Composers, Inc. Introduces San Francisco Opera Brass; Subotnick Revisits Silver Apples

Composers, Inc. continued its 29th season of presenting contemporary American music this month with a performance of diverse works for small ensembles as part of the Old First Concerts series in San Francisco. Founded in 1984 by composers Frank La Rocca and Martin Rokeach as an avenue to get their own and their colleagues’ music heard in the Bay Area, Composers, Inc. has remained a composer-driven organization with six composers acting jointly as artistic directors. (La Rocca tells the story of the organization’s genesis here.) Three of the six—La Rocca, Robert Greenberg, and Jeffrey Miller—were represented on the November 13 program.

The San Francisco Opera Brass

The San Francisco Opera Brass, conducted by Dennis Doubin, performing Jeffrey Miller’s Sonata à 11.

The program was titled Brass de Deux, a word play combining the title of Wayne Peterson’s Pas de Deux (performed by flutist Tod Brody and percussionist Jack Van Geem) and the featured artists on the second half of the program: members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra’s brass section performing for the first time as the San Francisco Opera Brass. For the occasion, Miller wrote Sonata à 11, inspired by Gabrieli, and La Rocca transcribed his 1998 a cappella choral work Exaudi for brass choir. Both works received their premiere performances at this concert.

La Rocca’s body of work includes a particular focus on settings of sacred texts for unaccompanied choir. In the original version of Exaudi, La Rocca set sections of four different Psalms, including Psalm 130 (De profundis clamavi, Out of the depths I cry). The choral version was for 12 parts (a perusal score and recording are available here); in transcribing to brass choir, the number of parts was reduced to 11 (3 trumpet, 5 horns, 2 trombones, 1 bass trombone). The vocal writing, full of solemn, extended lines, suspensions, and densely stacked chords, translated well to the unified and rich sound of the San Francisco Opera Brass, which amply filled the church without being overwhelming.

Likewise, Miller’s Sonata à 11 (scored similarly but with a tuba replacing the 5th horn) took advantage of the expansive playing of the San Francisco Opera Brass. As a former trombonist with experience playing Gabrieli’s antiphonal music, Miller wrote for the full and regal quality of the brass choir, placing sustained low brass chords as a bed under more rhythmic trumpet gestures, and horns as a chamber choir embedded in the whole. There was a sense of contained, majestic energy to the San Francisco Opera Brass’s playing in both works that was settled and satisfying.

This was in contrast to two barnburner pieces in the first half of the program, which tapped into a more vigorous and extroverted energy. The evening opened with Greenberg’s Rarified Air (1999) for clarinet, violin, and piano, which takes its title from “that thin, clear high layer of air…known as the stratosphere,” as the composer writes in the program note. The opening and closing movements of this four-movement work, performed with gusto by Rob Bailis (clarinet), Michael Nicholas (violin), and Hadley McCarroll (piano), were dynamic and rhythmically engaging, propelled forward like a train in motion. The more introspective middle movements explored different ranges, establishing a dialogue between the piano and clarinet both in their low registers in the second movement, and placing a clarinet melody and violin obbligato over a mid-range piano chorale with jazz-infused harmonies in the third.

David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by PRISM Quartet.

The one piece from this program that I’ve since revisited simply for pleasure’s sake is David Biedenbender’s saxophone quartet you’ve been talking in your sleep, performed by the Premiere Saxophone Quartet. (The recording above is by PRISM, for whom the piece was written; a perusal score is available on Biedenbeder’s site if you want to follow along.) In his spoken intro, Biedenbender described one section as being like space alien funk, and indeed the whole single-movement piece explodes into a strange and super groovy late-night sax dance party after some quietly sighing pitch bends in the opening to set the scene. While most of the work is built on complex interlocking rhythmic patterns, there are two homophonic sections that reveal just how precise and virtuosic the performers need to be. (A special shout-out to Aaron Lington, whose nimble baritone sax playing provided an always solid ground for the quartet to work from.) At the end of the piece, Biedenbender sends the soprano sax up into the stratosphere with some screams that were shockingly eyebrow-raising, with pitch bends that echoed the opening but to completely different effect.

you’ve been talking in your sleep was one of two works chosen from 300 entries by Composers, Inc.’s artistic directors for this year’s Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Award, which is open to new chamber works (for up to five musicians) by American composers. The second work selected was Gold Rush for five violins by Indiana University doctoral candidate Ryan Chase (audio here), which will receive a performance at Composers, Inc.’s April 2013 concert. Composers, Inc. is soliciting applications for next year’s award now; the postmark deadline is December 1.

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Morton Subotnick performs Silver Apples of the Moon

Morton Subotnick, right, performs Silver Apples of the Moon, while SUE-C creates real-time live video imagery.

If my Facebook feed is to be believed, that same evening a big chunk of the Bay Area new music community (myself included) suddenly became aware that at the end of the week Morton Subotnick was coming back to San Francisco, where he had co-founded the San Francisco Tape Music Center, to perform his groundbreaking 1967 work Silver Apples of the Moon live at SFMOMA. Presented in the museum’s Phyllis Wattis Theater on November 15, the performance had Subotnick with a Buchla 200e modular analog synthesizer routed through Ableton Live on one side of the stage and Bay Area video artist SUE-C on the other. Speakers were positioned around the hall, which allowed the opportunity to hear the familiar burbles and tick-tick-ticks moving around in space in quadraphonic sound, rather than the stereo configuration that first made the piece famous.

During the intro and the Q&A afterwards, Subotnick addressed the question of why a work commissioned by a record label (Nonesuch Records), which was inspired by the idea of a new technological paradigm allowing for a new genre of music that exists in a fixed form on recorded media, would need a live performance. His response was two-fold: first, that it allowed for collaboration with another artist, in this case visual artist SUE-C with whom he had worked before at Ars Electronica; and also that it allowed him access to a full palette of sounds while remixing the original work on the spot. For this performance Subotnick utilized elements of Silver Apples, revisiting and transforming them through Ableton, and combined it with A Sky of Cloudless Sulphur from 1978. SUE-C created a parallel and complementary performance, manipulating materials including Mardi Gras beads, a paintbrush, faceted glass from a headlight, and a sheet of brass mesh under the lens of a video camera, and projecting the processed result.

The Buchla 200e

The Buchla 200e: “Select some modules, button them up in a 200e cabinet, and you’re off and running with the most sophisticated analog system ever built.”
Photo by Gina Basso/SFMOMA

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