Last night the Friction Quartet (violinists Kevin Rogers and Otis Harriel, violist Taija Warbelow, and cellist Doug Machiz) performed a program of recent chamber music for strings featuring three of the composers of the Fifth Floor Collective (FFC). As I mentioned in my preview piece for this concert, FFC is a Boston-based consortium of four young composers, who met as students at the Boston Conservatory of Music. This made last night’s event Friction’s first “transcontinental collaboration.” The evening was hosted by FFC member Joseph M. Colombo, who now resides in San Francisco; and the performance took place at the Center for New Music.
Presumably, Colombo arranged the program, courteously saving his own music for the conclusion. Since it was preceded by three pieces, each of which was based on some form of narrative foundation, Colombo’s quartet stood out as the most abstract of the evening. It was structured in three movements without tempo markings indicated on the program sheet. However, the basic form consisted of two slow movements followed by an energetic conclusion.
In many respects this contrast of energy levels was a recurring theme of the evening. Another such theme was an imaginative respect for the individual melodic line and the interleaving of multiple lines through ensemble performance. For those who have followed past trends in contemporary music, this is a welcome relief from the onslaught of compositions so occupied with sonority that the very concept of theme was obviated by myriad techniques for eliciting unconventional sounds from strings and a bow. One could thus approach Colombo’s music in terms of a thematic repertoire, although both the statement and the development of those themes involved sufficient complexity that this was music that really deserved more than a single listening experience to be effectively grasped by mind. What mattered last night was the impression of controlled energy established by the Friction performance, thereby leaving the listener eager to get to know the piece better.
Colombo’s quartet was preceded by a set of variations on a theme, beginning with a Prelude, by Patrick Greene. The audience was told that the piece was structured around the events of a life cycle; and this was particularly evident in its approach to origin (the rather energetic Prelude) and the connotations of departure in the final variation. However, these rather sobering “bookends” enclosed some of the wittiest moments of the evening. The theme itself was delivered with deadpan simplicity, seeming to suggest the naïveté of the neonate. Each of the variations that followed had its own gentle suggestions of blundering, reminding us all that the ascent of the learning curve is never a smooth one. The entire composition was relatively short, and it was impressive how much it could connote about the path from birth to death in so little time.
The third FFC composer to be presented was Andrew Paul Jackson through the performance of the final (fourth) movement of his string trio “Simulacra.” The title comes from the philosophical writings of Jean Baudrillard, who believed that modern society had replaced the traditional semiotic elements of signs and symbols with simulations of reality. The four movements of Jackson’s trio were conceived to follow Baudrillard’s four stages of simulation. Thus, the motivating idea behind the movement performed last night was Baudrillard’s final stage of “pure” simulation, which may be grasped through the following quote from one of his writings:
The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth—it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.
There is, of course, the contention that making music about philosophy is like (in the words of Martin Mull) dancing about architecture. The above quote is representative of Baudrillard’s thorny style and his (prankish?) conviction that understanding can only be achieved when meaning is annihilated. It is also worth noting that his interest in simulation seems to have been significantly motivated by his jaundiced view of Americans who prefer simulation to reality in such institutions as Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Fortunately, none of this interferes with the musical merits of Jackson’s trio. The movement performed last night was an energetic declamation of a confident compositional voice. If there were any vestiges of imitation in the score, they were well concealed (or, perhaps, they had already been exercised in the first three movements). All that seemed to matter was that this music provided a lively introduction to the evening, given a stimulating delivery by Harriel, Warbelow, and Machiz.
Jackson’s movement was followed by the one composition not by an FFC member. California-based composer Mario Godoy was represented by his first string quartet. In this case the underlying narrative involved the opposition and alternation of action and reflection. The “action” movements had verb-based titles, “Cut and Run” and “Bait and Switch.” Each was followed by a reflective movement whose title was a question: “How Did It Come to This?” and “Where Do We Go From Here?,” respectively. Given what gets reported on the news every day, those reflective titles seem to have an almost painful immediate impact, particularly when one considers the selfish connotations of the titles of the action movements.
Nevertheless, Godoy’s quartet is not overly labored with political significance. It amounts to a more abstract reflection on the opposing dispositions of action and reflection, considered more in terms of the modulation of energy than for their cognitive implications. Friction gave a performance that seemed to appreciate the extent to which this composition was driven by a rhetoric of energy. As was the case with Colombo’s quartet, they gave an impressive account leaving the listener hoping for future such experiences.
I should also note again, in conclusion, that the recital was held at the Center for New Music. This was my first visit to this new venue, located on Taylor Street just above the Golden Gate Theatre. The space itself is still taking shape. We in the audience were informed that the performing area where we were sitting was the primary workspace during the day. Seating is on folding chairs, which are probably positioned according to the needs of each concert that is given. The room has a high ceiling; and the wall at the far end, which the audience faced last night, seems to have been the brick exterior of the adjoining building. The acoustics were as wonderful as the physical setting was accommodating, particularly where Friction’s attentiveness to detail was concerned. This is definitely a venue worth visiting.