Reviewing New Music Is Hard, Part 1

In two parts!

Part the First:

Allan Kozinn has a piece up in the Times reviewing a new music concert by the ensemble Either/Or.

Kozinn, largely, does an admirable job, as music this new (in this case, all post-1986, and mostly composed 2002-2009) sometimes has unique or challenging ideas, sounds, forms...you get the idea. The problem for the critic becomes, then, a mixture of description (which is more or less unnecessary for standard repertoire reviews, although often practiced), taking the pieces on their own merits, or within whatever parameters they seem to demand, and forming some sort of opinion about what was played.

This differs from a review of better-known pieces, both because the idioms might be new or experimental, and also because the reviewer may well not have any other performances of the music to compare to the concert at hand.

So what's up, Mr. Kozinn?

Ensemble That Plays by Its Own Rules

Oof. That is an inauspicious start, title-composing editor person. So trite, and yet so inapt. The Ensembles Union will likely have their heads!

Either/Or, the new-music ensemble...

Look. I understand this hyphen usage, but it's stupid. This construction just took the 4:30 autogyro to the Prussian consulate in Siam.

Figure 1: Now you're on the trolley!

"New music ensemble" is a perfectly cromulent and comprehensible construction. Even if there was a newly-formed group disussed in the article, surely it would not be referred to as a new "music ensemble." "Music ensemble" is sort of like "land cow."

Bah. Enough with the Simpsons references.

Either/Or, the new-music ensemble formed in 2004 by the composer and pianist Richard Carrick and the percussionist David Shively, is devoted to a species of avant-garde composition in which concepts like tonality, serialism and Minimalism are beside the point.

Why does "Minimalism" get capitalized? Screw you, serialism!

More importantly, calling those concepts "beside the point" seems...not quite right. The sense is that, perhaps, they are just in a larger set of expanded points, so their importance or interest is only diminished in that there are other concerns at least as well-explored.

Or am I quibbling? Don't get me wrong; I like quibbling, but not when I'm trying to really make a point.

The point being that, although I am not sure I like the way it is put, Kozinn seems to have a good idea of how to approach such music. His open-mindedness is surely appreciated, around these parts at least.

This is a world where pure sound and texture are of greater interest than form and syntax.

Again, more properly perhaps they are of equal interest as form and syntax. However, as a composer friend always argues given such propositions, Mozart is totally also about "pure sound and texture" as much as he is about form and syntax. So, uh, there you have it.

That’s not to say that form and syntax are outlawed,

That would be tough. Anything of any duration, especially if it can be considered to be in more than one part or section, has form. Also, were they outlawed, who would enforce this law and punish the transgressors thereof? The syntax police?

but works in the Either/Or repertory are just as likely to be governed by game theory as by standard notions of musical structure.

Fair enough, and enough quibbling.

The ensemble presented its annual spring festival on Saturday evening at the Tenri Cultural Institute in Manhattan, and if it was a modest offering — just a concert really — it did provide a good overview of what these musicians find compelling.

The "festival" was a modest, compelling concert. The musicians programmed music that they like to write, play, and hear.

In addition to Mr. Carrick and Mr. Shively (who also played musical saw and harmonium), the group included Jennifer Choi, the violinist, and Michael Ibrahim, the saxophonist.

The lack of hyphens makes it clear that Mr. Shively was not in fact playing the musical saw-and-harmonium.

Now, on to the meat course:

The most immediately striking work was Helmut Lachenmann’s “Toccatina” (1986).

Here is a video (at the Detritus Hall) where you can see/hear the same violinist, Jennifer Choi, perform this piece (she's awesome, by the way). Turn it up, y'all, the thing is very, very quiet. Please watch/listen to the piece (it's only about four minutes), then read the review below.

The title suggests the old Baroque form, a free fantasy meant to show a player’s virtuosity, but is also a play on the word toccata, which comes from the verb “to touch.”

Lachenmann experimented extensively with novel ways of producing sound from traditional instruments. It was sort of his "thing" for a while. [He's cool-ed.] Although this piece is from 1986, this sort of idea has been around for a while. Henry Cowell wrote a book called New Musical Resources in 1930. It's very cool, and kind of technical, so it's also useful.

Figure 2: Henry Cowell plays the piano

Scored for solo violin, the piece asks the performer to touch the instrument in atypical ways. Notes are first articulated, softly, by tapping the string with the screw of the bow. The bow’s wood is used too, and when the horsehair comes into play, it glides along the string tonelessly, producing a breathy, whispered sound.

This is a pretty good description of what goes on, no? There is no overt judgment, but Kozinn seems to like or at least admire the piece (unlike some later in the review).

But this was not just an exercise in odd techniques and sound effects.

I thought this was "new-music"! Can't you just do a bunch of crazy crap? No?!

Mr. Lachenmann gives the violin an attractive, amusing line, with short, alluring melodies, and Ms. Choi proved exceptionally nimble.

Hm. I would agree that the violin "line" (such as it is) is amusing, and perhaps attractive. Are there really "melodies" though? At what point does a sucession of discrete pitches constitute a melody?

Also, I think that, far from outlawed, or beside-the-point, the form of the piece is really very clear.

So: melody and form, I think, are both being interrogated in some way by the Lachenmann piece (as well as instruments being a repository of possible sounds, not necessarily the ones we expect). Kozinn identifies something he calls "melodies," do we agree? What about the form of the piece, or other elements?

Clearly, this was a short review and space was limited. And I think it's sensitive to the demands of the music, and in that sense well-approached. The other, newer pieces, were not always treated so kindly, but of course that could be justified.

Part the Second, and the rest of the article, tomorrow.


Marc Geelhoed said...

I have to disagree with you on the hyphen point. The general reader would read "new music ensemble" as being a group that had only recently been formed. "New-music ensemble" makes the meaning clear that this group plays music that is new. When you write "newly-formed," you're missing the rule that says that adverbs don't get hyphens, by the way. Adjectives yes, adverbs no.

Gustav said...

Lachenmann's music isn't always easy to approach, so I find Mr. Kozinn's review quite serviceable (as it seems you do as well, SA). But your point about underplaying the role of form and syntax (I'm note sure how you'd notate a piece like this without syntax) is right on. Clearly this piece is a carefully planned work in which each "melody" and "odd techniques and sound effects" serves a purpose of the work at large. That's form.

However, I might quibble over the idea that Mozart's music is as much "pure sound and texture" as form and syntax. If he had broken away from traditional (and highly predictable) forms and syntax more often then I might consider it.

Sator Arepo said...

Hm, my other comment seems to have gotten lost. Something about the hyphens. And "newly-formed" was supposed to be sly and clever. Oh, well.

About the Mozart example, Gustav, I guess what I mean is that even a well-known staple, say, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, could have the same form, syntax, and tune but without careful (I guess, well-crafted or clever) orchestration and registration that is part of the piece's charm. Something like that?

As for Webern, for example, it seems that his music, despite being highly syntactical, can be (is?) often enjoyed/understood from a gestural, timbral, "pure sound" sort of listening.

The Lachenmann is similar in this respect, so I agree with your assessment.