Short Stories is the overall title for the 2013–14 season of three BluePrint concerts given by Nicole Paiement’s New Music Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). The pervasive theme will involve the relationship between music and narrative, explored through a variety of both musical and literary genres. That season began last night in the SFCM Concert Hall with a program entitled Dracula.
This was also the title of the major (and final) work on last night’s program, a twenty-minute setting of Alfred Corn’s poem “My Neighbor, the Distinguished Count” composed by David Del Tredici for an ensemble of thirteen musicians and a soprano-narrator. The “voice” of the poem is that of a woman, who is first drawn into seduction and then transformed into a vampire. The musical performance was enhanced with staging by Brian Staufenbiel.
Del Tredici has a long-standing interest in the relationship between music and literature that goes beyond his many “Alice” compositions inspired by the two tales of Lewis Carroll. One can appreciate why that interest drew him to Corn’s poem. Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, after all, is structured as a compilation of “third-person narrations,” purporting to be based primarily on letters and diary entries. As a result, the reader only sees “the Count” as he is reflected by others. One can imagine that, in Corn’s poem, Del Tredici saw the potential to distill that narrative down to the reflections of a single third person. (This might be a good time to note that a familiar element of vampire legend is that they are not reflected in the image produced by a mirror.)
Staufenbiel came up with a highly imaginative staging requiring minimal props and a limited portion of the Concert Hall stage. The voice of the poem was delivered by a student soprano (with costume, makeup, and a head-mounted microphone) displaying a solid command of Del Tredici’s demanding virtuosity. All other performers were off to the side, intentionally beyond the focal area of the viewer in the audience. Selected portions of the text were realized as the voice of the Count himself coming through a loudspeaker.
The one difficulty with this presentation was that it was so compelling that, for most of the duration, it distracted from Del Tredici’s music. I was most aware of this during an interlude between the “scenes” of the text, during which I realized that Del Tredici was unfolding a rather appealing fugue. This led me to wonder what else I had missed by focusing so intently on the soprano. (I did not, however, miss Del Tredici’s unmistakable scoring of one of the concluding passages for theremin.) Thus, while Staufenbiel’s work served Corn’s text so well at every possible turn, it also managed to push the music into the background; and, as those fortunate enough to have experienced a performance of “Final Alice” know, Del Tredici definitely does not write background music!
At last night’s performance, Del Tredici’s “Dracula” was provided with an “overture” in the form of John Cage’s “Living Room Music,” also performed on the set that Staufenbiel had conceived. “Living Room Music” was composed in 1940, the same year as Cage’s second “construction” composition for an all-percussion ensemble. It is a suite of three short sections entitled “To Begin With,” “A Story,” and “To End With.” The middle section is for speaking voices, a rhythmic contrapuntal setting of the opening sentence from Gertrude Stein’s children’s book The World Is Round. The outer movements are short percussion pieces, similar to Cage’s “constructions” but performed on objects to be found in a living room. (That is the only specification given in the score.) Since Staufenbiel’s set was basically one of a living room, the decision to begin with Cage’s piece was inspired, even if the composer stood at a considerable distance in both space and time from Del Tredici. The performance was by the four percussionists in the “Dracula” ensemble, delivered in a politely hushed intimacy that enhanced one’s awareness of the living room setting.
The first half of the program was all music without staging. The major work was “Meanwhile: Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays” by Stephen Hartke, composed on a commission from eighth blackbird and inspired by several different genres of Asian puppet theater. Hartke was clearly drawn to the sonorities of those theatrical experiences, and his piece involves considerable imaginative use of percussion, including a rather ingeniously prepared piano. The score also requires that the strings of the viola be tuned a half-step lower. The sonorous implications of that detuning were most evident when open strings were involved.
In the pre-concert talk, Paiement described “Meanwhile” as a single-movement piece in six short sections. If that was the case, then Hartke may hold a record for composing some of the longest-sounding short sections in the literature. Each section was distinguished by a new approach to sonorous possibilities; but one came away feeling that each of those possibilities had been explored to excessive (if not exhaustive) length. While one could appreciate the novelty of Hartke’s inspiration and his approach to that inspiration, he never seemed to grasp when that novelty would no longer strike the listener as novel.
The evening began with seven songs by Tobias Picker performed by five vocal students, all accompanied by the same student pianist. San Francisco Opera has just completed its run of six performances of the world premiere of Picker’s fifth opera, Dolores Claiborne, based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King with a libretto by J. D. McClatchy. When I wrote about this production on this site, I was particularly struck by Picker’s “keen sense of narrative;” and I was also struck by how accommodating his music was to King’s “prose voice” as rendered by McClatchy.
I wish I could say the same about Picker’s approach to poetry, but I cannot do so on the basis of last night’s selection. I was still impressed by his sensitivity to sonority and the skill with which last night’s student pianist captured those sonorities on his keyboard. I was equally impressed by Picker’s approach to dissonance, often used in conjunction with bold leaps in the melodic line.
The problem was that all of these virtues emerged through what may as well have been abstract music that seemed to regard the texts as little more than syllables on which to hang the notes. Admittedly, his choice of sources tended to fall short of the selections he has made for his operas. The Rain in the Trees is a cycle of four poems by W. S. Merwin that amount to little more than the dime-story mysticism of that poet’s flirtations with Buddhism and various indigenous cultures. On the other hand, there were also selections of superior literary quality. “When We Meet Again” was a setting of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay in which the archest qualities of exaggerated high-born rhetoric are deftly shaped to conform to the structure of a Petrarchan sonnet.
When read aloud, Millay’s poem fools the reader into thinking she has written prose for a dramatic scene. (This is very much in the spirit of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” When it is properly read, the listener has no idea that these are rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter.) Yet, for all of his sensitivity to such dramatic scenes in his operas, Picker seems to have completely missed both what Millay was saying and how she was saying it.
Perhaps it was just as well that these disappointing treatments were dispensed with at the beginning of the evening and kept a substantial distance from Del Tredici’s more imaginative (and comprehending) approach to Corn’s poetry.