Review: Amphibian. New Music and Video. The Cygnus Ensemble. April 3, 2012.

I’d better not tell you where the concert was held:  anyone who admits to enjoying serial music these days has the moral standing of an alcoholic during Prohibition, or a smoker in Bloomberg Time, except  that smokers are still allowed to perform on the sidewalk. As the composer John Adams never tires of telling us (and the New York Times repeating),  twelve-tone compositions are produced by out-of-touch academics with a fanatical urge to impose their narrow views on others: no wonder they keep a low profile, like a Communist Party cell. This concert was held after hours in an art studio somewhere on a half-deserted commercial street in Mid-Manhattan: I guess that’s what they mean when they say contemporary classical music's inaccessible.

I’d been to a concert of twentieth-century music at Carnegie Hall the previous week;  the conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas, commonly known as Michael Tinsel Tonsils. Before the beginning of Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, Maestro Tonsils called upon the audience to be respectful of the music, which I thought unnecessary since the music seemed  to be a bit too respectful of itself to begin with. Back story: in 1951 Morton Feldman and John Cage walked out from a Carnegie Hall concert after deciding the audience had disrespected a performance of Anton Webern, so the Maestro’s comment was supposed to be some kind of payback for dissing twentieth-century music: I guess it's just not avant-garde unless you assume the audience isn't going to like it.

At Amphibian's concert nobody needed to be told to be respectful since almost everybody present was a composer or a musician, most of them with plenty of grants and commissions and professorships, not exactly the type that's expected to dislike contemporary music before they've actually heard it, though after they've heard it all bets are off. There was also a brown dog named Dorian, in a respectful mode himself until he grew curious about the violinist’s bowing. Dorian, I think, is a purebred poodle. None of your mixo-dorians, here.

And the music: as thoroughly, professionally composed and played as I’ve known. The musicians formed a variation on what’s called a Pierrot ensemble, after the orchestra used by Schoenberg in Pierrot Lunaire a little bit over a century ago: flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and singer, minus the clarinet plus an oboe, minus the piano which is a pain to get into the studio, plus a couple of guitars and you get the idea: the guitars, minus the piano etc., add a touch of sharpness, they cut down on the usual cloy of strings you get at Carnegie. A couple of performances (by the couple of guitar players) sounded like Alban Berg played on the guitar, which is a lot more interesting than it seems considering that one such performance was of Milton Babbit’s Soli e duettini for two guitars (1989), which sounds like Alban Berg played on a couple of guitars with a lot of interesting rhythmic variations, which might sound as if we’ve heard this all before but tells you instead that this kind of music has attained a level of formal confidence over the past eighty years, a satisfying normalcy. The rules are, that there are rules, which is refreshing after so many performances where the rules are, that you spend so much time figuring out the rules you're never left enough time to figure if the rules you've figured are actually applied in an interesting way. The rhythmic innovation’s merely a logical extension of  the old  rules, since a major element of European music (starting, I’d say, with the Troubadours), is  the vertical (or rhythmic) displacement of horizontal (harmonic), relationships, and vice-versa. (If you think Troubadour music was monophonic you've never tried singing it in its proper Occitan rhythm.) Matthew Greenbaum’s Venerable Canons, for Flute and Violin was particularly enjoyable because it was so basic in its rules and so complex in its workings, the two instruments pitting sound against sound in a series of rhythmic – and therefore harmonic – oppositions. Same simple musicality in the soprano’s vocal line for Greenbaum’s second offering, a selection from an ongoing project to set Also Sprach Zarathustra to music, though personally I feel about musical settings of Thus Spake Zarathustra the way Nietzsche must have felt about sex: pretty risky, considering how things worked out first time around. I was a bit frustrated with the visual projections that accompanied the piece: Hanns Eisler and Theodor Adorno wrote a classic book on the relationship of music and visual effects, and I don't feel their arguments were taken into account, though I understand other sections of Greenbaum's composition have greater dynamic interaction between visuals and sound.

Eisler's great virtue is that in composing his music he then resists the text he has produced: he does not allow himself to be led into adding a musical 'double' illustrating it, or simply identifying with it. His task of interpretation, elucidation – as with the act of portraiture, which does not start until after the copy of the model has been made. The multiple aspects of the textual meaning, its 'polysemy', have to be liberated.

The concert concluded with David Claman’s joyful Gone for Foreign which the composer insists has nothing to do with those crazed, cacophonic street bands you find in Ethiopia or Southern India, and has actually everything to do with them unless you plan to get technical: Gone for Foreign had all of the energy, the exuberance and democratic spirit without the forced exoticism.

You want a definition of “atonal music,” or of whatever it was I heard? Okay, it’s music that doesn’t have to have a “tune” to be enjoyed, which makes it a lot more enjoyable than music that has to have a tune to be enjoyed, or music that's uncomfortable about whether you're going to enjoy it, or where some tinsel-tonsil conductor has to tell you to enjoy it or assume you won’t enjoy it because it doesn’t have a tune, just as other kinds of music put pressure on you to enjoy it because it does, which defines most "light" music these days. Any kind of music that puts a social pressure on you is a pain, and it doesn't matter where the pressure comes from. At the concert the one piece of forced music (for this Euro listener anyhow) was written for voice and theorbo and sung in Japanese and it required the audience to recite something at the end – in Japanese. Demands on the audience that masquerade as concessions to it: I’m told there was a performance of John Cage at Carnegie recently that also demanded audience participation. It was supposed to be 'sixties, and avant-garde, except we didn’t call those things avant-garde back in the ‘sixties: we called them Sing Along With Mitch.

Frederick Devious - 4/15/2012; last revision 8/11/2012.

[Amphibian concerts will resume in the Fall]