Last night wrapped up a relatively busy July at the Center for New Music with the second of two sfSoundSalonSeries concerts to be presented this month. The program was shared by French virtuoso cellist Séverine Ballon and pianist Andrew C. Smith, currently living in Santa Cruz. Smith is also a composer and a co-organizer of the record label and concert producer Indexical. Thus, the program was not so much an sfSound affair as it was a showcase for Indexical.
This is an important distinction to recognize. The sfSoundGroup performers are now well into their second decade of presenting concerts with a repertoire that boasts a comprehensive understanding of modernism as it has been practiced from the early twentieth century all the way into the immediate present. These are bold and adventurous musicians equally at home with the most challenging of scores and the freest of improvisation settings. Their performances may sometimes provoke the mind behind the ear, but their concerts capture that same joyful energy that was celebrated in Tim Perkis’ Noisy People documentary, discussed on this site yesterday morning. Indeed, many of the sfSoundGroup musicians can be seen in the concert footage included in Perkis’ film.
By comparison Indexical offers the emergence of a new generation that still seems to be finding its way. Both the organization and the people they represent are young. If their achievements are not as satisfying, it is important to remember that, in response for listening to music by Arnold Schoenberg that he did not particularly like, Gustav Mahler is said to have told his wife Alma that “the young are always right.” With all due respect to Mahler’s point of view, last night reminded me of another source, words by Alan Jay Lerner stylishly sung by Maurice Chevalier: “I’m so glad that I am not young any more!” The concert was only 90 minutes in duration, but it felt like the longest 90 minutes of my life.
This may have been the result of the fact that all six of the pieces on the program had more to do with ideas than with music. Abstraction ruled the evening; but it was an abstraction of marks on paper (or bit configurations in computer memory), rather than of the immediacy inherent in the dynamics of making music. As a result, while the program notes handed out to the audience offered intriguing (and sometimes compelling) descriptions for each of the pieces, that sense of fascination never carried over into the performance.
Indeed, I was reminded not so much of Mahler and Schoenberg as of another major twentieth-century composer, Chou Wen-chung. Chou could be very harsh with his composition students. He would listen for a minute or two and then tell the student, “You don’t have to play any more. I know what else will happen. I’m an old man, and time is precious to me.” Each of the six pieces performed last night said all it had to say in the first two minutes; and, unfortunately, each lasted for far more than two minutes.
There was, to be fair, a generous share of potential in those efforts. Both David Kant and Ma’ayan Tsadka provided Ballon with some excellent opportunities to explore the sonorities of her instrument, while Smith’s piece for her, which concluded the program, basically required her to translate the paralinguistic properties of the recitation of a poem into musical terms. Similarly, the pieces that Smith performed, by Tsadka (again), K.C.M. Walker, and Elizabeth Adams, required the exploration of different approaches to drawing sound from the piano. In Walker’s case this also involved the relationship between sound and silence; but, at the end of the day, he said nothing that John Cage had not said 75 years ago. Furthermore, if Cage was the quintessential abstractionist, there was more expressiveness to be mined from his scores than Smith seemed to derive from what appeared to be Walker’s calculated silences.
On my Rehearsal Studio blog I often find myself bemoaning the extent to which ours has become a culture that lives by the motto “Ignorant of history and proud of it.” Last night’s program frequently felt as if it offered six presentations of reinvented wheels, each case by an inventor who did not seem to be aware that the wheel already existed. Perhaps what I like best about sfSound is the way in which, as an institution, it always can situate the most modern practices in a context that appreciates the past. I put it to the folks at Indexical that looking to the past informs, rather than detracts from, our capacity to look to the future and that living only in the immediate present is a shallow and tedious affair.