The title of yesterday afternoon’s program in the Old First Concerts series at Old First Church was Celebrating Stefano Scodanibbio. This marked the latest visit of sfSound to Old First; and their concert was co-presented with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura (Italian cultural institute) of San Francisco. Guest performers included the members of Tom Dambly’s Trumpet Quartet, the Del Sol String Quartet (now led by sfSound violinist Benjamin Kreith), bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, and composer Luciano Chessa.
Scodanibbio’s Wikipedia page is disconcertingly sparse; but it lists thirteen recordings of his music, the last of which, Reinventions on ECM New Series, was released a little over a year after his death in January of 2012. (Scodanibbio was only 55 when he died in Cuernavaca, in Mexico, of a motor neuron disease.) The title of that album suggested how Scodanibbio’s aesthetic tended to involve reflections on the past firmly rooted in contemporary rhetoric. Yesterday’s program provided a diverse collection of realizations of that aesthetic, conceived by both Scodanibbio and those who have survived him.
On Reinventions Scodanibbio’s view of the past reached by to fugues from The Art of Fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach’s BWV 1080 (which he did not live to complete). Yesterday’s program reached back even further. This was most explicit in his 2003 string quartet Mas lugares (on Monteverdi’s Madrigali), which was later revised in 2007. This was a suite in five sections played without pause, three of which are explicitly structured around the fifth of the nine books of madrigals that Claudio Monteverdi published in 1605. This particular book marked a stylistic change for Monteverdi, moving away from the thick polyphonic textures of the late Renaissance in favor of a greater emphasis on melody and harmonic progression that would dominate the Baroque style.
Scodanibbio seems to have been aware of this transition, since the translation of his Spanish title is “more places.” However, one also gets the impression that he is honoring the “birth” of a new approach for Monteverdi’s expressiveness, even to the point that the dissonances that dominate the dense counterpoint of the opening section might be taken as “labor pains.” Those pains then subside with the first emergence of a recognizable theme (Monteverdi’s) in the second section. The suite then continues somewhat in the spirit of dialectical opposition, ultimately arriving at a synthesis of dissonance, counterpoint, melody, and harmony in the final section, concluding with an explicit sense of tonic from a cello (Del Sol’s Kathryn Bates) that has transformed from a bass voice to a basso continuo.
Even earlier historical roots could be found in the opening selection, “Plaza,” performed by Tom Dambly and his colleagues in his trumpet quartet (Scott Macomber, Doug Morton, and Lenny Ott). Composed in 2003 this piece seems to take the traditional concept of fanfare as a point of departure. It begins as a series of solo passages with single-tone echoes provided by the other instruments. Gradually, however, the other individual parts become more elaborate, while the sustained tones begin to emerge in the role of a tenor line that is part of a highly florid melismatic organum pumped up with 21st-century steroids. This all required disciplined coordination from a conductor, and yesterday John Ingle filled that role admirably.
The major work on the program was “Avvicinamenti” (approaches), the one large ensemble piece. This had been previously performed by sfSound at Old First Concerts in 2008. On that occasion they were conducted by Scodanibbio. However, the individual parts are basically “gestures” to be used as points of departure for a large group improvisation. While this sounds as if it might have been inspired by the sort of free-blowing jazz that one associates with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Albert Ayler; Scodanibbio actually structured his materials into three movements. Those movements, in turn, reflect the fast-slow-fast architecture encountered frequently in Baroque concerti grossi. Here, again, it was clear that the seeds of a highly adventurous present had been planted in a richly traditional soil.
The remaining Scodanibbio selection was “My New Address,” the title track from a 2004 Stradivarius recording of Scodanibbio’s violin music. This was a devilishly difficult solo (perhaps with connotations of the “diabolical” Niccolò Paganini), deftly executed by Kreith. The violin repertoire abounds with harmonic passages involving multiple (sometimes all four) strings; and Paganini is memorable for many of those passages. However, Scodanibbio required superpositions of upper harmonics (played by lightly touching the string at a nodal point) among the notes of the resulting chords. The result suggested that he may have been seeking a way through which the violin could arrive at some of the same eerie multiphonic effects achieved by skilled wind players. One could almost close one’s eyes and imagine that Kreith was playing one of those wind instruments, rather than a violin.
Ingalls honored those multiphonic “roots” more explicitly in his performance of “Omaggio,” a new improvised duo that he played with Mezzacappa. (Scodanibbio’s own instruments was the bass.) The interleaving of Mezzacappa’s textures with Ingalls’ bass clarinet lines in the same register had a haunting, almost memorial, quality through which the nature of homage was clearly felt.
The other new work on the program was Chessa’s “COHIBA.” This was a solo for đàn bầu, the traditional Vietnamese monochord. Chessa’s performance involved the use of an amplified pickup with a loudspeaker within arm’s reach. This meant that sounds were produced by both the vibrating string and feedback tones based on the proximity of the pickup to the loudspeaker. It also appeared that the string vibrations were sympathetic, induced by the tones coming from the speaker (or, possibly, a mini-speaker included in the physical pickup). The piece appeared to be an exploration of the sonorous capabilities afforded by this setup and may well have been a free improvisation. (No notes about the piece were included in the program book.) However, through the use of an Asian instrument that probably dates back to the time of the Middle Ages in the West, “COHIBA” provided yet another perspective on present-day music-making as a refracted “image” of past practices.