By TRISTAN BLISS
What do concert reviews review? The music?
Excluding Kenji Bunch’s premiered work for solo cello, the music in 45th Parallel’s November 14th concert at Portland’s Old Church doesn’t need reviewing: it’s already been premiered, reviewed, reviewed again, mentioned in scholarly columns and in the various composers collected works published shortly after their obituaries. In short, what new is there to say about Schulhoff, Kreisler, Cowell, or Shostakovich? Am I to seek out that one obscure fact about their lives still not published that some poor doctoral student is going to try and turn into a thesis?
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Now to be fair: this certainly wasn’t just another concert of Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart or their 20th century equivalents Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Cage. Without having committed relatively large portions of time to the exploration of 20th century music, Schulhoff and Kreisler might not be familiar. However their aesthetic surely is not foreign, nor is it new.
Schulhoff’s In Futurum predated John Cage’s famous so-called silent piece 4’33” by several decades, but both are old news. Programming obscure names is not the equivalent of programming an obscure or new aestheticism. Aesthetics are time sensitive. That is not to say older aesthetics cannot fill every emotional aspect we expect from art, but older works were written for a different time with different societal concerns and vogues; there’s a reason I like Hank Williams III, my father Hank Williams Jr., and my grandfather just ol’ Hank Williams. So, perhaps you haven’t heard of Schulhoff and Kreisler by name, but their late Romantic aesthetic sensibilities can be heard in a large swath of early twentieth century music.
Schulhoff’s Concertino for flute, viola and double-bass, Kreisler’s Caprice Viennois for violin and piano, and Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 can be reviewed in one fell swoop: late Romanticism. Well-executed late Romanticism, but by this point our (or perhaps just my) ears are so desensitized to the aesthetic that it falls flat. 45th Parallel’s concert themed around the performance of forbidden (late Romantic) music itself partook in passive oppression-of-omission. Music aesthetics outside of Baroque, Classical, and Romantic are still drastically underrepresented and effectively repressed by omission from the repertoire.
The farthest-reaching composition of the dead Western composers on this program was Henry Cowell’s Homage to Iran, but past the instrumentation of violin, piano and Persian drum, its diversion from late Romanticism is rather narrow. Long luscious violin melodies backed by a Persian drum ostinato is the dominating texture of the first and third movements while a piano and violin toccata comprise the second and dance variations in shifting compound/asymmetrical meters the fifth. The Persian modes employed as pitch material and drum are the overt homage to Iran, although clearly handled within the context of a Western concert hall work.
What do you want me to review? The performers: Kenji Bunch (viola), Gregory Ewer (violin), Zachariah Galatis (piccolo/flute), Matt Hannafin (Persian Drum), Monica Ohuchi (piano), Bobak Salehi (kamancheh/voice), Maestro Hossein Salehi (santoor), Jason Schooler (bass), and Jeffrey Zeigler (cello)?
They’ve already reviewed themselves. Seriously, read their bios. I know they’re good, you know they’re good, and they certainly know they’re good. We’re already at your show, guys. We know you’re professional musicians and we know in all likelihood you wrote that third-person bio yourself, so maybe lighten up on the sales pitch? Music and its presentation should always be about the emotional connection. It’s like a first date: you don’t want to sit down and start prattling on about yourself; it’s alienating. Converse with the audience through the program; don’t present them with a resume.
So what do we have new to write a review about? Well, we have the debut from Kenji Bunch, the traditional Persian selections, and the fact that yet another concert of predominantly (87%) dead composers music was thrown under the clever guise of a trendy Forbidden Music concert theme.
Bunch’s premiere of Hambone for solo cello, based on the evolution of body percussion as communication among slaves in the southern United States, was fun. Audience participation of clapping and thigh slaps kept the underlying rhythm of the work constant while Zeigler used the cello body as a percussion instrument representative of the slave body percussion interspersed with predictable pentatonic renderings of folk influenced melodies, almost as predictable as Kenji Bunch being the composer-in-residence of 45th Parallel. His Oregon homecoming concert in 2013 where the emcee made grandiose comparisons between the man-of-the-hour and Mozart introduced me to Kenji’s work. At the time I didn’t think much of the comparison except that it was the standard excessive bullshit to say at such a time. But two years later I finally understand. Presiding as the Artistic Director of Fear No Music and as the composer-in-residence for 45th Parallel, Bunch, much like Mozart, represents the music establishment.
The music establishment has a lot to offer – I’m not denying that – from experience to funding, and pedagogical traditions and more. However, it does not offer an excitement or interest in change. Why would those institutions change a system they’re benefiting from? Why would they stop throwing concerts of dead composers’ music when they can sell the same stodgy audience members tickets season after season? I don’t know, but I have an answer for why they should: they’re killing the tradition they claim to love.
Concert after concert, season after season and it’s the same old shit. As an avid classical music audience member, except for occasional smatterings of small children, I’ve consistently been one of the youngest – the other ones usually brought by me – audience members and this show was no exception. Soooo. . . clearly it’s not attracting new audience members and the current ones are slowly, but surely, dying off and so shall the music.
It’s time to act. It’s time to set a new precedent for concerts. Not every audience member is going to enjoy every composition performed at every concert and that’s okay. That’s art. Music expresses its own creator’s walk of life, so of course there’s going to be disagreement! There are over seven billion different lives currently on this planet, and if we can’t even figure out how to appreciate (not necessarily enjoy) different expressions of life within the silly confines of the concert hall, well, we’re fucked. It’s time to not only believe in today’s composers, but also in the audience.
You may not believe the audience of today is out there, but they are: they’re the kids at metal shows making their own quarter-tone fretboards, post-rock rock shows getting lost in waves of texture, math-core shows pounding out the collapsing time-signature breakdown, and underground hip-hop shows where the rate of sampling puts Berio to shame. These kids are obviously seeking more from music than simple entertainment; they’re in pursuit of the aesthetic experience that can alter world perceptions and that’s the role of the modern composer: to take modern aestheticism and process it through our hundreds of years worth of study towards how to fully develop sonic ideas.
There was at least one interesting programming choice: the traditional Persian songs. Although certainly not new music or really a new audience draw, I did enjoy them. It was a break from dead Europeans for dead Persians. I’m sure the Persian equivalent of me would think differently, but for me it was something new(ish) and interesting. But, if you hope to ever attract the audience of today, the days of safe programming need to end, and with such local talents as Aron Bernstein, Alexander Lafollet, Nicholas Yandell, or historical talents like Ivan Wyschnegradsky, there’s not an excuse for the current programming trends.
What do concert reviews review? Is that what you wanted reviewed? Well, that’s what I saw to review. So I’m begging you: please give me more and consistent new music to review so I can stop all this pontificating.
Tristan Bliss is a music composer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Engaging in all sorts of shenanigans ranging from motorcycle dirtbaggery to navigating his way through the bullshit bureaucracy of earning a Bachelor’s of Music with a focus on modern composition; trust me, it’s not as fancy as it sounds. Also, apparently he is now reviewing concerts he goes to.