Last night at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) presented their second concert of the week. This was a departure from their X-SCAPE subscription series with a special event devoted to the works of Jean-Baptiste Barrière and Kaija Saariaho. Each composer was represented by two compositions, each of which involved only a single music performer and all of which required considerable enhancement with multimedia technology. Most important was that all of the pieces required the operation of live cameras (by Isabelle Barrière), whose images were captured and mixed with other sources for projection on a large screen behind the relatively slender performance area. Three of the works had durations on the order of twenty minutes, and the remaining one was about half as long.
The program as a whole was framed by two extended percussion solos, one by each composer. The opening was Steve Schick’s performance of Saariaho’s 1994 Six Japanese gardens collection. For the conclusion Nick Woodbury performed Barrière’s 2001 “Time Dusts.”
Both of these pieces demanded virtuoso technique on the part of the soloists, most likely reinforced through a keen sense of muscle memory. As a “multimedia experience,” however, Saariaho’s tended to be more engaging. This was probably because the music was based on six visual points of reference; and, while the projections did not seem to make a systematic attempt to present those points of reference, the overall textures of natural images, particularly when reflections on water were involved, provided a conducive environment in which the spaces could be differentiated strictly on musical terms. Those terms primarily involve selection of instruments, accompanied by rhetorical shifts dealing with an underlying sense of pulse that pervades the entire set. Schick performed with a convincing mastery of just what those terms were, allowing the evening to get off to a thoroughly engaging start.
“Time Dusts,” on the other hand, was performed as an extended study in a wide breadth of sonorities with both extreme and subtle differentiating factors. Woodbury’s performance was mixed (by Thomas Goepfer) with other sound sources; and it was difficult to tell how many of these had been prerecorded and how many involved transformations of real-time capture. (Both techniques seemed to be involved in the work’s composition.) Regardless of how everything was assembled, the result was a compelling spatial experience, which often appeared to involve nuanced exchanges between performer and synthesized content.
In this rich auditory experience the addition of projected images (including those of the performer) turned out to be more than a bit too much. Barrière may command a prodigious mastery of the full scope of multimedia technology; but the auditory experience of “Time Dusts” was so rich that any attempt at “further enhancement” could never serve as anything other than a distraction from the expertly conceived core. Taken on its own, the music was a thoroughly engaging study of sounds in space that did not deserve to be undermined by media excess, even if the undermining was performed by the composer himself.
The other instrumental soloists for the evening were violinist Hrabba Atladottir, playing Barrière’s 2003 “Violance” (violence), and flutist Tod Brody, playing Saariaho’s 1992 “NoaNoa,” inspired, in part, by the woodcut of the same name by Paul Gaugin. Like Six Japanese gardens, “NoaNoa” was very much inspired by a sense of place, realized through a rich diversity of flute sonorities requiring an extended repertoire of performance techniques. Those sonorities were then supplemented with electronics that perhaps suggested an auditory magnifying glass. In this case the video was based primarily on the physical movements of the performer with the captured figure enhanced with visual textures that seemed to suggest an alternative for Gaugin’s approach to looking at exotic cultures.
“Violance” was the most narrative of the evening’s selections. It was based on the New Testament episode generally known as the “Massacre of the Innocents.” It involved spoken text (in French with titles on the projection) of Maurice Maeterlinck’s interpretation of Herod’s effort to prevent the coming of the Christ by having all newborn children killed. The concept itself could not have been more powerful, particularly in our current age in which the noun “genocide” is used so frequently that it has lost almost all of its shock value.
Nevertheless, like “Time Dusts,” “Violance” suffered from media overload. The very necessity of having to follow subtitles imposed a conflict with both the stark black-and-white imagery and the violin part, whose distinctive sonorities and melodic lines simply could not compete with all the other media sources. Buckminster Fuller used to say that his goal in life was to make more and more with less and less. Barrière’s contributions to last night’s program seemed to suggest that he wanted to use more and more resources, but they ended up yielding less and less by way of results. When a group that calls itself “contemporary music players” is involved, the music deserves a fairer shake.