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sfSound returns to SFCM to examine two pioneering twentieth-century pieces

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Last night the members of the sfSoundGroup returned to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) Concert Hall for the latest installment in their Small Packages series of programs. The series title refers to the fact that the program presents original short pieces written in response to a major work in the modern repertoire. Last night’s program introduced five such new pieces, four of which were composed by performers, responding to two major twentieth-century compositions, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1953 “Kontra-Punkte” and Gérard Grisey’s 1974 “Périodes.” The remaining new piece was by Christopher Burns, who has been contributing to sfSoundGroup since 2003.

Last night Burns provided not only a composition but also an essay about the two “source” works for the evening. Perhaps the most important observation of this essay was that both pieces constituted “beginnings” for their respective composers. Stockhausen listed “Kontra-Punkte” as the first entry in his personal catalog of works, while “Périodes” was the first piece that Grisey completed for the six-work cycle he called Les espaces acoustiques (the acoustic spaces), written between 1974 and 1985. (In the final ordering, “Périodes” was the second movement of the cycle.)

Burns also cited the significant differences between the two composers: Stockhausen the abstractionist with meticulous attention to the organization of his notes based on the constructs of notation versus Grisey’s prioritization of sonorities that would come to be known as “musique spectrale” (spectral music). However, as György Ligeti observed in a pioneering essay for Die Reihe about Pierre Boulez’ composition techniques, there is an important distinction between the logic that determines how the marks go on the paper and the act of performance that turns those marks into music. After being confronted with an exhaustive account of every mark in the score of Boulez’ “Structure Ia,” the listener could then appreciate how the entire movement unfolded the “deep structure” of an “energy profile” that allowed the music to be perceived in the conventional framework of a beginning, middle, and end.

A similar distinction between looking at the score and listening to the performance arises in “Kontra-Punkte.” The piece was written for ten instruments arranged in six “sound groups” (a flute-bassoon pair, a clarinet paired with a bass clarinet, a trumpet-trombone pair, a violin-cello pair, a single piano, and a single harp). While the notes are configured into a texture “of the utmost homogeneity” (Stockhausen’s words), “Kontra-Punkte” has a “resource profile” similar in function to Boulez’ “energy profile.” While the entire ensemble is active at the beginning, there is a gradual “thinning out” of the parts until only the piano is performing at the conclusion.

Whether or not Stockhausen had Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken I/45 (“Farewell”) symphony in F-sharp minor in mind is left as an exercise for the eager researcher. However, this evolving change in instrumental resources falls on the ear of the attentive listener as an evolving change in sonorities. In other words the performance of “Kontra-Punkte” is as much about composing with changing sonorities as is any of the subsequent compositions that Grisey would call “spectral.”

Both of these pieces were played back-to-back following last night’s intermission, the first half of the concert having been devoted to the new works. Writing from a strictly personal stance, I have to say that “Kontra-Punkte” emerged with a far more conducive listening experience. One possible explanation is that, while Stockhausen had already accumulated a strong base of performance experience prior to composing “Kontra-Punkte,” in 1974 Grisey may still have been orienting himself with the basic physics of sonority and was just beginning to understand how to translate his insights into the domain of performance. This might explain why a 2012 performance of “Modulations,” the fourth movement of Les espaces acoustiques, by the San Francisco Symphony made for a more engaging experience.

The new pieces, on the other hand, were most impressive, particularly for the diversity of their responses. At one extreme there was an untitled free improvisation by John Ingle in which Ingle, on alto saxophone, was joined by Kyle Bruckmann on oboe, Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Brenden Lai-Tong on trombone, Benjamin Kreith on violin, and Monica Scott on cello. At the other end there was Bruckmann’s “Following Orders,” an almost machine-like onslaught of permutations applied to collections of pitches numbering in size from five to eleven. (The lack of composing with all twelve tones, so to speak, was emphasized by a calculated avoidance of concert C.)

At the other extreme Ingalls’ “kleines Stück” (which could be taken as German for “small package”) began by confining itself strictly to the A used for tuning. This struck me as a nod to one of Stockhausen’s explicitly humorous gestures. “Momente” begins by having the chorus applaud (immediately after the applause from the audience has silenced and the conductor has raised his/her baton). Similarly, the beginning of “kleines Stück” sounds as if the performers are tuning up, rather than actually starting the composition.

Scott seemed to turn her attention to the more general domain of sonority, rather than specific techniques of either Stockhausen or Grisey. “still smoking” was inspired by a recording of fourteenth-century counterpoint performed on three bass recorders. I suspect that the breathy quality of those instruments created a sort of fog through which the music itself was difficult to discern. Scott seemed to be searching for a similar effect from her cello, joined by Lai-Tong’s trombone and Ingalls on bass clarinet. This was then sharply contrasted by Burns’ “Color & Black,” which seemed to be all about the rhetoric of clearly articulated high energy.

I am not sure that any of these five pieces could be said to constitute a reflection on listening to Stockhausen and/or Grisey. Thus, the first half of the program did not necessarily serve as an “introduction” to the performances of these composers in the second half. Nevertheless, the original works established a foundation of contemporary music-making. Standing on that foundation, so to speak, the listener was well equipped to address how music was being made in the second half of the last century.