The new music collective Wild Rumpus sees itself as a resource through which emerging composers can develop new works through close collaboration with performers. In the context of the New Voices project initiated jointly by Boosey & Hawkes, the New World Symphony, and the San Francisco Symphony in May of 2012, this may be seen as a departure from the more conventional “birth cycle” of a new composition, involving the commissioning of a composer, the act of composition by that composer (without necessarily engaging with the source of the commission), and bringing the result to an ensemble to prepare for performance. The collaborative ideology of Wild Rumpus prioritizes the concept of “making music” by creating a situation in which a new work may arise from the efforts of many “makers.”
My first encounter with Wild Rumpus was a concert of five world premieres held in June of 2012. One of my speculations on that occasion was whether or not the audiences could not also have been brought into the collaborative loop. Five new works in one evening made for more than a bit of cognitive overload. I was left wondering whether or not the serious listener would ever be able to enjoy the same advantage given to a composer working more directly with the performers.
Last night Wild Rumpus brought their most recent efforts to the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church. What made the deepest impression, even before the performance began, was that they had prepared a program that had dialed back on the brand new. There was only one world premiere, “Incompatible(s) VI” by Nicolas Tzortzis. However, there was also a reprise of a work given at that concert in June of 2012, “O…What an Awakening” by Yao Chen. The remainder of the program then provided a context for these two products of “the Wild Rumpus process,” covering examples of modernism that reached back to 1947 (Morton Feldman’s vocal solo “Only”) and advanced up to “Trash TV Trance,” an electric guitar solo by Fausto Romitelli. In addition the performers took some time to talk about what they were presenting, providing a useful supplement to the material in the program book.
In this context the experience of listening to “O…What an Awakening” was probably the most revelatory, thus reinforcing my conviction that the best thing to be done with a composition receiving its first performance is to make sure that it gets a second performance. This piece made the heaviest use of Wild Rumpus resources, requiring six performers (soprano Vanessa Langer, flutist Amy Sedan, clarinetist Sophie Huet, violinist Otis Harriel, cellist Joanne de Mars, and pianist Margaret Halbig) led by a conductor (Nathaniel Berman). (Berman had conducted the first performance, but some of the performers had changed.)
Like many of the works on last night’s program, “O…What an Awakening” had a strong theatrical element. Musically, it amounted to an effort to reconceive everyday sounds through instrumental and vocal resources. However, the visual impressions of the discipline through which those resources captured material that was originally spontaneous were clearly part of the audience experience. One was thus drawn into a world that was neither mundane nor crafted according to some elaborate plan, a world in which the audience could experience the “making process” with greater intimacy. That intimacy was then challenged by a silence that intrudes upon the sounds themselves but not on the physical motions of the performers (somewhat in the spirit of the “visual” cadenza Alfred Schnittke wrote for his fourth violin concerto, which is all motions and no sound).
In this context of the power of listening for the second time, so to speak, I can confess that Tzortzis’ world premiere was less accessible. This, too, was as much theater as it was musical performance. It involved spoken text in German, French, and English, not all of which was spoken clearly. Harpist Carla Fabris appeared to assume the roles of two characters, a cooking teacher and a child student; and she performed in such a way that tone of voice tended to communicate more than the words themselves. The rest of the ensemble, Harriel, de Mars, and Huet (this time on bass clarinet), appeared to be observers inserting occasional comments, both verbally and musically.
I thus came away feeling as if my experience of Tzortzis’ composition had been too limited. It is thus worth observing that this piece is actually a part of a more extended musical theater performance (hence the Roman numeral in the title). Whether or not the entire conception has been realized was not mentioned in the program book. Indeed, Tzortzis’ prepared comments there were both vague and confusing, leading one to believe that this particular new piece was part of a work whose entirety has not been fully realized. Nevertheless, observing Fabris do double duty as harpist and actress (performing two parts) was fascinating; and it left me wondering just what sort of whole might eventually emerge from a part like this.
Four of the “context-setting” works on the program were solos. The most fascinating of these was Langer’s performance of “Only,” Morton Feldman’s setting of an English translation of the 23rd poem in Rainer Maria Rilke’s collection Sonette an Orpheus (sonnets to Orpheus). Feldman was introduced (in the program book) through his work with John Cage in what came to be known as the New York School; but “Only” was composed in 1947, several years before he met Cage. At that time his composition teachers had been Wallingford Riegger and Stefan Wolpe. This, too, was music with a theatrical element: One got the impression that Feldman knew this poem through reciting it and that the music emerged as a new way to express that recitation.
A much different approach to text was taken by Jon Deak’s “Metaphor,” particularly since it was a solo cello performance (by de Mars). In this case the source was a passage from Willa Cather’s novel My Antonia. Deak recast the prose in verse form, providing an alternative verbal framework not that different from the one taken by the English version of Rilke’s text. In this case, however, the pitch contours of the “reciting voice” were translated into melodic contours for the cello, making the music an “instrumental metaphor” for both the sounds of a voice reading the text and the natural sounds described in that text.
Sedan’s performance of Toru Takemitsu’s flute solo “Air” had its own metaphorical allusions. After all, the flute can only sound through the controlled flow of air; and Sedan was required to modulate that flow in order to realize specific sonorities, rather than just a melodic line. This was the opening selection on the program; and, in keeping with the Wild Rumpus agenda, it did much to focus the listening mind on music that depends critically on the processes of making it.
Romitelli’s “Trash TV Trance,” performed on electric guitar by Dan VanHassel, was also a “process” composition. It involved eliciting a broad range of sonorities through both different ways to playing the instrument and a variety of electronic circuits (some of which seemed to have an unmistakable analog hum). There were many connotations of rock styles (making last night’s performance appropriate for the opening day of the film Metallica: Through the Never); but this was music with its own logic, grammar, and rhetoric. While much of it was fascinating, it could have done with a keener awareness of the value of brevity.
The program concluded with a performance by Sedan, de Mars, and Halbig of Kaija Saariaho’s “Cendres” (cinders). Her own notes wrote of her effort to bring the sonorities of these three instruments (flute, cello, and piano) into close similarity and then let them separate. One could thus appreciate how one instrument might stand as an “auditory pun” for another. I have written on my national site about Saariaho’s perceptive study of the nature of sound itself, taking particular advantage of both the facilities and staff at the Institute de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM, institute for acoustical-musical research and coordination), where she was heavily influenced by the spectral music work of Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail. While many of Saariaho’s compositions have explored innovative sonorities in an orchestral setting, “Cendres” demonstrated her skill at applying those same insights to chamber music.