New England’s Prospect: Yard Work

Image courtesy Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Image courtesy Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University

Fair Harvard! we join in thy Jubilee throng,
And with blessings surrender thee o’er
By these festival rites, from the age that is past,
To the age that is waiting before.

Harvard University is inextricably associated with the Boston Area, yet is also just a bit oblique to it, like a secular Vatican City maintaining its sovereignty within a Hub version of Rome. The musical orthodoxies it hands down at a roughly generational pace, too, manage to track compositional trends while still standing apart from them, be it the idiosyncratically academic modernism of Mario Davidovsky et al.; or the European-designed but American-built neo-Classicism passed on from Walter Piston to a clutch of unusually gifted students; or the common-practice-in-excelsis scrupulousness of Archibald T. Davison, the traditional proprieties given a particularly Crimsonian refinement.

The latest school spirit, to judge from the May 12 Fromm Concert featuring the work of Harvard graduate student composers, is noise, the sound at the boundary between musical pitch and the physical effort needed to produce it. The composer biographies in the program book included mentions of “the spectrum of dynamics, movements, and contradictive forces” and “tactile sound” and “underlying impulses in the grain of everyday events” and “the microscopic but violent space between a finger and a string,” among other evocations; all six works on the program spun variations on that theme. (It’s a stylistic proclivity that can be heard in the music of current composition faculty: Chaya Czernowin—whom Frank J. Oteri interviewed for this magazine last year—and Hans Tutschku, who helped curate the Sound in SPACE festival I reviewed last November.)

Harvard being its affluent self, the performers were not students, but rather a nine-person delegation of the excellent Cologne-based Ensemble musikFabrik. (Because of a schedule conflict—see below—the group was kind enough to let me listen to their dress rehearsal on Saturday afternoon.) Being a former graduate composition student who can still not-so-fondly remember mad scrambles for sometimes unenthusiastic players, I indulged in some well-earned envy, and had fun imagining a crack professional new music ensemble being tasked with the sort of thrown-together sorts of things I recalled composition students being liable to produce when faced with a deadline.

And, by gum, someone was willing to make that image real, in the guise of Ian Power’s “For every human being who looks up at the moon will know”—a defiantly odd combination of sound sketchbook and spoken-word performance art. The text drew on political speechmaking about the American space program in the 1960s—from JFK’s “put a man on the moon” provocation to the alternate-draft statement prepared for Richard Nixon just in case Neil and Buzz didn’t make it back. The players switched between reading out these excerpts and providing them with a somewhat severe, stop-and-go underscore, starting with a spectral-ish deconstruction of a single note and building from there.

In actuality, the piece didn’t work terribly well—it was hard to hear the text, the musical content wasn’t compelling enough to stand on its own, and the recitation never really amplified the weird poetry of either boilerplate political rhetoric or—in the streams of budgetary numbers and timetables—bureaucratese at its most potent. Still, there were a couple of memorable sections: at one point, pianist Benjamin Kobler broke into rolling octaves of Romantic bravado as clarinetist Carl Rosman upped the ante from recitation to some pretty good sung, faux-operatic grandeur; that section was followed by a nifty bit of undulating sprechstimme, the entire ensemble sending off the Apollo astronauts with comically spooky glissando voices. If, in the end, the piece came off as something between a first draft and a lark, those moments at least made one hopeful for a revision.

The rest of the pieces were certainly accomplished, if less gonzo. Justin Hoke’s Pantomime-Aria was an edge-of-audibility exercise (breath sounds, key clicks, the rustle of bow hair) which attractively settled into hints of very faraway grooves. Timothy McCormack’s Nous-Apparatus was the sonic opposite: dense, loud, and harsh, thick, glinting layers bleeding into one another. The sound was great, like living inside a giant, creaky hinge; but the piece went on far too long.

Sivan Cohen-Elias’s Where Is There—mini creature no. I was the most front-and-center with the physicality of performance, using both sound (Kobler and percussionist Dirk Rothbrust working the resonant thunk of piano and vibraphone pedals, respectively, for instance) and choreography (the players all prescribed with stiff, jerky movements—conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov included—an animatronic layer of visual form added to the music). Covering the vibraphone with bubble wrap proved a mostly visual effect as well, despite the amplification of every sound. Sabrina Schroeder’s Spuler combined sparseness with a kind of grim, almost drone-ish atmosphere (here, Kobler and Rothbrust kept piano strings and drums in continuous buzz using pen-sized vibrators) and the result was harsh and meditative at the same time. And both Where Is There and Spuler displayed the virtue of a sure sense of timing, both in their unfolding and their confidently compact dimensions.

Given the similarities in idea and sound world—Hoke, Cohen-Elias, and Schroeder all used slow bowed-near-the-bridge string glissandi to signal formal boundaries at one point or another, and the soft-noise aesthetic was so prevalent that I swear flutist Helen Bledsoe ended up producing more puffs and whistles and key-clicks than actual notes—it was indicative of the composers’ talent and technique that their personalities remained at least somewhat distinct. The finale, Edgar Barroso’s Over-Proximity, worked the far ends of the room: saturated, boisterous bustle, keyed by Bruce Collings’s trombone and Christine Chapman’s horn, giving way to the familiar desaturated rustles, empty air, barely there sounds, Rothbrust tickling the snares of his drum (the piece verged on a mini-concerto for snare drum) while Kobler ran a credit card up and down the keys. Barroso seemed to gather up the concert’s strands into a single, all-or-nothing shebang.

***

While musikFabrik was abetting the latest generation of Harvard students, the Cantata Singers and director David Hoose were at Jordan Hall, saluting an older Harvard cohort and their musical progeny, composers fueled, directly or indirectly, by Walter Piston’s years of tutelage. Like most such categorizations, the exact roster of the resulting “Boston School” was always a little bit vague—still, the general outlines of the style remain recognizable: an essentially triadic harmony bouncing through chromatic blocks of keys, a taut, jazzy-but-not-jazz rhythmic sense, a Stravinskian neo-Classicism pared down into something a little more immediately exoteric.

It wasn’t the only kind of music going on in Boston at the time, but it was, perhaps, the music that best matched the city’s cultural reputation, the sort of thing summed up as early as 1726, in the words of minister (and witch-hunter) Cotton Mather, Harvard class of 1678:

There is a way of writing wherein the author endeavors that the reader may have something to the purpose in every paragraph. There is not only a vigor sensible in every sentence, but the paragraph is embellished with profitable references, even to something beyond what is directly spoken. Formal and painful quotations are not studied, yet all that could be learnt from them is insinuated.

For sure, the concert’s most pure expression of the Boston School, Harold Shapero’s 1941 Sonata for Piano Four Hands, written while the composer was himself a Harvard undergraduate, fit Mather’s recommendations to a tee. Shapero out-Stravinskys Stravinsky and out-Coplands Copland, but still throws in enough precise quirks of harmony and rhythm to make the Sonata sound less like an imitation and more like a piquantly clear distillation of the various and sometimes competing energies of modernism, populism, and intellectualism swirling about at the time. (The performance, by David Kopp and Rodney Lister, was superbly sympathetic, though more genial than driving. Shapero, 92, was there to receive enthusiastic applause.)

The bulk of the program was, of course, choral music, and most of it, not surprisingly, sounded great—the basis of the Boston School, even among those second- and third-generation adherents with increasingly indirect connections to Harvard, was always the Harvard style, and the Harvard style always had a substantial choral foundation. (A. T. Davison, after all, was also the director of the Glee Club.) The concert opened with Charles Fussell’s 1996 Invocation, arranged by Hoose for chorus and two pianos (Kopp and Lister again). Setting a May Sarton poem, Fussell’s music was tonally rich but also crisp, Romanticism with the excess burned away. Florid textures in the accompaniment were always quickly subsumed into choral straightforwardness; full-harmony drama was frequently translated into more austere two-part counterpoint, shifting trenchantly between major and minor intervals. Lister’s own W. H. Auden setting, The Annunciation, had a similar harmonic cast, making efficient use of the implications of enharmonic changes from sharps to flats, a venerable trick in the British pastoral tradition (Holst was a master of it), but here filed into sharper angles. The result was lean, lithe, and exceptionally lovely.

Two works by Earl Kim, the late Harvard professor, leaned to both sides of the tricky line his music often walked. The basis of Kim’s harmonic language was even more unabashedly Romantic and old-fashioned, but in the best of his works, his meditative intensity could transform the old tropes into something startlingly unfamiliar. Some Thoughts on Keats and Coleridge, an a capella anthology dating from 1990, rather erred on the side of pastiche (though very skillful pastiche, in an Elgar/Finzi manner); it was only in the final movement, a fragment of Keats’s “To Autumn,” that Kim’s own quirkiness began to peek through, the altos rocking sweetly and ominously between ti and do in the midst of the gnats “bourne aloft / Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies,” the chorus reprising the entire movement, and then circling around for another pass at its opening.

It was the other piece, Scenes from a Movie, Part 3: The Twenty-Sixth Dream, that presented Kim at his most characteristic. Composed in 1995, the work sets a long Rilke story for baritone (Mark-Andrew Cleveland), chorus, and piano duo in a lush, peripatetic style, a kind of continuous arioso in which flowing melody is constantly undermined by quick shifts of harmony, elegant and disconnected at the same time. Kim was drawing not only on 19th-century practice, but the translation of that practice into golden-age Hollywood; but the emotive gestures of film scoring are boiled down to the point where the straighforwardness of the emotional signaling is itself artifice, a distant theatrical relative of the way the phrase “to be perfectly frank” is a sure sign that what’s to follow will hardly be frank at all. It’s mysterious, a little bit silly, a little bit unsettling, a prime late example of Kim’s love-it-or-hate-it musical dramaturgy. Me, I love it—and the performance was superb.

The concert closed with Aaron Copland’s In the Beginning, that composer’s only extended a cappella work, written for Harvard to boot. (It was specially commissioned for a conference on music criticism, of all things.) Both mezzo-soprano soloist Janna Baty (who sounded somewhat under the weather, but still communicated the music’s exhortatory mien) and the chorus gave their full-blooded all—and nothing fires up Hoose like an interpretive challenge—but, in the end, In the Beginning is a piece mannered in its formality, the clanging, oracular harmonies never quite ringing the way they naturally would on a piano or in an orchestra. In the Beginning might be most successful as an object lesson for a foolproof if impractical method of ensuring a long life for a piece of middling choral music: 1) be a world-famous composer, and 2) compose little if any other music for choir. Translating the style was better left to the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Irving Fine—probably not coincidentally, Harvard men both. Old Archibald Davison would be proud.

2 thoughts on “New England’s Prospect: Yard Work

  1. David

    This is a really strange article. Review at first, then history lesson after. Can someone fill me in on what the relationship is between the former and the latter?

    Reply

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