Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players (SFCMP) returned to where they properly belong, the city of San Francisco. The program marked the launch of the group’s 45th season, collectively entitled X-SCAPE: new spaces for new music; and the program title itself was Songscape, described on the cover of the program book as “an examination of the nature of utterance and communication.” As might be suspected, the evening featured a vocalist as guest artist, lyric soprano Alice Teyssier, who doubles as a flutist.
The selections were organized around two major vocal works at the beginning and ending of the evening. The opening was David Lang’s “death speaks,” composed in 2012, while the second half of the program consisted entirely of Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (four songs for crossing the threshold), the last completed work by Gérard Grisey, who died of an aneurysm in November of 1998. Each of these compositions had its own way of pushing the envelope that encloses, so to speak, the semantics of the noun “song.” Bearing in mind Arnold Schoenberg’s caustic distinction between principles and music, each piece seemed to have its own raison d’être grounded in principles; but each managed to seek out its own approach to making music.
In some respects “death speaks’ was the more successful of the two, even if its principles were highly cerebral. The title could not have been more descriptive. Lang was impressed by how frequently Death appears as a dramatic character in the texts that Franz Schubert selected for his songs, to the point of being given a “speaking part.” Lang thus harvested all of the utterances of Death in the full corpus of Schubert’s songs, from which he compiled a five-movement libretto in English (with no mention of whether or not he prepared his own translations from the German). His setting of that libretto was scored for soprano, violin, guitar, and piano, all amplified.
What seems to have attracted Lang to this project was the wide diversity of personality types that Death assumes over the course of Schubert’s songs. However, while those shifts in personality are evident in the libretto, they seem to have been abstracted away in the music itself. From a musical point of view, Lang’s approach has less to do with the rich tradition of art song throughout the nineteenth century and turns, instead, to the psalm tones of early plainchant. In that practice most of the words of a psalm (or other sacred text) are intoned on a single pitch, and phrases are marked by distinctive motifs at the beginning and ending of a passage. Thus, while the psalms themselves cover a wide diversity of feelings, ranging from total despair to wild exhilaration, in the Roman Rite they are all chanted in basically the same manner.
Lang advanced beyond “raw” plainchant both by adding a bit more variation to his vocal lines and by introducing instruments. However, each instrumental part involves spare approaches to melodic line and, in the case of the piano, contrapuntal texture. Thus, the overall impression is one of intense austerity, even when Death is tempting the child in Schubert’s D. 328 “Erlkönig” with the vision of a Heavenly Playground. While this may initially create an impression of detached abstraction, last night’s performance suggested that a far deeper sense of expressiveness is only barely masked by that abstraction.
Grisey’s composition was also about death, the “threshold of life” referred to in his title. As was the case in “death speaks,” the principles begin with the selection of texts. Each of the four songs has a different source. The first, entitled “The death of an angle,” comes from the twentieth-century French poet Christian Guez-Ricord. The second, “The death of civilization,” comes from French translations of hieroglyphic archaeological fragments. The third, “The death of the voice,” consists of the only two surviving lines of the Ancient Greek poet Erinna (again translated into French). The final song, “The death of humanity,” is the most extended, a French translation of the myth of the flood taken from The Epic of Gilgamesh. All four of the songs are thus based on fragments of text.
In this case, however, the relationship between song and music is even more abstracted than it was in “death speaks.” There is a strong impression that, as a composer, Grisey had distilled each of his sources down to the lowest level of phonemes, from which he reconstructed the vocal line syllable-by-syllable, integrating the resulting “phonological line” into the fabric of a relatively large ensemble of accompanying instruments selected more for diversity of sonorities than for conventional principles of orchestration. The result was certainly intriguing “in principle;” but, in practice, there was some sense that Grisey had exhausted his rhetorical knapsack long before embarking on the last of his four songs.
The program also included a duo improvisation in which utterance was a significant element. The performers were Kyle Bruckmann on oboe and Ken Ueno vocalizing into an electronic megaphone. Both musicians were focused almost (perhaps more than almost) entirely on sonority, rather than any constructs resembling melodic lines. Bruckmann explored a variety of reed effects with occasional percussive interjections provided by his instrument’s metal keys. Toward the end of the improvisation, he also explored sound production without the reed. Ueno, on the other hand, began with fragments of speech that gradually transformed into intense chant-like vocalizations, punctuated by silences during which the chant was mouthed but not audible. This made for a striking contrast with the abstractions of the other vocal performances, but it shared with Grisey’s composition the problem of going on for too long.
Brevity, on the other hand, was represented by the only instrumental work on the program, “We Speak Etruscan” by Lee Hyla. This was scored for bass clarinet (Jeff Anderle) and baritone saxophone (David Wegehaupt); and it was a delightfully wild exercise in the sort of jamming that can take place between two low-register instruments. One reason is that neither instrument is strictly low register. Like a clarinet, each instrument has its own low, middle, and high regions, each with its own distinctive sonority. Hyla not only explored all of these sonorities but also pursued an impressively diverse set of approaches to blending them. While there were a few lyrically introspective moments, the prevailing rhetoric was high-energy, climaxing in an ear-shattering multiphonic honk that served as the perfect exclamation point for a delightfully sonorous romp.