Last night’s Faculty Artist Series concert at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) was entitled Hammered. The program offered a sampling of recent compositions by Alden Jenks, Director of the SFCM Electronic Music Studio. Jenks performed several of the works on the program and was joined by four SFCM alumni, the pianists Mikako Endo (’92, also Jenks’ wife) and Ian Scarfe (’10) and sopranos Lora Libby (’13) and Amy Foote (’10, listed as “actress”).
The title of the program was also that of the most extended composition, completed in 2012 but only receiving its first full performance last night. As Jenks described it in the program, the work can be considered as a trio in which two performers, Scarfe on piano and Jenks controlling computer software, are joined by a prerecorded track of synthetic sound somewhat resembling another piano. This was an ambitious undertaking for Scarfe, who was certainly up to the task, considering that his background includes performances of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps” (quartet for the end of time) and a staged version of Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
What was striking (a weak pun on the composition’s title) about this piece, however, was that, while it may have been structured in three “voices,” those “voices” were so seamlessly integrated that the listening experience was one of an elaborate and tightly-knit texture. This makes for as ambitious an undertaking for the listener as it does for the performers. The work is very much a study in synthesis, not only of the auditory signal but also of alternatives to the grammatical conventions of counterpoint and harmony, not to mention the rhetorical conventions of phrasing. The consequence, however, is that a “first encounter” with this music is likely to involve coping with considerable opacity; yet the ways in which Jenks contrasts the sound of the piano with his synthetic sources draws the listener into the experience, even when it may not be clear just what one is experiencing.
“Hammered” was complemented on the program by the 2011 piano solo (without any electronics) “Unrestful Sleep,” performed by Endo. This piece was clearly structured as three short movements. It also provided a clear account of the abstract elements of Jenks’ rhetoric, particularly the principle that the sense of an ending is established by little more than a sustained period of silence. From my vantage point as a first-time listener, I have to say that “Unrestful Sleep” did much to acclimate my listening skills to Jenks’ approach to the piano, so much so that I would have preferred to hear it performed before the experience of “Hammered.”
The remaining works on the program all involved theatrical elements. Even the one piece that was entirely prerecorded, “Ognaggio all’anzzonio” (translation not necessary), in a 2011 revision of the original version made in 2003, involved a mimed appearance by Jenks as a somewhat bemused observer of the sounds coming from the loudspeakers and the images projected on the walls (the latter showing small pieces by artist and artisan Anthony Gnazzo). This was sharply contrasted by a last-minute addition to the program. The intermission was followed by “Hearing Test,” which Jenks called a “scripsit” and was scored for “master and two slaves.” As the title suggested, this was a comment on authoritarianism, delivered with a wry humor and accepted as such by the audience (taking the parts of the “slaves” to Jenks’ “master”).
Each of the vocalists had one solo. Libby performed four of the songs from Time Suite, based on texts by Jim Harrison. Harrison’s poems are heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism, and three of the four selections were inspired by poems by the fifteenth-century Zen monk Ikkyu. All four texts show a meticulous attention to the choice of every word. It was evident that Jenks intended the vocal line to give a clear account of each of those words, and Libby used just the right amount of body language to enhance the clarity of her diction.
While Libby’s performance was accompanied by Scarfe on piano, Foote’s was accompanied by Jenks on computer. “Oh It’s You” was the newest piece on the program, receiving its world premiere. In his notes Jenks described it as “a poem that evolves into song,” requiring Foote to realize a transition from speaking to singing. Much of the spoken portion was structured around banalities, the voice of a woman so afraid of silence that she must fill it with utterances, most of which are basically repeated formulas. The transition into song thus has a shattering impact, conveying the effect of a suppressed inner self that breaks through the mindless babble and finally expresses itself. Foote has an impressive command over both her acting and her vocal skills; and “Oh It’s You” provided her with an excellent opportunity to display both to advantage.
Both vocalists also performed “Letter from Linda” with Endo on piano. The text was apparently an actual letter found by the poet Frank Polite in Youngstown, Ohio. Polite appropriated the entire text and published it as a poem. There are strong connotations of “trailer trash” in both the content and the rhetoric. Jenks’ interpretation involved an alternation between Foote’s spoken delivery of the poem with Libby’s melismatic interpolations of some of the phrases. The alternation between speech and song was somewhat reminiscent of Harry Partch’s “Barstow,” but without any alternative tuning systems. All three performers were suitably attired (“Daisy Mae Nouveau”) for the delivery of the text.