Green Mill, October 31

A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is always absolutely valueless. –Oscar Wilde

Last Sunday’s Halloween concert at the Green Mill marks the beginning of the fourth season of “New Music at the Green Mill,” which grew out of concerts organized by the illustrious George Flynn, chairman of the composition department of DePaul University, who’s now on sabbatical to work on a new piano concerto. On the program were 14 new works by 11 (mostly local) composers. This was new classical music, and any one of the works would have sent the 220 S. Michigan audiences scurrying.

The concert was well attended. I was lucky enough to find a seat at one of the booths, but found myself standing occasionally to see over people. For the $2 cover one could put up with much worse.

The Green Mill is known mainly as a jazz club. It has a bohemian art-deco decor and suffers from an honestly earned stench of cigarettes and beer, even when it’s inhabited by an audience of fashionably health-conscious folks. It doesn’t seem to be the sort of place one would be likely to hear music conceived in the halls of academe.

The concert began with two works by John Austin. The first, Five Pieces for Oboe and Piano, was written in 1971, the oldest work on the program by far. Austin accompanied oboist Patricia Morehead. The second, perhaps newest work on the program was Aubade Heard on the Banks of the Maumee River (10-2-93) for solo piano. Austin informed us before he played the work that it was written as an occasional piece for a friend’s wedding and that his friend fortuitously had the initials D and A. He added that the date of the affair, October 2, 1993, could be understood as a series of intervals (tenth, second, ninth, and third) and that the Maumee River had inspired a certain intervallic leitmotif.

This sort of number play, called gematria, is hardly new. J.S. Bach employed an entire number alphabet, in which BACH is expressed by the number 14, while 29 represents J.S.B. and S.D.G., or Soli Deo Gloria (“only for the glory of God”), with which Bach signed many of his pieces. The extent to which he used gematria is astonishing, and musicologists have had great fun trying to decipher the master’s references. Siegmund Helms writes that in the Saint Matthew Passion as many as 55 of the 78 compositions use gematria. For example, numbers assigned to the letters in the title of the chorale “Erkenne Mich Mein Hirte” total 194, the number of notes sung in the four parts in the work.

Of course Bach did this for his own amusement and didn’t expect his listeners to sit counting notes. He was able to express his ideas through the common language of tonality. But Austin, who works in a world with no common harmonic language, gambols with intervals for their own sake.

When Arnold Schoenberg hoisted the anchor of tonality early in this century and we were set adrift, many composers looked to the mathematical rigor of serialism. After World War II the scientific approach to writing music was accorded enough respectability that universities began to give PhDs to such composers. Ernest Krenek wrote, “What looks ahead subordinates itself to number.” This intellectualization of music was as different as possible from the attitude of, for example, Maurice Ravel, who wrote that the intellect must always be the servant of the heart. To a true modernist of the late 20th century, such as DePaul’s George Flynn, there’s no difference between the impulses of the head and heart.

Noticeable by its absence at the concert was any music resembling minimalism. Unnoticeable though absent was music with a sense of humor (we’ve been taught not to expect it in new works). This is at least in part due to the cloistering of new music in academia, where seriousness is rewarded and humor is rightly suspected of being subversive. The strongest impression left by the afternoon’s varied fare was that many of these young composers want desperately to communicate passionately, but are constrained by their lack of a language and in some cases by the pressure to conform to academic dogma.

How else to explain the presence of not one, but four performance artists, three listed as composers? They were Sandra Binion, Gwynne Winsberg, Janice Misurell-Mitchell (who teaches at DePaul), and Barbara Paloumpis. In Letters Binion recited 11 letters, most from a famous person to a less famous friend: from Frida Kahlo to Dr. Eloessner, from Janet Flanner to Natalia Danesi Murray. (It wasn’t at all clear why the letters had been chosen, other than that they were written by someone famous.) The reading was accompanied by mournful single lines from the piano, played by Frank Abbinanti, who told us this is a conceptual work exuding “fragmentized intellectuality that Jacques Derrida would enjoy.” This pretentious work was originally intended for five people and was to be accompanied by slides; it may have suffered for their absence. Thankfully, it was chopped into four segments and interspersed with other works.

More exciting was Winsberg’s Songs From Hell, in which she tells us she’s only 27 years old, believes her sister’s poisoning her, and is being taken to Saint Joseph’s Hospital. Winsberg, who performed with Morehead, combined synthesized sounds with those of old-fashioned instruments on tape, and her inspired choices included oboes, timpani, and three piccolos. She also used other electronic devices, including echo, to great advantage. Clearly she enjoys the richness and complexity of electronic sounds. You don’t need to know anything about the inability of serialism or other contrivances to offer a viable alternative to tonality. You don’t even have to read music to “write” it now.

Misurell-Mitchell paid homage to 50s jazz and John Cage in her Scat/Rap Counterpoint, sung by Cubette, who was accompanied by Damon Short on percussion. Misurell-Mitchell gives us lyrics with painfully obvious lines, such as “John Cage said we’re all composers. . . . If you’re a composer, you’ve got the choices.” And she combines words with scat syllables that sometimes coagulate into words: “Don’t dis me, don’t dis dat, do-de-dodecacophony.” (Or did I add a syllable?) The piece ended with a call from Cubette for the audience to join in, though it seemed apparent she didn’t intend us to take her seriously. We didn’t. But her asking drew attention to itself. Why had she asked if not to cause us to notice the lack of communication left in the wake of modernism?

Fragmentations, by Jean-Paul Bottemanne, was dark, pointillistic, and affectedly cerebral. The program notes described it as exploring “the durational opposites of the relatively free aleatoric movements and fully notated segments.” This sort of gobbledygook is designed to obfuscate. Why is any old aleatoric (chance) movement necessarily a “durational opposite” (I assume that means it lasts either longer or shorter) of a fully notated segment?

Most interesting was the performance of Six Improvisations by composer and pianist Sebastian Huydts. Huydts, who’s 27, hails from the Netherlands, where he studied at the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam, and is here to study with John Eaton at the University of Chicago. Unlike most of the pieces on the program, his works used steady pulses (with even, not swung, beats), dynamic shading, and clear, though far from simple, harmonies. In short, the works were very old-fashioned. Huydts said that all his material is tonally related, sometimes arising from a “gravity point.” Only one of the six pieces has been written out; the others were performed as “guided improvisations.”

Nearly all the great composers have been, if not virtuoso pianists, sufficiently versed in keyboard harmony to allow them to improvise at the piano. Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart were all excellent improvisers. When atonal thinking found a home in universities and tonality was no longer stressed by classical composers as relevant to our time, this tradition ended. Except in jazz. Jazz composers learned a great deal about harmony from the classical composers who wrote at the end of the tonal period, such as Ravel and Stravinsky. When tonality fell out of favor in academe, the jazz world went on innovating. So it comes as no surprise that Huydts studied with his father, a jazz pianist and the director of the Amsterdam School of the Arts. Huydts’s musical voice may be quite conservative, but his ideas are exciting.

Now serialism and even its successors have lost their hold. Composers are at sea, searching for some direction. For some it’s the play of numbers, for others it’s extramusical devices, words, new kinds of sounds. For Huydts there’s the possibility of synthesizing contemporary ideas with a very old tradition.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.