New music need not be innovative to be good. While every work is in a sense an experiment or study, novelty for its own sake can prove a tiresome gimmick when the exploitation is left unexhausted. Likewise, it is possible to look backwards to preexisting models in the classical tradition without denying the present or sounding derivative. It’s a fine line, and not a little subjective, but it has much to do with self-contained-ness and avoidance of parody. If composers treat their material in an appropriate aesthetic, but develop it well and fully, the piece cannot be said to have forfeited its sense of identity. Likewise, the flaw in many retrogressive works is not in their having a reference point, but in their simplification of it in replication; a failure to address the full complexity of the model and subsequent reduction of it to a few superficial-though-recognizable features.
The composers presented in the January 27thComposer’s Voice concert at Jan Hus Church largely succeeded, despite the traditionalism of their music, by creating tautly constructed miniatures, which remained committed to exploring a few effects or Affekts with brevity and parsimony. Writing a miniature is a challenging exercise in discipline, of discarding the superfluous, even if it is attractive, and of ingenuity, since, inhibited from sprawling unfoldings, development must sprout from the smallest germ seeds. Composers who can harness the qualities of the genre emerge with gems of precision, elegance, and restraint.
The Sunday afternoon concert began with four shorts written for the Douglas DaSilva documentary, My Dad’s Violin, which spins the history and mystery behind the eponymous family heirloom, while showing several violinists putting the instrument through its paces. Several of the musicians play new works commissioned for the film, these examples having been performed this day by with sharp incisiveness and unsentimentality by Lynn Bechtold. Each is rooted firmly in the harmonic language and technical demands of 20th Century tonal modernism, the dominant classical idiom at the time Mr. DaSilva’s father was studying at Peabody Conservatory. Ken Paoli’s Cadenza recalls Hindemith, with empty, longing desolation hiding within those formal open harmonies. Milica Paranosic’s uspavanka (lullabye) offers a simple melody almost as a found object, repeated in three variants, one on low strings, one, more impassioned, on high strings with double-stops, and the last in tender pizzicato. Zelante (zealous), by Juan María Solare, is a frantic, off-balance tango, Piazzolla as misheard by Bartók. The four-minute suite concluded with Steve Cohen’s Dear Old Dad, a seemingly lost dance from Soldier’s Tale. Each piece worked by keeping its scope and ambitions in check, and maintaining a narrow focus. None tried to say too much, and nothing was left unsaid.
Hypertext II links digressively to composer Can B. Bilir’s several musical personalities, referencing fragmented pointillism, following a detour to a microtonal folk song on a ney, before returning to the main page, only to get lost surfing bouncy Impressionism. Several complete miniatures tied together by a common conceit, they achieve a semblance of unity by connecting between one another and internally within themselves. It’s a musical concept that predates Windows, but one which could be further and more consciously exploited by means of common connecting material, which explains the relevance of each section to the other, and follows the narrative even less linearly. Flautist Linda Wetherill played musically and with attractive tone throughout, though clearer stylistic distinctions might have driven home the concept more effectively.
Nailah Nombeko imbued her violin/piano duo, Obscurity, with a brooding Debussy-esque Impressionism. It made no excuses for its straightforward ABA1 structure, song form an appropriate choice for so lyrical a work. As a vignette, the appropriation of so specific a sound-world seemed more like an evocation of a bygone era than an attempt at facsimile or pastiche, and with its formal simplicity felt like a lovely palate cleanser. Stanichka Dimitrova’s tone was well suited to the aesthetic, her slightly guttural nasality and Romantic, long, arching phrasings not dissimilar from the violinists of the Golden Age of recordings. Noah Palmer, her partner, supported her with a broad palette of tone colors and a suave, almost bluesy legato.
Greg Caffrey’s Takemitsu’s Dream for solo guitar consisted of a series of brief prelude-like movements, each devoted to a single effect or gesture, starting with a pentatonic flamenco fantasy. The work as a whole was much more concrete than anything Toru Takemitsu himself wrote; this composition seemed the attempt a reconstruction of Takemitsu’s source material, as presented in a dream, before being obscured by the gauze of waking and being notated, half remembered, in a score. Diego Campagna’s playing was full-bodied, often muscular, and made excellent us of pace and silence.
The Parhelion Trio premiered its Fifteen-Minutes-of-Fame program last summer. While the group, made up of Sarah Carrier on flute, Medina on clarinet, and Andrea Christie on piano, displayed good ensemble, vitality, and panache, the reverberant acoustics of the venue and a piano with a very dull, deadened tone did not lend themselves to a full appreciation of the 15 one-minute commissions. Jan Hus is no less mushy, but with a livelier, if too boomy and percussive, piano, Ms. Christie was able to exercise a new assertiveness, drive, and leadership over the proceedings. Ms. Carrier and Ms. Medina, meanwhile, lost nothing of their musical awareness and subtle timbral matching. Heard for a second time, the miniatures appeared as almost new works. Especially noteworthy this time were:
Flow – Cameo, by Peter Nickol, a pop/folk song that went astray before a satisfying wind-down.
In Selah, by Juan María Solare, the winds offer a witty, if furtive chatter above a plucked piano bass.
Michael Mikulka’s 22° Distant also relied on Ms. Christie playing inside the piano, the winds emerging from her figures and gestures, all things rising from one another.
Luca Vanneschi’s Parhelion depicted the solar phenomenon aptly: the piano accompanied with a cantus firmus atmospherically, eerily sotto voce winds, as their winding dissonances created expanding harmonics into the lingering delay of the church.
Bleep Blip City, by Denton McCabe, blew apart vernacular pretenses, a chamber music love child of Oingo Boingo and Torture Garden.
Jean-Pierre Vial’s Haloing Fantasia was chromatic and languorous, redolent of a Poulenc mélodie. Its melodic Romanticism was slick, but enjoyable, concluding in a hilariously unresolved final chord.
Qualitatively, the pieces varied, but all were competently conceived and worked well within their minute limit, suggesting that necessity can be both the mother of invention, and of coherent concision.