Open your ears and your mind at the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP). It's a rare opportunity to immerse yourself in hearing where new music has been going, and to understand where it might be going next.
Legendary artists are in residence for this week of intensive musical study and performance, alongside seminar participants who are here for the sheer thrill of the avant garde. NEC's Stephen Drury is artistic director for this institute, and guest artists this year include composer Rand Steiger and pianists Winston Choi and Corey Hamm, who is featured on tonight's concert.
Founding artistic director of the California EAR Unit—one of the world's top new music ensembles—Rand Steiger's compositions tend to have programmatic titles that come from the worlds of science and philosophy. Steiger's Earth Cycles, commissioned by Boston Modern Orchestra Project, will premiere here in 2014, but you don't have to wait till then to get a healthy serving of his music. Today and tomorrow, major works by Steiger form the core of SICPP's evening concerts at NEC.
Many of Steiger’s works combine orchestral instruments with real-time digital audio signal processing and spatialization. They also propose a hybrid approach to just and equal-tempered tuning, exploring the delicate perceptual cusp between a harmony and a timbre that occurs when tones are precisely tuned.
Two examples of works deploying these techniques are performed here tonight: A Menacing Plume, whose title references the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform; and Résonateur, composed for the Ensemble Sospeso to commemorate the 80th birthday of Pierre Boulez in 2005.
From the Boulez birthday party, Allan Kozinn of The New York Times wrote that Résonateur "gracefully interwove electronic sound with acoustic instruments … Steiger also capitalized on the old-fashioned sounds of the violin and flute, for which he wrote prominent lines."
Steiger writes about A Menacing Plume:
From the moment I read about the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil platform (April 20, 2010), I was filled with a sense of dread. I thought immediately of the strange, unworldly creatures that thrive in the ocean's depths, as well as those that swim near the surface or fly above it. My feeling of horror grew as we read day after day of the massive, uninhibited flow of oil from the sea floor, and the unregulated use of chemical dispersants (which we now know will linger longer than the oil itself, with as yet unknown consequences). After a few weeks, news reports described huge plumes of oil gathering in the gulf and drifting out into the Atlantic Ocean. It was impossible to know how large these were or how deadly they would be, but that image of a menacing plume, obliterating life in its wake, stayed with me. Although in many of my earlier works I have reflected on the natural world, I have never before attempted so directly, almost literally, to narrate something like this event in musical terms.
My piece begins with an image of the vast undisturbed surface of the sea as the blinding, bright morning light first arises, followed by a flock of seabirds that soar above. Then layers of material emerge though all the instruments, inspired by the diversity and complexity of undersea life. Finally, an ominous darkness enters and ultimately squeezes out all life. In addition to the conventional instruments on stage, you will hear two vibraphones with specially tuned bars that enable just intonation. We will also be deploying digital signal processing to transform the sound of the instruments in a variety of ways (just-tuned harmonizing, delays, filters, etc.)
Additional works performed
by Callithumpian Consort
Earle Brown Available Forms
Tristan Murail La Barque Mystique
Murail writes of his work:
La Barque mystique (The Mystical Boat) takes its title from a series of pastels by Odilon Redon. Apart from anecdotal reasons linked to the circumstances surrounding the composition of this piece, the reference to this "symbolist" artist is not fortuitous. The relations between colors are both complex and obvious, since the matched colors are a priori incompatible. The rhythms of the forms include unfocused areas and hazy colors contrasting with incisive features and vividly colored tints that find their equivalent in the structures and the music's harmonic palette.
As they found sensual delight in lacerations and delectable gloominess, painters and poets of the end of the 19th century knew how to sublimate their crises and uncertainties into eternal artistic values. That is without doubt a lesson for us: the pure transposition of the world's sorrows into the aggressiveness of material or the "complexity" of forms does not suffice to create a work of art.
In spite of its limited instrumentation, La Barque mystique is truly "orchestrated." It is a miniaturized orchestration that functions like clockwork. The instruments continually change roles and the groupings vary unceasingly. The totality contributes to the edification of global forms. The final effect, as in all clock-like movement, depends upon extreme precision in the execution of the microtonal pitches, the rhythms with their fluctuating tempi, and the timbres.
Piano études performed by
Dorothy Chang from Five: Ephemera - Echoes - Toccatina
György Ligeti L'Arrache-Coeur (was Etude No. 11)
David Rakowski Etude No. 8: Close Enough for Jazz
Noël Lee Etude No. 5: Legatospielen
Dai Fujikura Etude No. 1: Frozen Heat
Corey Hamm writes about these études:
Chang's three pieces come from a set of five written for me called Five. Ephemera is a fluid and atmospheric piece that rises out of, and returns to the mist. Echoes is a very distant and somewhat canonic work with a
smattering of ritualistic bells. Toccatina has a breathless and
asymmetrical ostinato that continues throughout while other parts join
L'Arrache-Coeur, dedicated to Ligeti's friend, the great composer György Kurtág, was originally intended to be Etude No. 11 in Ligeti's famous Piano Etudes. However, it was replaced, likely because it sounds more like Kurtág than Ligeti, which is a tribute to Ligeti's absorption of Kurtág's characteristic style of subtle variation in clusters and stark, often violent contrasts.
Close Enough for Jazz, a quirky étude (from Rakowski's set of one hundred!) consists of an oddly syncopated ostinato with a tune on top that becomes more and more complex and vehement.
Legatospielen, a lyrical étude (from Lee's set of eight) has a sort of craggy beauty, with an angular but expressive melody that becomes epically distraught and then returns to quiet contemplation.
Fujikura's Frozen Heat begins with an almost funky rhythmic background on which other decidedly less funky rhythms are layered.
Led by Stephen Drury, Callithumpian Consort is a loose aggregation of NEC students, alumni, and new music enthusiasts that performs locally, on the East Coast, and in Europe. Throughout the year, the group returns to its birthplace—the NEC campus—with performances of contemporary avant-garde music.
photo of Deepwater Horizon oil spill by NASA, 2010-05-24
In addition to SICPP's evening concerts, SICPP participants perform solo repertoire at 11:30am on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway. Museum admission fee is waived if you tell them at the door that you are attending the SICPP concert in Calderwood Hall.