New England’s Prospect: The Long, Long Trailer
Remember us in your wills, and enjoy the noise.
—Stephen Drury, SICPP artistic director, kicking off the 2012 Iditarod
Leave it to technology, that indifferent god, to make even John Cage seem sentimental. Cage’s Cartridge Music, which opened last Saturday’s final, marathon concert of the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), is classic Cagean find-the-beauty noise, but as Zachary Hale, Simon Hanes, Ariane Miyasaki, and electronic music faculty John Mallia scraped and caressed a table full of electrified phonograph needles and old stereo wiring, at least this pre-digital vintage listener felt a wave of nostalgia: the familiar, anticipatory scratches and pops preceding a record’s opening track, stretched out into their own blessed plot.
As it happened, Cartridge Music was just about a proportional lead-in to the LP of the 2012 Iditarod, as the SICPP (“Sick Puppy”) finale has come to be called; this year’s trek clocked in at more than eleven hours—the longest since I’ve been going. As with the whole of this year’s Institute—taking over New England Conservatory for a week of workshops, masterclasses, and concerts (the first of which I reviewed here—Cage, in his centenary year, was a particular focus of the Iditarod (seven works), as was composer-in-residence Christian Wolff (six works). It seemed to give this Iditarod a more free-form, laid-back ambience than in years past.
Wolff’s music was a big part of that, a mix of old and new (from 1957’s Sonata for Three Pianos to 2000’s Berlin Exercises) all using his characteristic, loosely coordinated heterophony, centripetal motion restrained by a subterranean network of connections. The most compelling was 1993’s Merce, for eight percussionists under the direction of Scott Deal, in which an almost formal intrada evolves into scattered signaling between players, a rousing entrance to what proves a meditative game with mysterious rules. Berlin Exercises, its German text spoken and sung (by Sara Perez) while an instrumental septet comments, seemed to alternate between riffing on the Austro-German common-practice inheritance and pulling away its veneer to reveal an abyss. The inheritance echoed in other works, too: three of the Exercises (1973-74) (performed here by a trio of pianists—Aki Otake, Karl Larson, and David O’Dette—along with flutist Forrest Ransberg and violist Benjamin Wu) mixed prominent triadic arpeggios into its passed-around vocabulary; so did Tilbury Pieces, from 1970 (another three pianists—Ingrid Lee, Eugene Kim, and Monika Haar, along with harpist Adrienne Bassett), with its tonal echoes scattered throughout the score like recognizable bits of rubble; and the melodic cells passed around a mixed quartet in Pieces for Julius (1995) were almost Straussian. (Flutist Laura Cocks, Neil Godwin on horn, Ethan Wood on viola, and cellist Helen Newby made the rounds.)
Strauss himself turned up in George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, grandly blatant Also Sprach Zarathustra quotations boiled down to three players (Ransburg, Newby, and pianist Kathryn Norring). Given SICPP’s heavy contingent of percussion and piano—those instruments made up more than half of this year’s regular and guest faculty—Crumb, with his multitude of theatrical opportunities for those instruments, is one of the composers who turn up year after year, parallel-universe warhorses. (There were also a couple movements from Makrokosmos, Vol. III: Music for a Summer Evening, pianists Karl Larson and David O’Dette and percussionists Tyler Cameron Bragg and Jeffrey Kolega handling the stop-and-go scintillation; and book IV of the Madrigals, with soprano Farah Lewis fronting the finely etched opulence.)
Morton Feldman is another constant—this year, it was False Relationships and the Extended Ending, three pianos (Kristin Elgersma, Kathryn Norring, and Adrienne Varner), three instruments (violinist Charlotte Munn-Wood, cellist David Wasilko, and trombonist Christopher Moore) gently exhaling in response to Nick Tolle’s chimes. The Iditarod also has a more recent pattern of including a large-scale Steve Reich opus; on Saturday, it was one of Reich’s most genial, Drumming, with its third-act glockenspiel-and-whistling rolling in like a Wagnerian ice cream truck.
The Cage programming tilted early, with a deep selection of his music from the 1940s. She Is Asleep, from 1943, combined a percussion quartet (Evan Bowen, Bragg, Hale, and guest Jeffrey Means, one of a number of Callithumpian Consort ringers joining the student performers)—which, coming right after Drumming, sounded an awful lot like Reich in between phases—with a duet between Lewis and Shen Bing, rapping on the piano lid like a woodblock, circling through constricted but ever-more-decorated phrases. Forever and Sunsmell (1942) forewent the piano altogether, just Perez singing and Kolega and Cassandra McClellan drumming, a pentatonic ritual. Experiences I, for un-prepared pianos (Varner and Laura Ventemiglia), was also in that invented folklore vein, a kind of southwestern pavane. It was the prepared piano piece, part II of A Book of Music, that felt both the most abstract and the most cosmopolitan, its angled ostinati brittle, jazzy, Stravinskian, a flight of a bumblebee through a machine shop. (Performances throughout the Iditarod were never less than solid, but this one was a standout for me, Aaron Likness and Daniel Walden coursing through with effortless elegance.)
Crumb, Cage, Feldman, and Wolff made for a lot of quiet, sparse, long-spun chunks of experience. Composers in the SICPP New Works Program provided a measure of variety. Even those works that at least nominally could be grouped in with that quartet varied the diet—Daniel Lewis’s Things Were Heightened, for alto flute (Cocks), viola (Benjamin Wu), and bass (Anthony D’Amico), Feldman-like dovetailed whispers, but arranged less intuitively, more formally, deterministically; Ryan Krause’s Current Affairs, for clarinet (Amy Advocat) and tuba (Beth McDonald), Wolff-like in its approximate back-and-forth, but adapted into a more explicit, Ives-ish argumentative program; or Alex Pozniak’s Tower of Erosion, in which piano (Likness) and drums (Tolle) don’t so much duet as reinforce each other into a single instrument, like Crumb, if Crumb had a prog-rock sensibility.
There was neo-Romanticism, both Benjamin Irwin’s Strange Alchemy, an accomplished and polished mercurial, cadenza-like essay for violin (Ethan Wood) and piano (Elgersma), and Seunghee Lee’s Nostromo, for piano trio (violinist Stephanie Skor, cellist Michael Unterman, and pianist Tanya Blaich), a memorial for a Conrad-scholar uncle, appropriately grim, oracular, and lovely. Scott Scharf’s clairaudience, a long string of rocking dyads for voice (Lewis) and flute (Emily McPherson), was quietly obsessive; tress/burl, a sextet by Marek Poliks, played its obsessions loud, making its single point with the harsh, entertainingly maddening insistence of a conspiracy theorist.
Kevin Church’s …Poetically, Man Dwells… decorated slow-harmony lyricism with percussion effects (from Laura Jordan) and extended techniques (from Walden and bass clarinetist Medina). Robert Wolk’s Petrichor Will Pass Fireflies Virga by Blue Summer (Ransburg on flute, Christian Smith on vibraphone, glockenspiel, and gongs) tangled its lyricism into an atonal blur. That combination—solo instrument plus percussion—was a popular one: there was also Jason Huffman’s Ear, Nose and Throat, for clarinet (Rane Moore) and percussion (Sean Dowgray) worked in tight, efficient, deliberately limited vocabularies; Haley Shaw’s Diva, for flute (Leia Slosburg) and percussion duo (David Tarantino and Chia-Ying Wu), felt more like a free-range catalog of found sounds, metallic scrapes, drumhead growls, and a two-woodblock simulacrum of a Dr. Beat metronome. D. Edward Davis made room for electronics—the slowed down warble of an ultrasonic deer repellant—among violin (Kaitlin Moreno), viola (Karina Fox), and cello (Benjamin Schwartz) in deer, a study in soft keeining. And Sid Richardson’s Synergie seemed to try it all, tied together timbrally (Munn-Wood’s violin and Wasilko’s cello matched by Phillipp Stäudlin’s soprano sax) but seeming to change styles and even eras as if via remote control. (Nicholas Vines, director of the New Works Program, was represented by two movements from his guitar suite Les Effaceurs, a razor-wire collection of prepared guitar bells, scurrying runs, and virtuosic excursions that guitarist Maarten Stragier realized with uncanny ease.)
SICPP’s Electonic Workshop produced new works of its own: Digital Landscapes (Études for the Internet), a separate-room installation by Elizabeth Aubert (which I missed, stupidly, leaving it until later in the evening, forgetting that Iditarod intermissions gradually shrink as the marathon wears on); Ariane Miyasaki’s The House My Grandfather Built, for violin (Wood), percussion (Means), and electronics, which flipped the usual instrument/computer relationship on its head, Miyasaki beginning with recorded, ambient nature sounds which the live instruments then pushed into something more mechanical and manufactured; and a terrific collaborative effort, Dead Ringers, with Hale on percussion and McClellan on handbells, their sounds processed and recombined by Miyasaki and Simon Hanes, each layer of sound transformed into a backdrop for a subsequent idea, like infinite, ringing mirrors within mirrors.
Hanes’s solo piece was the evening’s most unapologetic nod to performance art: the punningly titled I Reckon, in which Hanes wired an acoustic guitar for high-gain quadrophonic amplification, then proceeded to destroy it, crunching and cracking and snapping strings in surround sound close-up. As music, it was hit-and-miss; as theater, it was grand. (It’s hard to go wrong with a performance that begins with the performer donning safety goggles.) Electronic music performance can sometimes feel like eavesdropping on Mission Control, but Hanes worked his laptops with the showy flair of a 19th-century virtuoso, also teaming with Hale on percussion for Per Bloland’s Solis-EA, a combination of gongs, real-time processing, and some nice old-school synth sounds. (“Tangerine Dream run down by a train,” my notes say.)
And what else? Linda Dusman’s aphoristic Magnificat 1 (with flutist Cocks, clarinetist Medina, and marimbist Bowen, in a more decorous version of Crumb’s extended technique constellations); Lee Hyla’s brooding, jazzy Neruda setting House of Flowers (mezzo P. Lucy McVeigh, with Benjamin Irwin, this time as clarinetist, D’Amico on bass, and pianist Sid Samberg); a pair of works by John Zorn (the fiercely bouncy Music for Children, Moreno, Kim and Smith in grim hijinks; and Amour fou, which, the best efforts of Skor, Schwartz, and Haar and a dollop of ’70s soundtrack notwithstanding, wore out its welcome, the sort of piece that spends two minutes showing you around the room and fifteen minutes looking for the exit.) Luciano Berio’s piano-percussion quartet Linea (pianists Bing and Otake, percussionists Jordan and Wu) kicked off the seventh and final section of the concert, starting off in Wolff’s lair—fluctuating subdivisions and in-and-out ensemble—before moving into Berio’s more customary fistfuls of exuberance.
Is that everything? The SICPP Iditarod might be a challenge more of tabulation than endurance. Because, in the end, eleven hours wasn’t all that bad—the sheer bulk of time encouraging a get-comfortable attitude that made every piece feel a little more generous than it might on a regular concert. (Though I would not be surprised if logistics forced a change in the schedule for next year—throughout most of the last two hours, farewells could be observed in between pieces, as students were forced to catch planes and trains.) Well into Sunday morning came the finale, Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Samberg at the keyboard and McVeigh taking the clock-hands place on the podium, with the simultaneous addition of Cage’s Aria (a terrific, committedly absurd rendition by Perez), like a hidden track tucked away at the end of side two. In a way, it’s preaching to the choir—SICPP and its audience is, by definition, a like-minded bunch on at least a basic musical level. But, as in Cage’s music, and Wolff’s music, and the Iditarod itself, it’s the chaos of agreement that’s so much fun.