The Meanings of Music, Part Three: Community grooves

In part three of three, we consider the meanings of instrumental music and community with Third Angle's "Back in the Groove"

Several questions haunted this journalist’s mind during a series of fall concerts put on by three of Portland’s most excellent classical groups: Fear No Music, Resonance Ensemble, and Third Angle New Music. The music was all good, but was often upstaged by the concerts’ messages and the questions they raised. These questions ended up being so big we’ve decided to dig deep and interrupt your Thanksgiving weekend with a three-parter.

We started our investigation of music and meaning on Thursday with FNM’s “Hearings” and continued yesterday with Resonance’s “Beautiful Minds.” Today, we conclude with Third Angle New Music’s “Back in the Groove.”

Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann carried her flute up onto the Jack London stage and asked the dimly lit, comfortably tabled audience: “any Jethro Tull fans in the audience?” A lone, enthusiastic “woo!” made Tiedemann raise her eyebrows and chuckle. ”Really?” She went into a little rap about Tull’s Ian Anderson, something of a maverick hero to flutists who admire his wild, chaotic energy and his contributions to discovering, inventing, and road-testing a toolkit of useful extended flute techniques.

Tiedemann didn’t get up on one foot, but she did take her shoes off: “to manage my ipad.” Pulling up the score for Ian Clarke’s Zoom Tube, she said, “I encourage you to have a very relaxed time–applaud when you like!” She then proceeded to shoelessly stun the audience into silence with an angular, effects-laden, transparently difficult, insane flurry of strangely melodic modern flute music.

It was the sort of thing that, if someone like Anderson (or Rahsaan Roland Kirk, or Eric Dolphy, or whoever) were to be discovered on some old French TV show busting into something like this it would be all over the damn internet with comments about how “outside” it is. On the other hand, compared to something like Varèse’s Density 21.5 or Babbitt’s None but the Lonely Flute–that is, to coming at it from the other side of complexity–it was commendably smooth, accessible, melodic, groovy. Such is the joy of crossing the streams.

One startling effect recurred: a big double glissando, some kind of whistling-against-harmonics thingamajig, whizzing out in either direction like a glitchy old-timey radio. This one earned a roomful of not just “woo!” and “whoa” but also a more specific “yeaow!” Part of the fun with this kind of superdifficult, hyperadvanced modernist music is that it’s impressive; if it also has little earworms and exciting groovy rhythms in it, so much the better.

And the title–well, it’s not a catalogue number, because we’ve outgrown all that stuffy business and starting putting tongue-in-cheek titles on music that isn’t really about anything. But Zoom Tube is still flute music about flute music, written by a flutist-composer for his own enjoyment–and, sometimes, for the sake of astounding a classroom full of middle school kids:

Nearly all of the music on 3A’s “Back in the Groove” concert was in this abstract-but-social zone. The musicians were all instrumentalists–Tiedemann, Oregon Symphony principal clarinetist James Shields, and PSU professor of saxophone Sean Fredenburg–and although they each did a little chatting before playing each piece (giving the concert an informal, standup vibe), it was not to talk about what the music is “about” in some literal way. Instead, they told personal stories about how this music came to them, what the pieces mean to them as musicians and performers and humans, and why they decided to practice this music obsessively and come play it there for us in the Jack London basement on a drizzly night in November.

Abstract musical meaning

Picture, if you will, a piece of music. Not any particular piece, in any particular form or genre. Just a single chunk of Music in the abstract. Could be anything. Now, for the purpose of this thought experiment, picture it as the most meaning-packed possible version of Music: an Opera. The word itself means “works,” because that’s what an opera is: a massive collaboration between all the other arts, mediated by a musical score. Literature, mythology, character and plot, theatrical dialogue and metered poetry, set and costume and lighting design–all bound by the integrating force of the Music and its Composer, whose name invariably gets top, even sole billing.

Next, take this opera and hold it in your hand. Begin stripping away everything that isn’t music. Peel off the plot and characters, the narrative, the staging, take it all the way down to just Words and Music: you’ve arrived at The Choral Stage. Keep going, removing words and programmatic titles and anything that isn’t notes and rhythms and vibrating air waves activating neural circuits in human brains. I’m talking about Abstract Music in its most fundamental form.

Its apotheosis is the string quartet, music with the audacity to eshew anything so merely human as a name, content to be identified simply by a formal description of its instrumentation, along with information about key signature and catalogue ordering. Or consider Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, essentially a professional musician’s portfolio, a greatest hits compilation drawn from music he had written for his own kickass band in hopes of getting a job–in Brandenburg. That’s as quotidian and abstract as it gets.

But here is precisely where we enter the realm of transcendant Music, stuff that speaks purely on its own terms, rejecting all attempts at anthropomorphization as futile and narrow-minded. Consider a work with the file name String Quartet No. 16 in F major, Op. 135, by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Its name is a label, really just a list of ingredients and an author: and yet this music offers a glimpse into a blazing realm of sehnsucht inexpressible by any other means. Here, sit and listen to it for awhile.

Ah, but here’s the catch: all that abstract music does have a story, after all. We know the story, and I’m certain you pictured it: Beethoven going deaf and undergoing his oh-so-literary Heroic Ordeal, Bach transmuting his sexy Lutheraism and finely-honed day-job skills into counterpoint so rich with spiritual possibilities that it has sparked several musical revolutions (in Mozart, Mendelssohn, Casals, and so on) remains one of the few things audiences of all religions and non-religious persuasions can agree on.

In other words, this is still a very human phenomenon. Whether the music has overtly literal meanings or not, it’s all created by composers and musicians for the sake of pleasing other composers and musicians and audiences (and grant committees, but let’s not get too cynical). I think part of the reason abstract music can have such a binding, communal aspect is precisely in how its meanings are open-ended–not unlike the Pauline Oliveros Sonic Mediation XVI we heard Resonance Ensemble sing in October, or the majority of the music I head in Jack London Revue that drizzly November evening.

Back to the groove

The other two compositions Tiedemann played that evening–Eve Beglarian’s Can I have it without begging?, Jacob TV’s Lipstick–were the concert’s least abstract. That is, both have some overtly extramusical element; Beglarian says on her website:

Against the backdrop of the “Me too” movement, I understand the lyrics of Machaut’s song as part of a long history of attending to the lover’s feelings and ignoring the specificity of the beloved. Machaut talks about Love, not the specific woman, he regards himself as victimized by desire, he will die without it. I am fascinated by how I respond to that pronoun — “it” — how for me at this moment, it embodies everything wrong with how heterosexual desire is depicted in Western culture.

But in both cases the music was so abstract, the electronic and visual elements so surreal, and the performance so athletically impressive that the other layers of meaning sunk into the psychic middle ground we discussed yesterday in connection with Resonance’s “Beautiful Minds.” That is, as I think back on this concert and write this little essay, I’m also on Beglarian’s startlingly interesting website, reading about Machaut and #metoo. (Also: composers, please learn from Eve Beglarian and get yourself a startlingly interesting website.)

Fredenburg and Shields gave equally impressive performances of increasingly abstract music, all it played solo–with the exception of the dazzling juggling act that was Lee Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan, the title of which is a deliberate ode to inscrutability. The guys’ performance felt like Dame and CJ playing in the park, or one of those hilarious fake fights that only the best of friends can get into.

Evan Williams’ Rock Steady–which Fredenburg described as “the intersection of virtuosity and repetitive rhythmic grooves,” quoting Williams–showed off the saxophonist’s chops with a counterpoint of techniques, growls and semi-growls, layers of octatonic melody emerging from the call-and-response interactions of tongue pops and key clicks and Fredenburg’s fine-tooth command of dynamic shading.

The popping backbeat returned on Philip Glass’ odd-metered twelfth melody for saxophone (catalogue designation: Melodies, No. 12), of which Fredenburg joked, “so basically I know nothing about this–but it’s Philip Glass, and it’s good sax; what’s not to like?” Fredenburg finally went full modern jazz, giving an aggressively swingy performance of Shelley Washington’s Mo’ingus, an homage to the bassist-composer Charles Mingus, whom Fredenburg described as “the angry man of jazz.”

Even here, the tribute is not so much to the man as to his music–which, over the course of a four-decade career, toggled between pure jazz riffage like “II B.S.” and concept albums of refreshing depth and weirdness. Consider the dual fate of “Fables of Faubus“: it started life as a satirical song with sarcastic lyrics about an unpopular governor–and that got it censored. But from there, it evolved into one of Mingus’ most popular instrumental compositions, eventually carrying this little story about censorship, corruption, and institutional racism into the future with it. “Someday it will be helpful to have recalled even these events.”

The title of Shields’ first piece is a goofy pun: David Lang’s Press Release, written for his friend and Bang On a Can co-Star Evan Ziporyn, isn’t about the fluffy memos that music editors like me get in the mail every day–it’s about pressing and releasing the keys on the bass clarinet. Yuk, yuk, yuk.

There’s a lot of pressing and releasing on this characteristically screwy bit of stuntwork; punny Uncle Lang loves writing very difficult music for people he knows well. Everybody loves a challenge, and there’s something very charming about music which is superfically about nothing other than itself but is in reality about human values like friendship and pride in one’s work. A composer paid his friend a compliment, and we all get to benefit.

Because Press Release–a wistful, minory, almost gamelan-like Laurel & Hardy routine–is also very fun to listen to, aside from the raw excitement of watching a human being turn a single instrument into an ensemble just by carefully hopping around registers to create cross-sectioned counterpoint (it’s a descendant of the contrapuntal gimmick Bach used for his more-or-less abstract music for solo cello). The same excitement exploded tenfold in Shields’ closer, Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, performed with backing tracks Shields recorded himself in college and has been playing with ever since.

James Shields performed at Pullman Wine Bar for Third Angle's first Wine Wednesdays. Photo by Kenton Waltz.
Clarinetist James Shields. Photo by Kenton Waltz.

Another composer story illuminated Shields’ other two contributions, both by Michael Lowenstern. Shields told us The Composer’s Heroic Legend, in which Lowenstern quits his day job playing for symphony orchestras, goes into marketing (eventually working for Amazon), and starts putting out albums of rad music for solo clarinet-and-electronics.

Lowenstern’s Trip felt like clubby EBM, with its groovy clarinet choir backing track; I couldn’t help thinking of the Tranquility Bass “Megamix” on 1999’s Reich Remixed. The other, Lenny, was written as a tribute to satirist Lenny Bruce, but its slouchy, bluesy, heavily ornamented and endless melody had me picturing a young, melancholy Lou Harrison trudging soggily home to write music criticism for Virgil Thomson on some rainy New York night.

Sing on, canaries

Before firing up the Beglarian, Tiedemann gave a shout-out to the popular composer, who performed with Third Angle last season. “We love Eve! Give it up for Eve!” She described her own interpretation of Can I have it without begging?–“if Machaut met a robot and an angry wronged woman”–and laughed. “This one feels rrrrrrrrreal good to play.”

I suspect she was, in part, referring to music’s healing quality, its power to “metabolize trauma.” You may not have noticed, but the last few years have been more difficult than usual for women; we should be grateful to artists like Tiedemann and Beglarian for being society’s mirror, or in Vonnegut’s phrase “the canaries in the coal mine.”

Left to right: James Shields, Sarah Tiedemann, Sean Fredenburg. Photo courtesy of Third Angle New Music.
Left to right: James Shields, Sarah Tiedemann, Sean Fredenburg. Photo courtesy of Third Angle New Music.

But it was a different Vonnegut quote that rattled around my mind that evening, watching these fine musicians show off. It comes from his best novel, Bluebeard:

Simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but world’s champions.

A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tap-dances on the coffee table like Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an “exhibitionist.” How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, “Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”

What I mean to say is, you should be making music too–or making whatever sort of art allows you to be the canary. But it was still very satisfying listening to this granfalloon of experts come down to the pub and share their favorite music, sharing their joy and pride and the music’s meanings with us. And for that, I am grateful.

Want to read more music news in Oregon? Support Oregon ArtsWatch

Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.