Fear No Music’s 32nd concert season, Headwinds, began September 17-18 with a combination lecture and concert called De-Mystifying New Music. This was the first of a series focused on the project of de-mystification, exposing new music to the audience as well as explaining it: how it works both from a physical, instrumental standpoint, as well as its place in Western art music.
As Artistic Director Kenji Bunch and Executive Director Monica Ohuchi explained at the outset of the lecture on the 17th, Fear No Music was founded in Portland in 1992 and has at its core the goal of celebrating the music of under-represented communities, and presenting new compositions that showcase the work of composers and performers based in the Pacific Northwest.
Bunch spoke at length (and with many fascinating details not related here), about the notion of de-mystifying ‘new music.’ In this context the term ‘new music’ largely refers to art music that began with the avant-garde movement in Western music, stemming from radical innovations in music theory and composition shortly after the beginning of the 20th-century. The music presented in this project explored combinations of electronic sounds with acoustic instruments (electroacoustic music), as well as compositional techniques employing elements of chance or other aspects that render them indeterminate, i.e. not meant to sound the same each time they are performed.
The topic of composer and musical thinker John Cage came up (it would be impossible to avoid him in this type of discussion), as did his famous piece 4’33, in which a performer sits in perfect silence for precisely four minutes, 33 seconds, and whatever ambient sounds happen to exist (or not) during that time frame form the piece of music. Cage had a lot to say about music (some of it frankly meaningless) but his quote that Bunch used to set the tone for this exposition was well taken: “The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful,” said Cage,” is ‘why do I think it’s not beautiful?’ And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”
Beauty, of course, is always in the ear of the beholder, and as the audience chimed in with questions and observations it was clear that at least part of the goal here was to accept Cage’s challenge and expand our notion of what might be beautiful. I pointed out that beauty need not be the goal of music (and in fact in much music has as its goal the exact opposite of beauty), and that we might ask ourselves whether something needs to be considered beautiful to be enjoyed.
Composer Annie Gosfield’s Burn Again with a Low Blue Flame (2011) was first, a piece with its origins in the musique concrète tradition. I wondered, after hearing the piece three times over two days, whether ‘burn again’ had a dual meaning, but the multiple hearings were instructive for numerous reasons (and for a reviewer, a nice bit of a break from constantly analyzing, and a chance to just listen).
Cellist Nancy Ives performed the live cello portion of the composition, while the musique concrète–that is to say, the fixed, recorded electronic element of the composition–was managed by audio engineers Ryan Francis and Nicholas Emerson, who were “riding the fader,” in Ives’ words; which was to say, controlling the volume of the recorded acousmatic sounds.
The piece did indeed push the bounds of beauty, if beauty was in fact what was being sought. The piece was a gradual shifting soundscape; the acousmatic elements (as Bunch later explained) consisted of, among other things, recordings of string quartets and works for winds that consisted of “slow, gradual microtonal glissandi,” which were made into samples and looped through a keyboard.
Ives explained later that the recorded music with which she was playing contained “no underlying rhythmic events” upon which to base her live playing, so as she followed the score of the recorded music, she had the challenge of adjusting her playing to these very gradually shifting, amorphous and principally atonal sounds: she scrabbled the bow ferociously on the bridge, and slowly intoned wailing harmonics that at times resonated almost (but not quite) like squealing feedback. Very unstructured and difficult to follow, it was nevertheless fascinating to hear. As Ives later expounded on the difficulty of playing a piece like this, at one point she lamented (to much laughter) that it was “unhelpful that no living collaborator was adjusting to me,” therefore her interpretation could never be quite the same each time.
Eve Beglarian’s work In Huts and On Journeys (2017) used a stochastic technique– roughly, a randomly determined sequence of events–to produce a composition which would therefore be different each time it is performed. Before the work began, Bunch asked each member of the audience to turn the volume on our phones all the way up and scan a QR code on the program that took us to a website with 12 buttons, one corresponding to each month of the year. He explained that, as he read a poem (translated from the Inuit) of the same title as the composition, each of us would, at a time of our own choosing, push the button that corresponded to our birth month.
He began reading, and we began pushing our buttons. Each phone, once the button was pushed, began playing a pre-recorded tone, consisting of a single pitch (I sampled several different months, enough to know that the pitches I sampled were all different). The tones then increased in volume and shifted in timbre, taking on an echoing tremolo before fading again. The end result, as each person pushed a button at a random time of their choosing, was a sort of cacophony that underlay the poem, but there was a unity to it as well, as the dynamics and tonalities shifted.
The august setting—the warm brown timbers and old cracked concrete flooring of Eliot Chapel at Reed College, with the bright green-yellow of the verdure leaking in through large windows–provided a stark contrast to the cold landscape of the poem. “And I think over again of my small adventure, when with a sure wind I drifted out in my kayak and thought I was in danger,” went the poem. Perhaps it was only the poetic association with the Arctic that brought to my mind a sort of synesthetic image of the sounds becoming shifting and rippling aurorae in a darkened sky, but as the last one faded out, a cryptic little bird known as a Brown Creeper let out a bright and cheerful chreee!, piercing and clear, cutting through the last of the fading tones like an artifact from the real world, an anchor pulling me out of a strange dream: the very essence of an aleatoric, random element, one which could be neither scripted nor predicted, yet was every bit a part of the music.
Reveling in the wonder
The next night at The Old Church downtown, I spoke with Emerson–who, in addition to being one of the audio engineers, is a composer and producer who teaches at Reed College. He explained the importance in his role of being able to understand both the gear and the artistry, and the juxtaposition between them in electroacoustic performances of this nature.
The first performance of the evening was Bunch on viola and electronics, performing a work entitled Vent Nocturne (2006) as a memorial to its composer, Kaija Saariaho, who died earlier this year. The electronics were a sort of raspy susurration, an eerie, toneless human breathing over ululating trills and sul ponticello glissandi on the viola. There was what sounded like a bariolage and squeaky, squealing harmonics, and the breathing lent an eerie quality, like someone was in the room with you but you couldn’t tell where they were. Dissonant chimes sounded, and then became a sudden, violent explosion. It was a fascinating composition, with the electronics resolving into a not-quite subaural droning. It felt like an icy underworld, feeling (but not sounding) as if Vivaldi’s winter concerto had been written in a frigid dystopia by alien minds under a frozen seat of methane a thousand light-years away.
Hymnus (2021) by Hannah Ishizaki was next. It took the form of a string quintet featuring violinists Inés Voglar Belgique and Shanshan Zeng, Bunch on viola, Ives on cello, and Chris Kim on contrabass. An electronic dissonance became a sudden forte wall of sound, and the cacophony disappeared into subito somnolence. There were a lot of dynamic ‘hairpins’ (crescendi followed immediately by decrescendi of the same duration and intensity) handed off between instruments, but also moments of terraced dynamics. The old organ, lit from below, cast strange shadows, as if the ancient pipes were outgassing haunted wails, and yet there were sweet moments, including a quaint, scintillating melody like something from a sepia-toned film, an unexpected respite from the unsettled soundscape.
Amelia Lukas was solo next, playing Adina Izarra’s Luvina (1992) on bass flute. I’ve seen Lukas play the bass flute several times in various performances this summer. Before this experience, it was an instrument that I barely knew existed; it seemed to me like one of those weird ‘gimicky’ instruments that—why bother? Who writes for it? (I’m looking at you, octobass). But after hearing what Lukas can do with the bass flute, I discovered I had been not only ignorant of some talented composers writing for it, but also completely unaware of what a radically versatile and charismatic instrument it is in the hands of someone like Lukas, an imaginative flutist with some serious chops.
The lighting seemed to be an important component to this work, as blue and purple stage lights undulated over the performer. Lukas began by aspirating, pitchless and breathy, directly into the instrument, and it seemed to echo from around the room. (Emerson later explained to me that the audio engineers had set the sound system up quadrophonically, so that the sound from the speakers was coming at you from four different directions, in addition to echoing off the varied surfaces of the building). Lukas blew into and out of harmonics on the same pitch—strange overtones giving way to husky melodic snippets. At times it almost sounded like listening to music underwater, as she used techniques I couldn’t begin to understand, which was marvelous. I don’t always want to know how the magician levitates, I just want to experience it and revel in the wonder.
After intermission, there was a reprise of the Gosfield and Beglarian pieces reviewed earlier, and a piece by Kamala Sankaram entitled The Tree (2019). Lukas played flute, Kirt Peterson clarinet, Voglar Belgique violin, Ives cello, and Monica Ohuchi piano. The acousmatics consisted of a woman’s voice telling a story about how she remembered being ten, and then in junior high school, and then in her twenties, etc. The voice stuttered in and out of comprehensibility behind a high-pitched ostinato from the piano. At times there was an Alberti style theme from the winds, and consonant but mysterious tremolando themes from the cello while the other strings were pizzicato.
In some ways it was the most ‘approachable’ work of this fascinating 2-day project; mostly it was a gentle, mysterious and somewhat formless series of themes that grew increasingly chaotic as the age of the speaker progressed, forming simple, shifting patterns and gradually increasing in volume and intensity until it suddenly ceased on a thunderous fortissimo, and the players sat humming as the recorded sounds faded to nothing. A long moment of silence ensued before the piece ended.
Beyond good and bad
So what to make of all this? There were certainly no tunes to hum, as one may do when leaving a Mozart or a Metallica concert. There’s nothing wrong with wanting something you can hum, or something you can dance to, or something familiar and comforting from one’s music.
In what felt like a riff on Duke Ellington’s famous aphorism, my favorite music professor from college once told me there are two kinds of music in the world: good music, and bad music. “Good music is everything I like,” he said, “and bad music is everything else.”
Leaving aside the question of ‘good or bad’ music and taking Bunch up on his challenge from the first day, I try to apply the essence of Cage’s question about beauty, and I’m forced to answer that: no, not all the music is what I would describe as beautiful (although there was certainly much that was). But the emotions it engendered, the images it suggested, the excitement that comes with the challenge of learning to think about music in a new way–all this is what I would call incredibly beautiful.
This is a style that very much feels to me like it must be experienced live for it to have the full effect. I’ve certainly experienced music of this nature before, but this project of de-mystifying new music is fascinating in that it allows one to peek behind the curtain enough to have some understanding as to how it’s made, yet takes away nothing from the gestalt—the whole is still more than the sum of its parts. For a person who restlessly seeks something new to experience musically, this project is ideal, so it’s exciting that Fear No Music will put on four more concerts this year in its De-Mystifying New Music series.