Originally published on March 31, 2009 and reproduced with minor revisions
For all of the opportunities to become acquainted with the music performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum last night, even the most sympathetic listener was faced with major challenges. Harold Bloom may have been “anxious” over poets who were influenced by other poets; but where music is concerned, whether in composition or performance, influence is more often the fertile soil from which new ideas emerge. In the case of listening, influence can actually be a two-way street. Thus Ludwig van Beethoven’s dedication of his Opus 2 piano sonatas to Joseph Haydn is, at least in part, an acknowledgement of influence; but, by the same count, if we are familiar with the Beethoven sonatas, we can hear Haydn’s 1790 E flat major sonata (H. XVI/49) as a source of that influence. The practice of music weaves a thick and extensive social network; and, more often than not, the “shock of the new” is a matter of getting one’s bearings within that network.
As Alessandro Solbiati and François Paris discussed their work (both laboring under difficulties with the English language) prior to last night’s concert, there was considerable allusion to the influence of the “spectral music” school of thought but little by way of expository introduction. To be fair this approach, practiced primarily in Europe since the 1970s, has been well represented in past performances by the Contemporary Music Players; and one of its pioneers, Gérard Grisey, who died in 1998, taught at the University of California at Berkeley from 1982 through 1986. Such facts do little for the disoriented unwashed (like myself), however. While it was clear that the works of both Solbiati and Paris (as well as the contribution of Philippe Hurel to last night’s program) reflected Grisey’s influence, there was not enough “working knowledge” of what that influence was to benefit the hapless newcomer. If all one needed to know about “spectral music” had to do with working with acoustic spectra as a musical medium, then techniques such as Solbiati’s scordatura assignment of the twelve chromatic pitches to the open strings of a cello, viola, and violin in his “Sestetto à Gérard” came across as a rather blunt instrument for manipulating spectral properties. The same could be said of Paris’ use of quarter tones in his “À propos de Nice.” In his remarks Paris said that he wanted to get beyond the “compromises” of traditional tuning systems; but, if his objective was a tuning system with fewer “compromises” to the natural harmonics, there is a relatively simple mathematical demonstration that quarter tones do not function as well as, for example, third tones. (The “bottom line” is that the quarter tone tuning helps you get a far more “natural” tritone; but the other “natural” intervals are not as well served.) Finally, Hurel’s “Loops IV” was composed for solo marimba, whose spectral properties are relatively rigid and thus afford few opportunities for acoustic manipulation.
The other composer represented on the program was Tristan Murail, who, like Grisey, was a member of the Groupe de l’Itinéraire and shares Grisey’s status as a “pioneer” of spectral music. Murail was represented by two short piano pieces, “Cloches d’adieu, et un sourire …” (Bells of farewell, and a smile) and “La Mandragore” (The Mandrake). Orientation to Murail’s piano music is facilitated by familiarity with the solo piano music of Olivier Messiaen, an excellent case in point being his Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant-Jésus. In these twenty short compositions, the very sound of the piano itself is always a key element; but Messiaen arrives at those sounds not through spectral manipulation but through meticulous instructions to the pianist. Given the extent to which “Cloches” acknowledges Messiaen’s influence, my guess is that Murail took the same approach in both of these works.
Whatever the listening challenges may be, the approach of the Contemporary Music Players is to be as faithful as possible to the intentions of the composer and let the music speak for itself. (I have called this the “stare decisis approach” in some of my past writing about Messiaen.) There is no questioning the sincerity of their performances, and their institutional relationship with the composers they perform suggests that their authenticity is also unquestionable. In the long run listeners can only be served by more exposure to such music. However, between the rehearsal time required to “let the music speak for itself” and the expense associated with performances like this one, increasing the “exposure level” is neither physically easy nor economically feasible. So the best thing we can do is take what we can get. Orientation will come. I know. I have been there with other “disorienting” instances of “new music,” which would later become “old friends.