We chamber music devotees were gathered in Lincoln Performance Hall for one last night of concerti—a program of modern works closing Chamber Music Northwest’s Winter Festival—and the CMNW crew were all in paradoxically high spirits. When Executive Director Peter Bilotta came on stage for his customary introduction, he explained why: the SW Macadam building which housed CMNW’s Portland offices had burned down the previous evening, sometime between the Telemann and the Bach. Although the organization kept backup files of essential documents and whatnot, the physical and psychic result was utter devastation. But the show must go on, and Bilotta explained the staff’s optimism and perseverance.
“Because what we are about,” he said, gesturing toward the stage with its piano and music stands, then turning to include we audients, the waiting musicians off stage right, family and staff down front and all along the aisles, “is this.”
This attitude made the evening’s concert an act of cheerful defiance, and the program of ersatz concerti happened to serendipitously match the night’s complex mood. Weber’s Grand Duo Concertante for Clarinet and Piano, played by Anne-Marie McDermott and CMNW artistic director David Shifrin, might have seemed incongruously cheery in Lincoln’s demi-gloom, but in this setting it sparkled. Two immigrant songs followed, a cheeky Stravinsky piano-violin duo and a very American trio by Ingolf Dahl. The show’s main event—the West Coast premiere of David Ludwig’s Pangæa—transcended its primeval roots to address extinction ages, the largest of which we are currently living in.
More on Pangæa in a moment.
It is always a pleasure to hear Shif play, and he seems to be at his best when performing one of the timeless classics of the clarinet repertoire — consider his performances of Mozart and Messiaen this summer. His duet with fellow Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center member McDermott was radiantly joyous, McDermott evidently quite content in a more supporting role (albeit a no less virtuosic one), both players breezing their way jubilantly through Weber’s slice of operatic instrumentalism. Certainly Weber’s is a more concentrated, sublimated profundity, what with all those latent arias and recitatives and dances tumbling out of the brilliant dialogue of rollicking piano and whirligigging clarinet.
There’s a reason Stravinsky’s music is so central to the 20th century classical tradition and so enduring: rock-solid artisanship beneath a veneer of infinite jest, concealing a great wealth of psychological complexity. I think of the Duo Concertant as one of his Groucho Marx pieces, clever and funny, sincere but not serious, rigorous and demanding but with a graceful insouciance belying its demanding nature for performer and listener alike. CMNW stalwart Ani Kavafian, now in her 24th season, was raw and devilish on her violin, calling forth Igor’s twisted demons with an energetic glee I recalled from her performance of a handful of Bartók duos two years ago, and McDermott was as strident and Igorish as she had been playful and elegant on the Weber. They drove the Gigue’s moto perpetuo ever forward in that crushing dance-to-the-death motif that suffuses all Stravinsky, closing with a truly intense “Dithyrambe,” with its somber, transcendent, almost Psalmic ascent to heaven. I found myself literally breathless, literally at the edge of my seat by the end. It’s rare for me to totally lose myself in a performance, but this wouldn’t be the last time that evening.
Dahl’s Concerto a Tre came as a much needed caesura, a selah moment to pause and reflect and catch our breath. Peter Wiley (another CMNW pillar, now in his 21st season) and his extraordinary cello playing anchored the brilliance of violinist Bella Hristova and Shifrin’s witty clarinet as the three made their way through the Swiss-born Los Angeles composer’s charming concertante-in-exile. Dahl’s sound is somewhere between his teacher Volkmar Andreae and his fellow expat Stravinsky, who sponsored him after he fled to the U.S. Traces of the commissioning clarinetist—Benny Goodman, who else?—blended with the composer’s placid, melancholy European modernism.
And then, Pangæa happened.
Ludwig came out and explained his concerto for piano and strings. Pangæa takes us back “thousands of millions of years ago” to “the greatest extinction event in the history of the earth, the blink of an eye geologically.” The greatest, that is, until the sixth extinction, already in progress as the apotheosis of the anthropocene age. “The piece ends not with an answer,” Ludwig concluded, “but with a question.”
Pangæa opens with a spare, melancholy viola melody, echoed by the piano over a harmonically tense and diffuse background. The effect reminded me of Bartok’s night music, so characteristic of the hushed and dramatic third movements of his Fourth String Quartet and Music for Strings Percussion and Celeste.
At one point McDermott got out a couple of padded beaters to use on the piano strings, suggesting deep sea creatures scuttling around the bottom of the primordial ocean Panthalassa. She later used a guitar pick (my guitarist brain screeched “silly pianist! never put a guitar pick in your mouth, you’ll choke!”), and did a whole lot of Cowellesque forearms-on-the-keys type moves. A scurrying, angular triplet figure caught my ear: cute, even funny, also bizarre. Rapid acoustic scale runs generated a busystatic drone-field wall of sound a la Ligeti, with occasional unison lines considerably more tonal that I might have expected.
Russian bombast on the piano echoed Stravinsky’s post-Russian duo: bold gestures out of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff; heavy Rzewskian use of the piano’s lowest register; deft and precise pedal work (aided, no doubt, by what looked like nine-inch heels) complementing the composition’s detailed use of acoustic space. Cool harmonic effects in the string ensemble gave way to sweet major triads resounding out from massive multidimensional glissandi. All were anchored by McDermott’s assured and commanding presence, especially on all the little stops and starts, conducting with her hair and shoulders like Carla Bley or Philip Glass, ripping through rapid 7/16 figures and building to a recurring stopsuddenly-pregnantpause-startagain gesture.
Ludwig’s “question” theme, derived from a chromaticized acoustic scale pattern, overlaid both the opening fantasia and closing passacaglia. It is a quintessentially 20th century melody, relentless and lyrical, predictably uneasy, defiantly irresolute. I generally judge concerts by their “take home pay”: do I go out humming something? This one was a win, as I went whistling The Question out into the cool January air. Offices burn down, civilizations fail, species go extinct, ruin is ever near, we all walk that fabled tightrope over the abyss—but as long as we keep doing this, we have something to hang onto, hold dear to our hearts, and live for.
Later I spoke by phone with Ludwig, who is Chair of Composition Studies at Curtis Institute of Music, and got a free music lesson. Ludwig moves with ease between vocal and instrumental compositions, like so many composers of his generation (i.e., my generation; Ludwig is only three years older than I am). His answers are condensed and edited for this story.
Anne-Marie commissioned it for Bravo Vail, for an anniversary; she wanted this for piano and strings to be played with different groups. So the first version of this had triple strings, three string quartets plus bass, and I’m trying to get a full string orchestra to do it. David Shifrin asked for an octet to make it manageable [for Chamber Music Northwest].
I think probably in this case, I’ve thought a lot about Colorado and some of the conservation efforts there and some of the fossils there and the mountains. That sounds like a pretty likely prompt for me. And then I was probably reading something about extinction and where we are at with that, and I think that’s how it all evolved.
I plan a lot around the writing. I mean a lot. I wouldn’t say that I’m steeped in the theoretical so much, but I do use lots of processes in my music. Bartók is a great model. I aspire to that kind of idea where there is a great deal of planning and intentionality but still a desire to sound organic, to not sound like it’s been planned. In this piece in particular, I thought a lot about the kind of rules of physics and acoustics that would have existed 250 million years ago and how that’s the only thing we have in common with that world—our natural laws. So I thought a lot about using the Fibonacci sequence and the acoustic scale and all these things which are connected to the science of music that I thought would be fruitful.
Every choice we make in music is arbitrary in a sense, and that’s actually really discouraging and difficult. It’s like an abyss we are looking into, thinking, “what the hell do I do?” That’s why we need to create our own parameters and limitations to create work, because if we didn’t, and it was just a blank page, we would be screwed. We wouldn’t be able to write anything. So, because of the nature of this piece, these were materials I wanted to work with.
Telling Stories in Music
The story often comes first, and it’s not necessarily super programmatic. Story is a good word for it, because I see composing as an opportunity to tell stories and that’s where my interest is. Throughout history there are composers that wrote Piano Quartet No. 2 in G Major or whatever, who were just writing purely music. That’s never been so much my interest, even my first pieces. Hell, there are pieces I wrote when I was nine years old that have some story or some motivating idea behind them. And for me, that gives a frame to the piece and it gives a dramatic form and it really speaks to it.
Part of growing into your voice is realizing what your voice is and what kind of person you are. So for me telling stories through my music is where my interest and, honestly, my ability is. I think it is much harder for me to write a piece, like, you know, “Trio.”
Rather than have the music serve the notes, have the notes serve the music. Everything points in the direction of the subject matter or the drama of the piece and informs it. I had a really clear image of these murky depths of the ancient ocean, and the sound of sea creatures, and all that stuff rumbling and bubbling up. We don’t know what’s in the ocean, you know. That ancient mystery and darkness were really fascinating to me as a starting off point for the piece.
Influences and Styles
Part of our time is that people are not as much belonging to a school. Of course, there is plenty of that too. But the idea that there are composers who become amalgamations of their influences—like Messiaen and Ligeti—and then there are composers like minimalists, or on the other side of things like Carter, who are really belonging to certain schools and very specific integrated processes. I’m definitely a member of the former. There’s just a lot of different sounds rattling around up there. And I want to capture whatever I feel is required of the piece, so if in that moment, the piece needs this kind of sound or idea, I’ll try to use that or apply it.
The Audience Experience
I don’t want to beat people over the head. I just want to bring attention to whatever I’m writing about. If that provokes thought, that’s awesome. If it provokes action, that’s even more awesome. There is definitely an angle there. I gave an interview to Colorado Public Radio that was pretty clear about global warming, and this extinction period is the same in intensity as that extinction period. So, it’s not like I’m Switzerland, you know? I have a definite viewpoint.
I think sometimes music asks more questions than it answers. Maybe most of the time. If this piece can ask some questions and get even a few people to think a little about these issues, then that’s great.
The CMNW Recovery Fund is still accepting gifts and donations to help settle into their new offices. Visit https://www.facebook.com/chambermusicnorthwest/posts/10156191908793453. Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival concludes with concerts devoted to the music of Antonin Dvorak on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets and information online.
A longer version of this interview appeared in Subito, the new journal of Portland State University’s School of Music & Theater. Copies available upon request. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, call (503) 725-3011, or contact the present author for more information.
Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.