints him into a corner this article (by a Greg) articulates in a very interesting way. Andriessen's a Marxist, so he wants to cast off decadent bourgeois concert-hall culture in favor of brash, vernacular idioms, but on the other hand he doesn't want to embrace popular/commercial culture. So he troubles his clear forms and pulses with épater-le-bourgeois dissonance, intensity and duration (Worker's Unionis about a quarter-hour of loud, dissonant clusters, if you're doing it right):
At the risk of overstating the case, if Andriessen’s rigor saved minimalism from its experimental roots, his dissonance pulled minimalism back from the threat of popular accessibility. ...While Andriessen’s dissonance might lose him an 'easy listening' audience, it gains him a high-art cachet according to a value system hardly less puritanical.
A healthy dose of stick, in other words, to go with that delicious carrot. Well if you know me, you know I love stick, so I was actually a little ruffled to see 8bb adapt Worker's Union with a pinch of dramatic license (I demand to be punished!): They started out with just the core sextet, and then introduced additional players one by one, until everyone who had played at the entire festival was onstage banging their instruments as hard as they could, down to ululating Lucy Shelton and kinnnnndof cute percussionist Ian Fry wailin' on electric bass. But the playing was insanely tight, and the performance conceit was the logical extension of the festival ethos one of the blackbirds articulated in an article I've suddenly forgotten (REMIND ME IN COMMENTS PLS)—that all the players could me imagined as making up a sort of hyper-eighth-blackbird, a fully modular group of groups, each one passionate and precise and fearless. Maybe I can't remember where I read this because I made it up, and they didn't say anything of the sort, but let's pretend. Did I say "tight" already? Or "precise"? How about "passionate," then. I did? Okay good, because all in all, this was an incredibly solid performance, noisy and raucous but with terrific ensemble. During one passage they all sang their parts WHILE playing them, and at various moments near the climax, you'd hear 'em go "YEAH!" or "UNGH!" like they were jamming. I just listened to the Bang on a Can recording of this piece again, and my heart broke a little with the realization that the 8bb All-Stars rendition was so much more perfect but I'll never get to re-listen. I didn't get a chance to say good-bye to anybody after—apologies, all—my flight was taking off at midnight, so it was straight to LAX (to stand in a long pointless security line) as soon as the applause died down. Redeye to La Guardia, then an afternoon with a friend in Harlem, then the train home. Returning finally from the station, I walked past Furio from The Sopranos, standing outside a charity event at Goodfellas, our neighborhood mafia theme restaurant! (I don't know what that means, other than that our neighborhood has a very high guido density.) And then joyful reunion with roommates and cat, and then THE END. Roll Credits.

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Blogger Unknown said...

How cool would it have been if Furio had suddenly run up onstage for Worker's Union? With a bat or perhaps even a firearm?

June 22, 2009 at 2:33 PM  

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