Last week, Steve Smith of the NY Times wrote a nice article about a Boston new music ensemble called Xanthos. It’s called:

Modernism, Rapid-Fire or Dreamy

But don’t go and read it yet. Hold on a sec.

…Xanthos Ensemble of Boston, which came to Roulette in SoHo on Saturday night with a program featuring works by three uncompromising modernists: Pierre Boulez, Mario Davidovsky and Charles Wuorinen. And in the hands of musicians so copiously skilled and confident, this undeniably challenging music had genuine appeal.

Yes! Challenging, appealing music! Hooray!

That Mr. Boulez is modern music’s foremost voluptuary is no secret. Much of his ensemble music seems as much descended from the gauzy Impressionism of Debussy and the instrumental brilliance of Ravel as from any modernist vein. “Dérive I,” a brief work scored for the now-standard “Pierrot”-plus configuration — flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion — was a brief, intoxicating cloud of trills and flutters.

I’m not entirely sure what “modern music’s foremost volupturary” means (and my Google search for that phrase returned zero results), so I’m not sure that it’s no secret. The sentiment, though, is welcome, and tracing Boulez to Debussy is something all-too-infrequently done.

I also like the image of a “brief, intoxicating cloud”. Sounds like we’re smokin’!

Equally mysterious if less outright sensual was Mr. Davidovsky’s “Flashbacks,” in which sharp eruptions and skittering figures repeatedly rupture a placid rumination. The percussion part makes daunting demands of its player with its rapid-fire alternations of timbre and technique. George Nickson handled the role with ease and flair.

I am a sucker for alliteration.

Most appealing of all was Mr. Wuorinen’s “New York Notes,” in which six players mix and match in a cheerfully choreographed bustle. The opening movement is filled with jazzy rhythms and snatches of nostalgic melody. A throaty cello monologue in the second movement is followed by a passage in which flute and violin curl seductively around a lonely clarinet. In the final movement, a wild barrage of impressions, you can’t help but be swept away by Mr. Wuorinen’s giddy thrill in writing for virtuoso players.

Wuorinen: serialist holdout. You know, for those people who claim that “nobody writes 12-tone music” at all ever anymore, and why would they, blah blah blah.

Among four newer pieces, only Derek Charke’s “What Do the Birds Think?” could be said to extend the modernist tradition. The work’s animated outer movements call for a catalog of unorthodox expressive techniques. In between, an onstage trio (alto flute with muted violin and cello) is juxtaposed with an offstage duo (bass clarinet and percussion). While physical separation was impossible here, the layered sounds still proved fascinating.

Sounds great! What else?

In Daniel Knaggs's "Three Nature Songs," a premiere, the soprano Jennifer Ashe sang sweet, airy melodies accompanied by instrumental impressions of chirping birds and croaking frogs. "Aria IV," bu Pozzi Escot, had Ms. Ashe ritualistically intoning vowels over a droning flute and tinkle of finger cymbals. Donald Hagar's playful "I Am Not a Clock" alternated between bustling, mechanical rhythms and slow, dreamy interludes.

Actually, Escot’s piece sounds like it “extend[s] the modernist tradition”, too. But, whatever.

Why am I writing about this? It was a great review. It treated the pieces fairly, and on their own merits. It was well-written with lots of style.


Because I omitted the beginning of the first paragraph, reproduced below:

The word has been out for decades now: The bug-eyed monster of musical modernism is vanquished. Try telling that to the young, accomplished members of the Xanthos Ensemble…

Why? Why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why why?

Why begin a wonderful review of young, scrappy, new music-advocating players playing new music you liked and reviewed well by reiterating old-hack adages about the death of dumb old “bug-eyed monster” modernism?


Aargh! “Everyone knows modernism sucks/sucked, but here’s my review of some modern music that was actually good!”?

Besides reinforcing damnable and clichéd stereotypes, it undermines the article before it even begins.



Aaron said...

Pure speculation:

As DR has exhaustively documented, lots of people don't like and don't want to read about, let alone listen to, modernist music. A surprising number of these people seem to be editors at major national publications. Perhaps Mr. Smith threw in that unfortunate beginning to his review as a sop to whichever modernist-despising editor it is he needs to please to keep his gig reviewing music for the Times.

As I said, that's pure speculation, and it's pretty sad if it's even close to the truth, but as you point out it undermines everything else in the review, and I don't imagine it's in there accidentally.

Sator Arepo said...


I mean, I understand the set-up-and-knock-down the straw man construction. But seriously, how unnecessary was that? I read the whole thing again without the beginning, and was much happier.

You might be right about the editor, who knows?

Empiricus said...

Sometimes it feels like this is what critics do: "Here reader, here's some modernist trash. Waits...waits some more... (to Editor) Are they gone? Good. Now I can write whatever, right?"

Empiricus said...

By the way, Mr. Rambler,

Thanks for the link and thanks for not including us in your "thinkers" section. It's a perfect fit.



Anonymous said...

Ha! No worries.

Steve Smith said...

To be perfectly honest, my intent -- intro and everything -- was to convey snarky scorn at the very notion that modernism is dead. That being the case, I guess I failed! But genuine thanks for the kind words. It was a terrific concert.

Sator Arepo said...

Greetings Mr. Smith,

We *do* like your work. If I took your intended snark to be a straw-man construction, well, one or both of us is...failing. Alas, alack.

Perhaps my modernism-hating radar is set too high...? There is certainly far too much of it going around.

Anyhow, good article on the whole. I am glad to know you're not a modernist-hater.

Thanks for reading and your work.