Program note for “JFK,” an opera by David T. Little, composer, and Royce Vavrek, librettist (Fort Worth Opera).

The Moon for Arabella
An appreciation of the opera JFK

Clara, a maid at the Hotel Texas, is a character in JFK who in life we might overlook or quickly forget as she goes about her daily work­—perhaps like the usher who may have handed you this booklet.  She is present, but not fully known, just as there are many secreted aspects to people we routinely encounter.  In Clara’s case, she is also Clotho, the spinner in ancient Greek mythology who unspools the thread of mortal life, and she is Clara Harris, who joined her fiancé, Henry Rathbone, at Ford’s Theater to enjoy the comedy “Our American Cousin” the night Lincoln was shot.  This is the intensified world of opera, but it is not uncommon for a person we glimpse to evoke different times and places: a stranger who reminds us of someone we long to see again, a painting that enchanted us, or a dream that we cannot forget.  The character Rathbone, who is wounded at Ford’s Theater, is also a Secret Service agent protecting President John F. Kennedy during his November 22, 1963 visit to Fort Worth, and he is the second Fate, Lachesis, who measures the allotted length of life’s thread.

Near the beginning of JFK, Clara sings “the largest wound: a blank page, a story never told,” in an aria that feels curtailed (and that is evoked near the end of the opera when Rathbone sings “a day like
 any day, the largest wound”).  Clara’s melody wants to soar, but, like a bird attached to its perch by a leash, it cannot take flight.  This is the mood of the opera, which in its design and details is mysteriously uplifted and then halted.

Shortly before Clara sings “The largest wound,” Mrs. Kennedy, Jackie, sings about time in the hotel suite she and the President share: “midnight is the loneliest hour.  In the air is the rhythm of grandfather clocks patiently keeping track of our lost minutes.” Jackie’s aria disconnects time from celestial regularity and from the utility of the clock face.  Her emotion exposes the inner mechanism, wheels of different sizes turning inexorably at different rates, but now connected to a very different world; real in the way a dream feels upon waking, but unmeasurable and uncoordinated with anything outside itself.  The aria—the clockwork movement—brings to mind a distinction between Shakespearian and Greek tragedy: in the former, one might act differently; in the latter, one cannot alter fate.

As a story, JFK encompasses the final day of President Kennedy’s life, especially his last night in Fort Worth.  Fort Worth Opera (along with Opéra de Montréal and American Lyric Theater) commissioned the work, celebrating the 70th anniversary of Fort Worth Opera and the 10th anniversary of its opera festival.  The opera transmutes an historical event that took place in Fort Worth—the President and First Lady stayed overnight in a hotel room decorated with artworks lent by local collectors—with an awareness of underlying sentiments that only music can convey.

The selection in April 2012 of David T. Little, a composer recognized for socially-engaged compositions, and Royce Vavrek, a librettist noted for sensitivity to new musical idioms, was prescient.  They have since been acclaimed for their opera, Dog Days, (FWO, April 24, 2015).  Their approach to this Fort Worth history—hyperreality for many—was to write something completely unknowable about people and events that we think we know.  One way to grasp JFK is to forget or discount what may seem real:  memory, film, history, and rumor.  Or perhaps to remember one real thing about Mrs. Kennedy:  she comforted the President’s grieving brother, Robert, with a line from the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus that he would repeat in public after the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

In JFK, Mrs. Kennedy’s grief registers in the dream worlds she shares with her husband.  She has no knowledge of the third Fate, Atropos, the cutter of thread, who awaits in Dallas.  Time, memory, and the events in Fort Worth distend and return to reality, only to depart from it again.  The large operatic forces—orchestra, chorus, and soloists—conjure up these dream worlds using a mix of styles and vernaculars sieved through the adaptability of the classical tradition.  In its tie to recent history there are evocations of Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All, Philip Glass’s Satyagraha and John Adams’s Nixon in China in JFK, but these echoes have triggered a snow avalanche of tender reverie and grief, falling, melting, and falling again.  What is fact becomes symbolic, and what is symbolic becomes real.

Interwoven into Jackie’s conversations with Jack, such as fantastical remembrances of their first meeting, is the name Arabella. In their fantasy Jack asks Jackie her name: “tell me, oh tell me please…what name would you suggest for me?” Jackie teases as he responds, “you’d risk me assigning you one…Arabella.” This is a name that recurs in the opera.  It is the name of their stillborn daughter.  Another name recurs, Patrick, their infant son who died.  The Texas Boy’s Choir sings: “the eyes of Texas are upon you,” and Jackie sees “in every little boy’s face…little, lost Patrick.” Is the mask of a statesman the same as the mask of a grieving mother who sees in every crowd her own lost children?

The most compassionate moments of the opera involve the loss of children.  Hope and aspirations cut short form the irreversible feeling of JFK.  Jackie articulates this feeling in her personal ruminations and as such embodies the experience most Americans have of John F. Kennedy.  Although I have not written with any specificity about the title character in this opera, the President is not absent. While myth and caprice strain to take flight with his story, they are tethered by the verities of love.  Jack’s love for Jackie, made more poignant with their mourning for their dead children—which also foreshadows the mourning of his own death—can be seen as his giving her the moon (how many courting lovers have promised the moon?).  As the tender sorrow he shared with her wanes into memory, it casts a sly joyful radiance; a reflection that we might wish to take for direct light.  It is not a giant leap to feel that in a poetic but entirely real way—by standing up to Khrushchev, by galvanizing the love and passion of the American people—he also gives us the Moon, for Arabella.

Jeffrey Edelstein



Program note for “Dog Days,” an opera by David T. Little, composer, and Royce Vavrek, librettist (Fort Worth Opera, LA Opera, Prototype Festival).

Dog Days: an appreciation

Dog Days…when I first saw this new opera I was thunderstruck by how it ends—and it is about the ending that I must remain silent.  As the story—a family isolated from civilization after a disaster of war—twists and curls, the inner life of each family member is revealed as they react to a stray man in a dog costume who is also trying to survive the devastation; Dog Days is an emotional spring coiled tight. The ending is not the spring’s release but a further coiling.

The opera presses upon the stage the family’s reality—seemingly typical middle-class Americans making choices that try to preserve their everyday lives—and highlights their disturbing ordinariness and physical breakdown as well as their strange lassitude in coming to terms with the massive societal disintegration all around them. These choices result in both gruesome and touching actions as the seasons pass from stifling summer to winter cold and the food supply runs out.

Needless to say the family members are brutalized by their distressing circumstances. They struggle to retain their rituals and thus maintain their confidence and illusions, conveyed musically as metallic, staccato melodies that elongate and soften so that strings may express a hymn of grace, which is pronounced by the father over a paltry meal of pickled carrots.  Tragically, it is the father’s desire to “go it alone” and turn away from the community, or in other words, deny the mutual dependencies that domesticate life. And although the family members variously comfort or disdain the man in the dog suit, they never recognize themselves and their dire situation in this stranger: are they proudly independent or safely dependent; are they human or are they mere animals. The music expresses this reality as jitters in the clarinet and percussion that stress the family’s brittle and changeable moods and insinuate something chilling about human nature.

This fragile and uncertain humanity of the family is portrayed in the harmonic unsteadiness of the music, played by an ensemble visible on the stage.  While the music is energetic and amplified—a cloisonné of rock and Broadway vernacular held within outlines formed from classical styles—it conveys the feeling of traditional operatic recitative and aria. In the aria “Mirror, Mirror,” the daughter misapprehends her own starvation, feeling that she has achieved a fashionable standard of beauty. The poignancy and the irony and the revulsion of this aria reveal—or more pointedly, mirror—what Dog Days is about: unstable individuality, self-delusion, false aspiration, and in spite of all that, hope. It is as if “Mirror, Mirror” dips the entire opera into a mild acid bath, liquefying its daydreams and exposing its intricate pitted surface. The final scene’s enigmatic intensification of drones, glissandi, and electronic feedback turns theatrical time into real time, and in real time the stage actions become inescapable—the audience is left awash in the primal emotions that Dog Days so powerfully evokes.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Out from the Straits

Album liner notes for s_traits by Bill Seaman & John Supko (2014, Cotton Goods)

s_traits is an ongoing collaboration between Bill Seaman and John Supko.  It started in 2011 with conversations about generative music and how to make it.  The two quickly discovered that they had been independently exploring what might be described as the “uploading” of human creativity to the computer:  Supko’s work involved developing software that emulated his compositional process; Seaman was investigating how creativity could be codified and reanimated through artificially intelligent systems.

A narrative history of the collaboration between Seaman and Supko captures how they wrote s_traits.  Their work together began when Supko gave Seaman the electronic track from a discarded version of his percussion duo Straits.  Seaman edited this track into hundreds of tiny samples, many lasting barely a second.  These samples became the first entries in what would evolve into a database of source material for s_traits.  Over the next two years, they added more than 110 hours of varied but complementary sounds to the database.  The new material included field recordings, analog and digital noise, acoustic and electronic instruments, cassette recordings of Supko’s juvenilia, recordings of Seaman and Supko playing the piano (inside and out), and soundtracks from documentaries made in the 1960’s and 70‘s.

As the source material began to expand, Seaman and Supko increasingly focused on the technical details of using the computer to compose music.  The majority of the samples in the database were created with a series of software tools designed by Supko.  This software was also able to generate new hybrid samples from the existing collection.  It thus enabled both composers to remix–again and again–the work of the other.  The unpredictable results of these processes were added to the database.

When the sample database reached its current proportions, Supko built a new software system that could navigate the many hours of music in the database, extract and recombine dozens of samples, and compose complete multi-track compositions.  The new system paired these compositions with fragments of a text Seaman wrote after the poem Straits by Kenneth Koch, which had inspired Supko’s earlier percussion duo.  (Seaman’s text appears in full on the album cover.)  But rather than leave the system’s compositions untouched, the composers treated them as first drafts, which they developed into the tracks on the present CD.

In the end, 26 tracks were composed this way.  Both composers contributed 13 tracks, although Seaman and Supko do not identify who composed what.  The two sets of 13 are interwoven so that all the odd-numbered tracks belong to one composer and the even-numbered tracks to the other.  Every track begins with a text fragment, which also serves as a title.  Seaman and Supko plan to write a track for each of the more than 300 remaining text fragments.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Mostly Mozart (5): Excavating Human Communication and Finding Disquieting Moments

David Lang, the whisper opera: International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), Tony Arnold (soprano and conductor), Claire Chase (flutes), Ross Karre (Percussion), Kivie Cahn-Lipman (cello), Joshua Rubin (clarinets), Clark Studio Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, 12.8.2013. 

Tony Arnold (whispering, soprano, and conductor)
Kivie Cahn-Lipman (whispering, cello)
Claire Chase (whispering, flutes)
Ross Karre (whispering, percussion)
Joshua Rubin (whispering, clarinets)

Jim Findlay (director and designer)

At least since David Lang’s the difficulty of crossing a field, his 2002 chamber opera, he has dug into and quarried the ambiguities of outrageous fortune—tapping veins of loss, longing, and faith. In the whisper opera, which received its New York City premiere as part of Lincoln Center’s 2013 Mostly Mozart Festival, he excavates human communication and finds an astonishing source: disquieting moments of emotional connection.

These moments are exposed through carefully honed theatrical presences: a condensed gesamtkunstwerk that literally—physically—layers audience, staging, and performers. The hour-long performance is felt from the beginning, as the audience is led in groups of six to eight rectangular pits within an elevated stage, constructed to allow forty-eight people placed close together to feel disturbingly detached from one another. In each pit, the group sits with backs to another one, and each row can see one other row placed at a right angle. The stage is at mouth level and lets the audience appear to itself as rows of heads along the edge—perhaps an allusion to the overburden of daily life. Designed and directed by Jim Findlay, the construction feels enclosed and infinite at the same time; thin muslin hanging from the ceiling separates or unifies performance spaces, allows some musicians to seem distant or shadowy, directs attention upward or at acute angles, and diffuses lighting from above and beneath the stage.

The inclusion of the audience in the staging—the way they are formally seated—beckons the entrance of four musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), who quietly walk to different quadrants of the platform, crouch down and spin cymbals (scraping their edges periodically) and whisper sentences that begin “when I am alone I always,” or “it’s not my fault that I am so” among others. These parsings were captured when the composer entered the phrases into the Web and allowed search algorithms to realize them as sentences. The whispering instrumentalists may also be characters in the opera or conduits for the enigmatic and disjointed libretto of intimate phrases, but for the audience the consequence of the staging is smoothly shifting attentiveness and conditions of awareness. From my seat, ICE artistic director and flutist Claire Chase was close enough to hear distinctly and to touch—I have heard her play on many occasions and spoken with her socially—but in this setting she was unreachable, simultaneously present and far away.

As the opera progresses the musicians move about the stage, continue to whisper phrases and play instruments, sometimes in unusual ways or from offstage, and always quietly. They are joined by soprano Tony Arnold, who also whispers, conducts the ensemble, and emerges as the opera’s leading participant. The immediacy of the whispered phrases—disrupted by delicate and nuanced flute, clarinet, cello, and percussion—mixed with my musings, inspiring recollections from Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire. In the former West Berlin, Wenders’s angels hear the private thoughts of humanity, but can’t feel the experiences that stirred these thoughts; one angel embraces the limits of humanity and accepts mortality in order to experience transcendent emotions.

But my private reverie was interrupted by the diffused passion of Lang’s instrumental interlude. During the interlude Ms. Arnold leaves the stage and is soon heard singing a yearning melody, calling forth a desire for human communion, and at that moment I was startled by fleeting eye contact with an audience member. I turned away quickly to avoid intimacy with a nearly disembodied stranger. And yet the music—the entire operatic production—acknowledges the tension of being alive together while remaining strangers, sentiments that preclude genuine human contact and convey furtive communication and beauty as the tender amelioration of loss and longing. David Lang’s deeply affecting the whisper opera is, after all, the experience of the Internet.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Spoken [1] x [only] 

Album liner notes for drawn only once: the music of john supko (2011, New Amsterdam Records)

SUPKO: So I’m going to interview you about my music, right? That’s how this is going to work?

EDELSTEIN: That’s the idea. I’ve enjoyed listening to your music over the years, but the more I listen, the more intricate and mysterious it sounds. Perhaps we can sort out some thoughts and feelings and see where that leads.

S: Ok. I’d like to know a little more about what you’re hearing. Let’s start with This Window Makes Me Feel. What’s the difference between the first, and, say, third time you listened to it?

E: I guess what hit me at first was the somber mood—something of the loneliness you feel concentrated in cities. It’s the mood of paper rustling in the wind, whispered text, street noises, muted drones, and a mezzo-soprano’s singing, although I didn’t know what. I was more or less swept along as the sound became louder and more complex.By the third time I listened the music had come apart at the seams. It’s a poignant song—a setting of Robert Fitterman’s poem of the same name, which combines the results of Googling the phrase “This window makes me feel.” It is the poem that you hear whispered on the tape as the mezzo slowly sings the search phrase. But the musical texture sort of mulls things over. The taped ambient sounds, electronic drones, spoken and sung voice, piano, flute, and percussion slow down the poem’s nervousness. The text passes quickly, but the layers—and I hear them as layers—of instrumental music seem slow and pensive.

S: It’s true that the differentiation between acoustic and electronic elements is stark. The acoustic parts elongate over an almost improvisatory electronic texture. The notes sound spare—a D-flat major melody over a functional bassline. The live music is a plea to nurture a contemplative interior life apart from the imperatives of technological innovation. The world is moving too fast for me! I’m turning off my smartphone…well, after this interview.

E: I didn’t quite hear it that way, but it makes sense to me. I’m wondering if Littoral is a complete departure from this plea or if it’s something they somehow share?S: No, it’s not something they share. If these pieces have anything in common it’s their exploration of musical textures through what I’d call “tuned randomness.” When I wrote these works in 2005 and 2006 I was just discovering ways to use random decision-making to generate things like melodic material from specific harmonies.

E: I think I see what you mean about randomness, but let me make sure I’ve got the basics of Littoral. It’s a 35-minute single movement, has only one time signature—5/4—although it sounds like the meter changes. It can be heard as having four sections, and it’s fully notated—even the electronic parts.

S: That’s right.

E: But the prevailing sensations are evoked by electronic sounds, heard in counterpoint, fashioned from many discrete musical lines. You mentioned that each line of electronic sound was processed by virtual instruments, creating a composite sound that is in flux among several versions of itself. Is this an example of using “tuned randomness” in your compositional process?

S: There are different ways to tune randomness. In Littoral I programmed chords and asked the computer to articulate them into melodic lines. When I didn’t like the output I changed it.

E: …and I perceive that the electronic sounds have a position in space—they engulf me physically in 5.1 surround-sound—along with live sounds from two instrumentalists.

S: Ok, but tell me about your emotional experience.

E: Well, as different musical styles are intimated, and as ideas and imagination are focused by spoken text layered amidst electronic and acoustic sounds, I hear a modernist musical texture ebb and flow. The texture becomes something that dissolves modernism with evocations of birdsong and the sea. Time seems to slow and speed. I can hear how you synthesized field recordings of the sea, your own voice processed by computer, the recorded voice of Cees Nooteboom reading his poem Cartography along with live flutes and percussion—am I missing anything?

S: But what does it feel like?

E: It feels like a voyage hewing to the shore of an allusive music.

S: “Tuned randomness” is essential to that impression. It helps create a sense of misremembered music even when you are hearing it for the first time. I like to think about travel or the sea or my sense of time passing, and the music conveys how I remember these sensations. I used Max/MSP to generate tuned random material for Littoral, but these days I’m using it to generate environments in which no two performances of a piece are ever the same, although the piece remains itself.

E: What are you searching for in your music?

S: I want to create constant variety while maintaining constant identity. My music always sounds like itself, I suppose, but writing music on paper has restricted the result. I’m searching for a way out.

E: I find This Window and Littoral hold my attention. They’re beautiful.

S: Thank you. I feel they let slip something I’ve been longing for. I want serendipity composed into the music. I want to be an escape artist, and I want to bring the listener with me.

“Supko” is based on composer John Supko

“Edelstein” is based on critic and Director of New Music at Crane Arts, Philadelphia, Jeffrey Edelstein.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Schubert Ascending II

Inon Barnatan (piano), Liza Ferschtman (violin), Randall Scarlata (baritone). Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Alice Tully Hall, New York City. 8.11.2009

Der Winterabend, D. 938
Herbst, D. 945
Bei dir allein from Vier Refrainlieder, D. 866
Die Sterne, D. 939
Des Fischers Liebesglück, D. 933
Vor meiner Wiege, D. 927
Die Taubenpost, D. 965a
Fantasy in C major for Violin and Piano, D. 934, Op. 159
Sonata in B-flat major for Piano, D. 960

When we inherit something precious and delicate—fine old crystal stemware, say—it feels proper to secure it from the hazards of daily handling, the incomprehension of children, and the rambunctious family dog. Thus most of us would turn exquisite glassware into something looked at more often than used. Sometimes we do the same thing to music. We protect elusive and unfathomable beauty from exposure to everyday aesthetic experience, and place such music—late Schubert is an example—slightly out of reach, revered by old and wise musicians more often than ingenuously touched by young performers.

In a rewarding effort, Inon Barnatan, an impressive young pianist and curator of the three-concert series “Schubert Ascending” devoted to music from the composer’s last year, unlocks the sideboard and hands the fine crystal to his guests. In the series’ second concert, Mr. Barnatan decants aerated songs and a chamber work, and a solo with colleagues— all in their late twenties and early thirties, nearly the same age as the composer was when he wrote these pieces, 31—who perform with an ease resembling casualness. The relaxed approach of these musicians intensifies the joy, fervor, strangeness, and graduated momentum frequently obscured by an insistence that this music convey unrelenting heartache and prefigured hopelessness.

The skillfully balanced program began with seven lieder calibrated by Mr. Barnatan and baritone Randall Scarlata to underscore the pensive, withdrawn quality of the music with tenderness and refreshing vigor. Mr. Scarlata enlarged loss and longing, for instance, in Herbst and Vor meiner Wiege with restrained, but sensuous coloration. Mr. Barnatan tempered joy and transcendence in Bei dir allein and Des fischers Liebesglück with nuanced phrasing and dynamics. Their collaboration in Die Taubenpost exposed piercing simplicity in Schubert’s yearning.

If the songs were something akin to drinking different vintages, then the Fantasy which followed was the scintillating sensation of alcohol taking effect. Violinist Liza Ferschtman joined Mr. Barnatan in a thrilling rendition (construed as seven sections, including variations on Schubert’s song Sei mir gegrüsst) that recapitulates the poignant narratives as musical abstraction, trills, scales, and arpeggios. In the Fantasy Schubert plays like a child—in, among, and with these rudimentary building blocks of musical composition. Ms. Ferschtman drew the melodic contours strikingly, avoiding sentimentality by subtly coarsening intonation when necessary to diverge from Mr. Barnatan’s calm brilliance in recurrent passagework.

After intermission, Mr. Barnatan played the Sonata in B-flat, which renders time’s passing audible; repeated notes, portentive trills, and mesmeric silences granulate its texture. The music passes by bits, the way we measure time, and perhaps this is why some listeners hear the anticipation of grief. But much of Schubert’s early music feels this way, too, with its movement between discontinuity and continuity, though rarely are the melodies so successfully ecstatic as throughout this ravishing work. Mr. Barnatan’s cultivated tempos, dynamics, and lyricism articulated the whole without attenuating the discrete parts—a disquisition on the mystery of time and eternity. His performance commented graciously on the inclination to lock away our precious and delicate inheritance—like fine stemware—rather than drink from it wholeheartedly among friends.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Unsuk Chin Portrait

The Talea Ensemble: Victor Adán (electronics), James Baker (conductor), Chris Gross (cello), Jennifer Choi (violin), Matthew Gold (percussion), Stephen Gosling (piano), Alex Lipowski (percussion), Jeff Missal (trumpet), David Nelson (trombone), Elizabeth Weisser (viola), Alex Woods (violin), Taka Kigawa (guest piano), New York City, 16.2.2011

Unsuk Chin : Allegro ma non troppo (1994/1998, New York Premiere)

Unsuk Chin : ParaMetaString (1996, New York Premiere)

Unsuk Chin : Etudes for Piano

II. Sequenzen (1995, rev. 2003)

IV. Scalen (1995, rev. 2003)

VI. Grains (2000)

V. Toccata (2003)

Unsuk Chin : Fantaisie Mécanique (1995, rev. 1997, New York Premiere)


James Baker conducts the Talea Ensemble in Unsuk Chin’s Fantaisie Mécanique

Photo courtesy Korean Cultural Service

Even in her recent and most acclaimed works-the Violin Concerto, the opera Alice in Wonderland-seductive timbres never quite conceal the double nature of Unsuk Chin’s musical voice. It is an animating quality-a near and far, a within and without, an I and thou-and yet her counterpoint stirs up a desire for unity of person and place. As she finds new ways to reconcile widely divergent musical influences, her sound trembles between the hum and echo of different cultures. Her use of percussion, for instance, combines a fleeting sensation of the Balinese gamelan with a memory of the European symphony orchestra. Her refined harmonies summon a tranquility that modern life unsettles. While many culture-hopping composers respond to similar feelings of displacement by merging non-Western, folk, and popular genres into their music, her achievement is to work entirely within a modernist idiom.

But this double nature, sonorous and subtle in Ms.Chin’s new compositions, was formerly discordant and agitated. This restlessness was expressed with impressive skill and dedication by the Talea Ensemble, along with the excellent pianist Taka Kigawa, in a concert presented by Korean Cultural Service devoted to works by Ms. Chin, mostly from the 1990s. The program, at Bohemian National Hall, opened with Allegro ma non troppo, a psychologically tense solo for amplified percussion and recording. The percussionist, Alex Lipowski, played with his usual virtuosity. He also was called upon to inhabit this domestic nocturne as if an actor playing a role. With verve and understanding, he ripped open a cardboard box, pulled out colored tissue paper (later used to create sounds), struck instruments with household implements-feather duster, fork, ticking clock, drinking glass-and mallets, all doubled by the same sounds previously recorded and heard from speakers. The result evoked the daytime clatter of home rattling around a sleepless mind-a crescendo of pent-up dissatisfaction ending abruptly as Mr. Lipowski crushed tissue paper into a ball and threw it into the audience.

The drama was followed by a sharp examination of musical elements for amplified string quartet and recording, ParaMetaString, which studied, in four movements respectively, tremolo, pizzicato, legato, and col legno. In other hands, it might have been sterile, but Ms. Chin has an uncanny ability to invest the contrast between acoustic and electronic sounds (the acoustic sounds recorded, and in this case, processed) with interest and emotional weight. Hearing the piece was like looking at music though a microscope; but seeing a small part of something large is disorienting. In this way, the components of music felt clear and mysterious at the same time. An intense metallic trill, for instance, magnified the facts of oscillation but also sounded like a cimbalom, suggesting Ms. Chin’s fraught relationship with her teacher, Ligeti. The irony was illuminated during an in-concert discussion between Ms. Chin and Anthony Cheung, Talea’s artistic director. Ms. Chin also elaborated on her Presbyterian upbringing in South Korea, studies and long residence in Germany, and her growing sense that, culturally and emotionally, she is Korean.

A selection of four piano etudes, performed with clarity and grace by Taka Kigawa, followed. In SequenzenScalen, andGrains, Mr. Kigawa etched repeated notes, overtones, and scales as if they were pastoral images, and not finger-twisting exercises. In Toccata he separated and blended voices into a chorus of bird-like song. The concert ended with Fantaisie Mécanique, nimbly played by the Talea Ensemble, which has quickly come to seem indispensable to the New York City new music scene. Throughout this exuberant chamber work, the trombone repeatedly tempted piano, trumpet and percussion to slide, bend, and wobble into a mood of raucous improvisation, but reassuring balance was attained between the colors, textures, and rhythms of modernist decorum and enigmatic spontaneity. That once again I heard a tension between two different ways of being in Ms. Chin’s music did not come as a surprise. Her sound brings to mind a quality of apprehension, both as dread and as understanding.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Gregory Spears, Requiem

Ruth Cunningham (soprano), Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (mezzo-soprano), Jacqui Kerrod (pedal harp), Larry Lipnik (tenor and recorder), John Olund (tenor), Kurt-Owen Richards (bass and tubular bells), Gregory Spears (synthesizer, tubular bells, and conductor), Elizabeth Weinfield (viola), Michael Wenger (tenor), Christopher Williams (troubadour harp). Dance New Amsterdam, New York City, 16.6.2010


I. Prelude
II. Requiem aeternam
III. Cigne ie Suis de Candeur (after Claude Le Jeune)
IV. Agnus Dei
V. Interlude
VI. Kyrie – Libera me – Lux aeterna
VII. Postlude

Requiems are for the living. They reconcile spiritual beliefs with physical existence. But a Requiem may address a broader social purpose, as Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem did, and as Gregory Spears’s quietly persuasive Requiem does. Commissioned to accompany Christopher Williams’s new dance, Hen’s Teeth, the piece calls forth a vanquished—or vanished—world of enlivened nature, magical happenings, and courtly love. It is a musical incantation summoning recesses of human nature no longer expressed in gleaming modernity; not unlike, in essence, Paul Gauguin’s mesmeric painting of Breton women Vision After the Sermon, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. The music amplifies the rapt temperament of the dance and stands entirely on its own.

The Requiem begins with a Breton text akin to “once-upon-a-time.” It is a halting and hushed reverie introducing three chords of varying dissonance that recur throughout the work. The chamber music—mixed voices, pedal harp, troubadour harp, viola, synthesizer (electric organ), and tubular bells—conjures up a medieval aura, but conveys the sensations of Mahler saying farewell in Das Lied von der Erde and of Morton Feldman’s valedictories to clock time. Mr. Spears proves a conscientious shepherd of deeply felt absences—convincingly hearing beginnings where others might find endings—and one of many indications of the composition’s intricately woven uncertainty. In other words, you come to hear this music the way you come to know a person: an initial feeling of ostensible unity gives way to awareness of layers, some sensed rather than understood.

The Breton fairy tale, a prelude to the seven part work, drifts into the Latin Requiem aeternam, and throughout the work, Breton, Middle French, and Latin texts alternate, allowing magical and Christian sensibilities to imperil and enrich each other. The music intensifies the poignant incongruity of the texts. The Agnus Dei, for instance, begins as a tender pastoral. A vocal flourish suggests distant bleating of sheep as minor thirds gently sway on the harp. High and low voices, viola, synthesizer and bells stitch up the melodic motif like crewel embroidery. Suddenly dissonant chords in the harp unravel the musical texture, now a vague impress of troubadour harp glissandi, synthesizer and recorder drones, tranquil singing, and whispering. The sound is distinctive, alluding to the closing of Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles and the hermetic ritual of George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae. The pastoral does not end; it withdraws as its innocence splinters, unable to purify sin.

The musical models for the Requiem are clear, such as musique mesurée, but the influences are ambiguous and touching. You never quite know if you are listening to music inspired by Monteverdi or La Monte Young. Are you hearing the spaciousness of contemporary Russian composers Vladimir Martynov and Alexander Knaifel condensed or the minimalist pulse of Steve Reich sprinkled over arpeggios? The result was delicately balanced by effective performers, most of whom are early music specialists, but the Requiem feels loosened from an explicit time. As with the music of Britten and the painting of Gauguin, Mr. Spears’s art is not reconciled to the world most of us live in. It awakens a sharp longing to demagnetize the compass of modern sentiment. It is a paean to awe, a plea for enchantment, and above all else, a call for us to follow.

Jeffrey Edelstein

So Percussion

Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting,  Carnegie Hall (Zankel Hall), New York City, 25.3.2010

Steve ReichDrumming Part I (1970-1971)

Dan Truemanneither Anvil nor Pulley for Laptop-Percussion Quartet with Turntable (2009-10, New York Premiere)

Another wallflower (from Long Ago)

120b (or, What is your Metronome Thinking?)

A Cow Call (please oh Please Come Home!)

Feedback (in Which a Famous Bach Prelude becomes Ill-Tempered)

Hang Dog Springar (a Slow Dance)

Steven MackeyIt Is Time (2010, World Premiere, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and Chamber Music America) Video and staging by Mark DeChiazza.

Scheduled to begin late in the evening (presumably in response to recent complaints that amplified performances in Zankel Hall rumble up into Stern Auditorium) and certain to end well into the slumber of the typical Carnegie Hall subscriber, this astonishing concert obligingly and reassuringly told, what was for this audience, a bedtime story. The program—an excerpt from Steve Reich’s canonical work for percussion followed by two new works for percussion (mostly) and various electronics—was a heartening tale of emergent technology and new music patronage.

But technology and patronage did not readily come to mind as the shrewdly self-effacing and virtuosic quartet So Percussion exposed the ferocity and grace of Drumming’s first movement. Their refined performance allowed rhythmic “phasing”— on four pairs of tuned bongos—to sound thrilling and fresh, especially the implied counterpoint and harmony that echoed throughout the hall. By the end of their performance, though, So’s precision evoked not only Mr. Reich’s study in Ghana, but his earlier use of magnetic tape recording to discover “phasing” as a process for It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out.  The stirring ovation prompted thoughts about Mr. Reich’s long journey, years spent apart from conservatories and university music departments once in thrall to serial technique and sterile electronic investigations. His work has also been absent from prominent concert halls, which compelled him to play with his own ensemble in out-of-the-way venues, and to rely on private patrons such as Betty Freeman.

However, things have changed, as Dan Trueman’s remarkable neither Anvil nor Pulley showed.  Mr. Trueman, a professor of music at Princeton University—once a redoubt for the composer-as-specialist, namely Milton Babbitt, and now a department that New Yorker music critic Alex Ross calls “a happening place” led by “broad-minded elders”—uses the technological and financial resources of his institutional patron for communicative aims.  Moreover, neither Anvil nor Pulley demonstrates how an ethos of research and teaching may serve a composer’s creative process, in Mr. Trueman’s case, as co-founder of the Princeton Laptop Orchestra and a close collaborator of So during their university residencies. All this seems to have culminated in Mr. Trueman’s transportive new piece, which is set into motion by what sounds like a scratchy old vinyl record (actually a doctored recording of the composer playing the Hardanger fiddle). The five movements, articulated by the periodic return of recordings, blend acoustic and innovative electronic sounds produced in unexpected and fascinating ways to pull apart, turn, and magnify the feeling of the fiddle tunes. This did not sound anything like a set of variations; it was like being unsettled by déjà vu, a kaleidoscopic sorting out of memories from dreams and fantasies.

The program concluded with the world premiere of It Is Time by Steven Mackey, also a professor at Princeton University and a composer perhaps best known for exhilarating musical admixtures like Eating Greens, which incorporates the delivery of a pizza into an orchestral work. But in compositions like Ars MoriendiDreamhouse, and Beautiful Passing, an unconfined aquifer of experience nourishes Mr. Mackey’s aesthetic sensibility with a deepening grasp of human vanity and fragility.  This is evident in It Is Time, which began with a metronome activated as the members of So squeezed around small wood blocks, looking at first like a strangely compressed staging of Drumming. The increasingly intricate music scoffs at the perception of time, a disposition amplified by Mark DeChiazza’s stark film projecting successive images—a metronome, a dripping faucet, utility lines—that mock the perception of scale. The So musicians played brilliantly on a widely divergent array of instruments (they also used time-keeping devices, mechanical toys, and a Newton’s cradle) on which each member was featured in turn.  But a trenchant lyricism cut across the ambiguity of times and scales, and Mr. Mackey, a transcendent craftsman, used bowed saw, microtonally tuned steel drum, and marimba to smooth this work into an abstract memento mori.

Amidst thunderous applause Messrs. Trueman, Mackey, and DeChiazza opted not to exit through a side door, climb a hidden staircase, and emerge safely on the platform for their bows—each leapt directly onto the stage. Mr. Mackey’s running leap took the gold.

Jeffrey Edelstein

Barber, Prokofiev, Berlioz

Yuja Wang (piano), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Charles Dutoit (conductor), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 13.10.2009

Barber Adagio for Strings, Op. 11

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16

Berlioz  Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

For people who love classical music, these are confusing times.   At least it seems this way in New York City, where music journalists and bloggers assert that traditional concert halls serve up desiccated classics to cadaverous audiences and declare that trendy clubs are the concert venues of the future. I feared, on my way to Carnegie Hall, that the doomsayers and trendsetters might be right; that the too-familiar program of the Philadelphia Orchestra, an orchestra reported to be in administrative disarray, might prove to be a Cassandra that everyone believes.

As a rebuke to the doubters, the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by its chief conductor Charles Dutoit (the orchestra is currently without a music director) offered a traditional program superbly played.  The concert opened with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, interpreted with cultivated transparency, allowing the second violins and violas, the inner voices, to sing in a way that restrained the perfervid melody.  This voicing conveyed an intimacy, as if the sections of the orchestra were speaking among themselves, and a tender melancholy, felt more often in the original string quartet movement (on which the arrangement is based) than in orchestral amplification.

The Adagio was followed by Prokofiev’s exuberant second piano concerto, featuring the dazzling virtuoso, Yuja Wang, as soloist.  Wang’s technical facility has been widely noted, but her lyricism and insight are even more impressive, especially as she canvassed the concerto. Prokofiev often uses mechanistic repetition to tighten structure and intensify expression, but in these four movements repetition diffuses the form, slacking the sentiment of the music so that the piano emerges as a stark disclosure, a barque adrift in gusts and fog. Wang mastered the rigging. Her startling dynamics build tension, particularly in the cadenzas, which she then slowly releases, using refined voicing and incisive phrasing to intimate melody and expose the work’s coherence.

The final work on the program, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, contains the passions of unrequited love the way some French topiary gardens embody the animals of the forest. The images are there, and not exactly lifeless, but unnatural and manicured. Dutoit’s inspired tempos and ethereal textures illuminated the “opium-induced” fantasy of a composer besotted, not only by the Shakespearian actress Harriet Smithson, but by Gluck and Beethoven as well.  There was nothing confusing about the effect of this radiant performance, of course, but I did leave the hall wondering why the denizens of the classical music world are so eager to “March to the Scaffold” when Carnegie Hall reliably offers thrilling programs.

Jeffrey Edelstein