at Cafe Voltaire

May 2

For much of the first half of this century composers worked hard to emancipate themselves from the shackles of tonality. Encouraged by Schoenberg’s example, they more or less succeeded in discarding the conventions of the classical style. But after liberation what? While Schoenberg and his followers came up with serialism, others struck out in different directions. But for all the hybrids and new ideas–from John Cage’s aleatorics to electronic music to compromises such as neoclassicism and neo-expressionism–none rivals the aesthetic and emotional satisfaction offered by the classical style at its finest. Nevertheless, the move away from tonal anchors–from traditional harmony and melody–has resulted in a fascinating phenomenon: instruments producing sounds that would have astounded even Schoenberg. The piano, for example, can be turned into a versatile percussion instrument whose strings are plucked, caressed, tuned differently. By allowing instruments to be used so unconventionally, the composer relies heavily on the performer to embellish the intended sonic (and perhaps musical) effects. For the first time since the Renaissance the instrumentalist is given real leeway to improvise and shape a performance.

Two concerts last month made idiosyncratic explorations of the instrumental palette, mostly by European composers, their main focus. As part of the New Music Chicago Festival, CUBE, the freewheeling and ever-so-busy collective, offered a long program in the funky basement of Cafe Voltaire, a new addition to the city’s venues for contemporary music (Green Mill is another; a concert of recent works will take place there this Sunday afternoon). I arrived late–the concert having started promptly at 10 PM–and caught only the tail end of Stravinsky’s Duos for Two Flutes. These transcribed excerpts from The Rake’s Progress and The Five Fingers were energetically performed by Caroline Pittman and Janice Misurell-Mitchell. (I regret that I also missed Le merle noir by Oliver Messiaen, a true pioneer who died two weeks ago at age 83.) Design One for solo oboe (1983) by Patricia Morehead followed. A brief showcase of extended techniques, this piece has the oboe emitting a series of sounds that brought to mind a caboose and a yodeler. Morehead gets points for playing her instrument without a hint of self-consciousness.

Atreju for flute and guitar is a 1990 piece by Violeta Dinescu, who, commentator Frank Abbinanti pointed out, has already written three major operas in her native Romania. The instrumental pair behaves like a liberated couple: the guitar provides discreet support to a rather vainglorious flute. The overall mood is laid-back, with the flute purring occasionally and the guitar tapping in adoration. In this performance, which made the most of the thin music, Pittman was gently accompanied by Jeffrey Kust on guitar. Jeffrey Miller’s Melange for solo oboe (1987) is a standard-issue display vehicle in which the oboe (Morehead) is a termagant without a cause. I suspect the original instrumentation, for soprano sax, might be slightly more interesting given its darker sonority.

The title of Thomas Eastwood’s Uirapuru for flute and guitar (1984), Kust explained, is the Indian name for an Amazonian bird prized for its alleged aphrodisiac powers by hunters. At first the flute is fancy-free, twirling with abandon. Then the guitar enters ominously, and the chase is on. The tempo picks up, and the bird is finally killed and flutters to the ground. Largely tonal, this piece is a crowd pleaser in the vein of a Stravinsky ballet. (One tune was bowdlerized for an Eric Idle commercial.) No unconventional moves were required of either instrument, but Pittman and Kust were again adroit dazzlers.

In Bruno Maderna’s Dialodia (1972) the flute and oboe sing in tandem in jazzily syncopated rhythms. The breathier they get, the more nonchalant they seem. To heighten the reedy sounds, Pittman and Morehead not only blew into their instruments but also breathed into the mouthpieces–in ways forbidden any orchestra player. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Tierkreis (1976), which concluded the first of CUBE’s three sessions, is his musical interpretation of the signs of the zodiac. The orchestration is flexible; here flute and guitar (Pittman and Kust again) were used in the traditional manner, though the music was mostly atonal. Two movements, “Leo” and “Scorpio,” were excerpted, but don’t look for programmatic music from Stockhausen of all composers. Both pieces are terse and engaging, with a certain contrived naivete about them.

CUBE’s second set began with Tellur for solo guitar (1977) by Tristan Murail, a French composer who has worked with Pierre Boulez. Ostensibly taking the flamenco performing tradition as a reference, this flamboyant showpiece does just about everything one can do with a guitar. In a striking solo turn, Kust got to pluck, strum, tap (on the body and neck), and even scratch his guitar. The soundscape created was exhilarating, but virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake becomes tedious after a while. In contrast, Luciano Berio’s Sequenza for solo flute was subdued and old-fashioned (it’s dated 1958, the oldest work on the program). Though staccato and insistent at times, the flute mainly swoops and swoons–and never quite goes out on a limb. Janice Misurell-Mitchell handled the arabesques with grace. Im Freundschaft (“In Friendship”) by Stockhausen (1977) features an oboe with many moods. The music starts out pulsating, then turns into rhapsodic whispers, then swiftly utters alternately desultory and swaggering phrases. There seems to be a motif, but it’s never quite articulated. Finally the oboe launches into a shrill outcry and stops. Patricia Morehead’s oboe made a fairly convincing actress.

The most eccentric moment of the first two sessions was provided by Peter Maxwell Davies’s Solita for flute with optional music box. The flute acts like a ruminating wanderer, given to trills and clicks at times. Though atonal, the music follows a sonata contour, and a lot of extended techniques–unconventional fingering, etc, well handled by Misurell-Mitchell–are used on the flute. Then the music box is turned on, and it plays a kitschy anachronistic tune. The flute, though still caught in its own atonal utterances, begins to respond in counterpoint. Gradually, as the box begins to wind down, the two converge in an unlikely duet that grinds to a halt. Davies was crafty in juxtaposing a mechanical toy with a live performer, predetermined music with improvisation, inane melody with atonal outbursts. Indeed, in his brave new world, why shouldn’t a music box be an instrument too?


April 15

Several CUBE members were also featured performers in the most recent of the Goethe-Institut’s occasional concerts introducing Europe’s avant-garde. One of its chief aims was to show how some European composers have carried forward folk performing practices.

Murail’s Tellur had its local premiere here. Dal Niente (“From Nothing”), second on the program, is by Helmut Lachenmann, who, according to commentator Frank Abbinanti, “shapes noises to convey the irrational and believes that the physical act of playing is the discourse.” The discourser in this case is an amplified B-flat clarinet that “contorts” fragments of medieval madrigals. The fleeting phrases and eerie echoes are microtones produced inside the clarinet’s cavity and through its bell. Sometimes intaken air becomes part of the “music,” helping to create resonating wails, moans, and groans. Anthony Burr made the most of this difficult score, but the overall impression bordered on dreary self-indulgence.

Lachenmann is thoroughly modern in his treatment of the clarinet; English composer Michael Finnissy, in his Enek for solo violin, borrows extensively from the Gypsy style of playing and then adds his own spin. The quasi-Hungarian melody (Enek is Hungarian for song) is dense, with vague suggestions of a sinuous oriental mode. Katherine Hughes fiddled like an intellectual Stephane Grappelli, making the most of this languid exotica. Atem, by the Argentine-born, Cologne-based Mauricio Kagel, is designed for any instrument in combination with prerecorded tape. At this performance a bass clarinet was the instrument–though it soon became clear that the taped assemblage of sounds was the star. The sequence on tape began with rhythmic tapping, then gave way to street noises, which were followed by snoring and breathing of assorted intensities that ended in bellows (hence the title, which means “breathe”). The clarinet of course is an instrument one breathes into. Played by Gene Coleman, it seemed mired in some existential funk; its bluesy mood was intermittently interrupted by shrill outbursts from a kazoo and later a soprano clarinet. A longtime advocate of indeterminacy in music, Kagel left it up to the performer to chart the meandering course of two unrelated streams of consciousness. Coleman was a good pilot in a rather senseless enterprise.

Much more purposeful is Luigi Nono’s Post-Praeludium per Donau, a 1987 sketch for his large-scale opera Prometheus. Scored for an unlikely pair, tuba and live electronics, this ode to the Danube River is an example of Nono’s favorite metaphor of flowing water as music making. A subtle interplay of timbres and pitches–based on ancient Hebrew chants–the music is for the most part serene. Listening to it, you can almost imagine yourself at the ocean’s edge. At times the tuba (somberly handled by Abbinanti) emits sounds like a foghorn, at other times like whale cries. The amplified electronic sound (generated by Tom Lucckese) contains gurgles and babbles that evoke seas and brooks. Very slowly and repetitively the tuba calls accumulate force and speed in a Wagnerian surge. Toward the end I thought I heard clear echoes of the Rhine Maidens’ motif from Das Rheingold. One can’t call this eccentric postmodern paean music in the conventional sense, yet the effect created through the unorthodox instrumentation is strangely sublime and lyrical.