How To Hold A Snake

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As promised, a writeup of the second and final Contemporary Music Workshop performance of the season: student works. The promotional poster that went up across the School of Music and beyond shows a man’s fist clenched around a hissing viper. Indeed, last Friday’s program featured five aesthetically disparate attempts to grasp the snake that is the present, to capture in the composer’s grip the thrashing and protean spirit of today.

First, my piece Lust, a setting of Robert E. Howard and Ovid texts. I won’t write about the piece itself, but the performance was stunning. I’ve never heard my music presented with such technical and (more importantly) affective accuracy. It was one of those moments when I remember why people choose to be composers in the first place.

Second, Josh Musikantow’s HUES. Thanks in part to the elaborate choreography of this piece—the performers often assist or interfere with their colleagues’ playing, as when the percussionist taps on the clarinetist’s cheek midphrase—HUES was quite a challenge to prepare. However, conductor Erik Rohde and his seasoned squad of CMW recidivists deftly excavated the startling and remote beauty of Josh’s aphorisms. I felt privileged to witness this humbly theatrical gem-cutting.

Third, excerpts from Jeremy Wagner’s Six Scenes. Jeremy’s piece is a bit of a kindred spirit to mine in that it confronts you with the question: “In what respect is this a piece of contemporary music?” His dead-on imitation of stock woodwind quintet characters becomes an abstract kind of noise bed, and the listener’s job—well, the job I set out to do, anyway—is to find the fissures, the information-carrying features, in this status quo. It was enormously sophisticated and kept me on my toes the entire time.

Fourth, Richard Yates’s Lost. True to its name, Richard’s duo wandered from corner to corner of its percussion battery, misplacing and rediscovering musical material. Richard’s nigh-imperceptible variations and digressions were sustained by the performers’ unwavering focus, a dedication that bolstered his claim to our attention for the duration of the piece. Like Jeremy’s piece, Richard’s hides its musical argument well; unlike Jeremy’s, however, one can’t flush it out through close aural examination. Instead, it sneaks up on the listener from behind, offering surprising revelations seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a remarkable effect.

Finally, Schuyler Tsuda’s Tinguely. No one is better than Schuyler at combining traditional instruments, built instruments, and low- and high-tech electronics to produce endlessly rich sound-masses. For Tinguely, CMW’s musicians were joined on stage by Schuyler and his partner-in-noise-crime, Mike Duffy; when it came to producing textures that defy verbal description, the performance was an absolute success, and it impressed upon me once again the magnitude of Schuyler’s capability.

If my summaries have tantalized you, you’ll soon be able to check out video of the performances on CMW’s web site. Congratulations to all the composers and performers involved.

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