When a performance of new music is as thoughtful and joyful as that by the Quince and Color Field Ensembles this past Good Friday, it’s easier to focus on the relationship between a composition and its realization, to hear interpretation as a kind of listening. An evening’s program appears more whole. One little piece taken from a young John Cage’s Living Room Music, “Story” (1940), based upon a text by Gertrude Stein, seemed to capture much of what was happening on that warm evening in full blown spring, the dark first night of Passover: “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.”
Cage would have been 27 or 28 when the piece was premiered. Written for percussion ensemble but entirely dependent upon careful voices, the piece lends itself to flat performances. The mighty clarity of Liz Pearse’s first intonations made it clear that this would not be one of those. The Quince Ensemble had already demonstrated a towering dexterity by performing Lisa Bielawa’s anxious syncopated canons in her paranoiac setting of another Stein text, “The Boat” (1998). In “Story,” Kayleigh Butcher and Aubrey von Almen contributed unassuming, deliberate articulations of the wincing ticks so badly overblown by other performers. Flawless rhythm and nuanced articulations drew attention to musical characteristics that can be ignored when expression is valued over the physicality of a musica practica, a situation Roland Barthes once bemoaned in an essay of that title. “Animans” by Andrew Martin Smith, a trio for saxophone, clarinet, and soprano performed by James Fusik, Christopher Culp, and Amanda DeBoer spaced the voices out across the stage so as to emphasize relationships between disparate characteristics. Even what seemed to be the tiniest distinctions between ten found sounds became vibrant details in Benjamin Fraley’s and Karl Larson’s performance of a work by Stuart Saunders-Smith; as the title of that piece explains, “When Music is Missing, Music Sings” (1985).
The point was really brought home for me by a trio of duets featuring Fusik on saxophone. “Grab It” (1994/2004) by Jacob ter Veldhuis for tenor saxophone and tape sets different sounds against a powerfully narrow pallet of repetitive but rhythmically complex variations on profanity, playing on some of the different ways sounds blend and clash. In Giacinto Scelsi’s “Canti del Capricorno” (1972), Fusik and DeBoer showed off an intelligent craft in a work that explores the widest variety of shades and sounds with the smallest number of instruments and players, a Scelsi specialty.
In Philippe Leroux’s “Hommage à Grisey” (1999), the dramatic possibilities of the voice and saxophone pairing were on full display (I hope to hear more from DeBoer and Fusik). Standing far apart, the performers worked through sections of alternating articulations in stereophony. One of the most difficult things involved in talking about new music is its tendency to subvert the aesthetic of inhuman perfection in a phonographic world. New music often calls attention to the physical limitations of the most skilled performers and their instruments, and in this piece the voice seemed to set up challenging articulations that the saxophone strained to mimic, at times exceeding by falling just short. Adolph Sax could hardly have imagined that such a range of sounds would ever be available on an instrument that to this day still is not designed to meet the demands of flexible music. The saxophone inscribed a fragile, distant hearing of the voice’s seemingly effortless articulations. The frays and tatters are no doubt sounds that Fusik tries to polish away, and part of what made the piece work so well is his access to an exceptionally wide palate of articulations and techniques. Yet the limits were there as a serendipitous remainder, as the body and instrument engaged in an impossible task.
Perhaps the best new music strains more toward impossibilities than perfection; this might help to explain the exaltation of hearing a springtime concert featuring skilled artists enjoying the youthful bloom of their first years as mature performers. This was a full program with too many successful performances to describe in the space of a blog, including world premiers of works by Jonathan Sokol, Maria Grigoryeva, and Amanda Feery. My point is this: Cage would have been 27 or 28 when he composed “Story,” but the depth of his musicality was already evident. The spring equinox was on my mind as the concert concluded with some delightful arrangements of traditional songs featuring the startling changes of Jeff Weston’s double bass. It seemed to me that the program offered not so much the first signs of spring peeking out from beneath a melting snow, as a field of cherry blossoms come alive, a vision of summer’s daylight, autumn’s harvest, winter’s darkening comfort, and around and around.