The music of our time?

Recent Delgani String Quartet concert featuring living local composers raises questions of tradition and timeliness

By DANIEL HEILA

It would be hard to come up with a better scenario for listening to new art music than the A2 Productions concert Local Sounds, Local Stories, presented at Springfield’s Wildish Theater September 7th and 8th, featuring the Delgani String Quartet performing works of Eugene composers. Gifted performers, local composers, quality production, state-of-the-art venue–and top-notch local brew, booze, and food just a block or two in any direction. The program was well curated, with varying styles and formats, keeping the appreciative audience engaged throughout the program. A recipe for success. However, I left the venue wondering, “Why was this music written?” “Where did this music come from?” “How does it fit in the now?”

It is fair to say that most of the pieces evoked western classical musical languages from the first half of the twentieth century and earlier, all stylistically anachronistic, with one particular work speaking in a solidly mid-nineteenth century voice. Exceptions were Paul Safar’s Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue and The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet. Both used musical languages of our time: touches of pop, blues, and jazz in Safar; post-minimal textures in McQuilkin. Their general tonal language was in the western tradition. Even so, as evidenced by the enthusiastic response, the large audience had no problem with that. So, why did I?

A question posed

Having studied the art music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in depth and at length, I have an expectation that contemporary art music be a logical continuation–or in some cases perfectly illogical discontinuity–of this history and development, that it be cognizant of this trajectory or at least be responsive to the popular music of our time. I do not think this is an unreasonable expectation since other artistic genres exhibit a similar arc (outsider art being a notable exception). So why would a new music composer write music that does not communicate in a musical language of their time? I am not speaking of quotation but of whole cloth imitation. That is my vexing question, and it is difficult to answer. So I emailed the composers and asked them: “How do you see your music in relation to the music of our time?”

Delgani String Quartet cellist Eric Alterman at 'Local Sounds' dress rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.
Delgani String Quartet cellist Eric Alterman at ‘Local Sounds’ dress rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.

Safar was the first to respond. A veteran performer of both pop and classical music, the composer wrote that he felt very connected to the music of his time, “both right now as I am writing new music and especially to those super influential teenage years of ‘claiming’ the popular music of the time.”

In his case, that means The Beatles, Billy Joel, progressive rock, and jazz fusion. His capriccio from A Quartet in Red, Black, and Blue opened the concert and featured recognizable pop elements–minus any campy literalism. An unironic bass groove, solidly delivered by Delgani cellist Eric Alterman, anchored the first section, and a tight, closely voiced ostinato groove followed soon after. In a later section of bold trio counterpoint, sensual blue notes sounded from between the layered interplay of equal voices.

In The Walrus and the Carpenter, Safar caressed and nuanced Rickie Birran’s brilliant oration of Lewis Carroll’s words with sly references to The Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden.” Safar wrote that he especially appreciates “what popular music…can teach us about texture, pacing and groove.”

Rickie Birran orates at 'Local Sounds' rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.
Rickie Birran orates at ‘Local Sounds’ rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.

He’s in good company. Groove is quite noticeable in many postminimal and postmodern composers’ works—William Duckworth, Judd Greenstein, Michael Torke, Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon—although these composers’ works tend to be quite motoric and textural with audible structures in contrast to Safar’s traditional structures and programmatic contexts. These composers have responded to the popular music of our time as an influence, not necessarily as pastiche or quotable material. They’ve also responded to other contemporary art music developments like the minimalism of the ‘70s. This is the trajectory I spoke of earlier. And perhaps it is the thing that seemed missing in the music of Local Sounds.

The one piece on the program that seemed entirely remote from this trajectory was the theme and variations from Andrew Lewinter’s String Quartet No. 1, which played out via carefully constructed form and confident (though uninspired) melodic and harmonic elements, all firmly rooted in nineteenth-century musical syntax. Lewinter, a former orchestral performer, is unapologetic about his musical voice. “Since I never really listened to a lot of pop music, and not much jazz, that music doesn’t have very much influence on me.” He identifies his style as post-Romantic. However, the only evidence of a ‘post’ in his Romantic style was a largely unprepared and unresolved dissonant chord–more akin to the chromaticism of early Richard Strauss and Schoenberg–that appeared in a climactic section in the first half of the piece. Otherwise, the work was an exercise in Romanticism.

A centuries long relationship

In his response to my question, Lewinter made the astute observation that jazz music often employs theme and variation in its improvisatory forms. That back-and-forth interest and respect between popular and classical art music has been active over the centuries in western music, early examples being the incorporation of popular songs as structural elements in ars nova motets and masses, Bach’s use of Lutheran chorales in his Little Organ Book, and Mozart’s well-loved variations on nursery songs. Twentieth-century examples include the folk song adaptations of Stravinsky and Bartók.

This dynamic relationship also generated considerable appeal in mid-century pop music–Bach in Procol Harum’s “A Lighter Shade of Pale,” Rachmaninoff in Eric Carmen’s “All by Myself”–and continues to the present day with Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) propping up albums of Stockhausen and John Cage on the front of his turntable and New York hot stuff Nico Muhly breathing out fresh, deeply respectful versions of classic folk songs like “Oh, the dreadful wind and rain” in his exquisite The Only Tune.

Hope for the future of art song

At the Local Sounds concert, evidence of this relationship played out both deliberately and more subtly in John Lundblade’s three song selections, performed by Siri Vik, all composed in western tonal languages reminiscent of styles from the first half of the twentieth century. The first, “The Sorrow of Love,” sets a poem by William Butler Yeats in gauzy textures, the strings and voice intertwined in sensuous phrasing. This was rich, earthy music, reminiscent of the darker side of musical theater (think Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd). Vik’s delivery had a refreshing lyric weight, a wonderful setup to her arresting stylistic shift in the next piece.

Siri Vik at 'Local Sounds' rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.
Siri Vik at ‘Local Sounds’ rehearsal. Photo by Kelli Matthews.

The ghost of Astor Piazzolla—celebrated Argentine bandoneon player and tango composer—haunted the theater in Lundblade’s second selection, “Danza da lúa en Santiago,” which set a Frederico Garcia Lorca poem. Vik launched into a passionately expressive vocal style accented and articulated with equally powerful body language and facial expressions. Here was a composer/performer pairing clearly comfortable with stylistic shifts and cultural emulation. The last selection, “We Travelers,” floated a Wendell Berry poem on the gentle rise and fall of the classic Irish tune, “Oh, Danny Boy.” Though the tune was not reproduced verbatim, the association was unmistakable. Was this an example of a composer’s intuitive absorption of popular music? It is difficult to tell; Lundblade did not respond to my email inquiry. And lacking again in this thoroughly entertaining, colorfully performed trio of songs was a connection to current art music trends–or even, with the exception of Berry, to contemporary poetry.

There is no lack of song writing in the contemporary art music repertoire. One fine example of what I’m trying to get at is Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs, which combines rock-influenced ensemble writing with straightforward vocal delivery—almost a sprechstimme—of poems inscribed by Vietnam War soldiers on their cigarette lighter cases. This is vital music, relevant to our time. But, is this music that can only be written by urban composers, steeped in the zeitgeist of modern art? I’d like to think not. I’d like to think that the same pertinent connection to trends in contemporary culture can be mined by composers in any part of the country: even Eugene.

Nuts to That

A self-proclaimed “12-tone resistor,” Princeton-educated David Sprung has been composing for 60 years. His recent decision to revisit and revise music from earlier in his career led to his selection for the Local Sounds program: a revised version of the scherzo and interlude from his string quartet of 1959. “I have not given much thought to the question you pose,” Sprung wrote in his no-nonsense response to my inquiry. “I produce what I have been trained and educated to produce.”

True to the playful nature of the scherzo, a standard symphonic form of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sprung’s product was full of humorous syncopes tossed back and forth between the strings in crisp, biting martellato lines. The interlude was a welcome contrast, with its sensual hemiolas and moodiness–picture a comedian wrestling with the blues in a dingy dressing room. This cleared the palate for the pell-mell return to scherzo textures and good humor. Eventually, the cello yanked the reigns and, after a suggestion of the “na-na-na-naa-naa” chant from The Beatle’s “Hey, Jude” (or perhaps that was echoes of Safar), the romp ended with an unfortunate, trite pizzicato plink.

Hear Me!

As a prelude to Anice Thigpen’s What Death Can Touch, a dramatic setting of a text by the 11th-century Spanish-Jewish poet Yehuda Halevi, Delgani violinist Jannie Wei switched to piano to play Bach’s “Prelude in C Minor, BWV 999.” This confused me. How did this piece fit into the concert? Program notes were not provided, so I was at a loss. A fellow audience member told me that it was related somehow to the Thigpen piece that was about to begin. Why did the composer choose a simple performance instead of working the piece into her own composition, a technique employed throughout western musical history? It seemed a lost opportunity–but proved to be a musical bait-and-switch, given the power and visceral emotionalism of the piece that followed.

Delgani String Quartet and singers Laura Wayte and Gretchen Farrar rehearsing Anice Thigpen's 'What Death Can Touch.' Photo by Kelli Matthews.
Delgani String Quartet and singers Laura Wayte and Gretchen Farrar rehearsing Anice Thigpen’s ‘What Death Can Touch.’ Photo by Kelli Matthews.

Thigpen’s ambitious and well-executed multimedia production featured sopranos Laura Wayte and Gretchen Farrar with video projections by Lillian Almeida and Sunny Selby. As I’ve argued in previous reviews, incorporating projected imagery into live performance is a very challenging process. Too often, the seductive immediacy of digital video and its associated in-camera and post-production effects leads to pedestrian (charming at best) visual compositions with predictable content. Slow pans, slow motion, trees in the wind, seaside textures and patterns—all aspects of the program’s projected video—are material and techniques that suffer from overuse and underdeveloped artistry. Although the unexpected textural effect of the pleated curtains on which the images were projected and the visual distortion produced by pushing the camera lens to fail (intentionally or not) added satisfying chance elements, the seemingly random juxtaposition of the pleasant moving images with the at times overwrought music produced sensory overload in this viewer.

“I wrote an opera as my first composition [Woman of Salt],” Thigpen stated in her reply. “Not because I am an advanced and able composer, but because narrative is what helps me hear music.” Thigpen’s music, powerfully expressive and commanding in its loose-cannon novice enthusiasm, washed over the audience with a monochromatic emotional intensity that I felt masked the subtle beauty of the Halevi poem. The intent to communicate deeply felt emotions, almost in an attempt to force affirmation, was so heavily woven into the fabric of the complex quasi-expressionist music that there seemed no space for the audience to complete the performance with their own emotional responses. Without a doubt, hidden somewhere in this overpowering expressivity is the composer’s nascent voice. I look forward to more of Thigpen’s work and to witness the growth of that voice.

Style Mongering

As I mentioned earlier, Terry McQuilkin’s Invisible Light: Fantasy for String Quartet speaks in a contemporary musical language. Or, should I say languages? Here was a twentieth century compositional style survey in miniature, the composer moving effortlessly between schools—postminimal, American neo-classical, cool jazz, Magnificent Seven cinematic chorale—all executed with solid technical chops. This is a stylistic fête to please the Parisian Stravinsky, with the solidly idiomatic string writing offering Delgani a chance to step it up and have some fun. Thoroughly satisfying music. But is it too much to ask for McQuilkin to push the boundaries, step out of his comfortable mastery, take some risks, and produce truly pertinent music? One can only hope.

It is a wonder that the Delgani String Quartet chooses to abide in our simple city. Artistry of this level usually attends only in festival contexts such as the Bach Festival or in association with the Oregon Mozart Players or UO School of Music and Dance’s masterfully curated chamber series at Beall Hall. The reality that these brilliant young artists have made a significant, risky, hopeful, and brave professional decision to make Eugene their home, however fleetingly, and that they embrace new music should be heard by local composers—whether or not they get the privilege to work with the ensemble—as a direct challenge to step up to the plate, broaden their palettes, hone their technical skills, access their authenticity, take chances, risk failure, and produce works of equal measure.

Are they up to that challenge? I’m on the fence.

Look for A2 Productions’ Birds Flying Through, music and dance inspired by the poetry of Deborah Narin-Wells, coming in September, 2020. And don’t miss Delgani String Quartet’s opening concert of the 2019-20 season, coming in November. Click here for more information.

Daniel Heila writes music, plays flute, and loves words in Eugene Oregon.

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