Contemporary Music Ensemble Presents Lovable Listening Challenge

Adam Hirsch

The conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble is one of the most underappreciated artistic presences on campus in recent years, demonstrating remarkable talent and rigor.

Why is such a successful music group overlooked? The vagueness of the term “Contemporary Music” may intimidate or fail to grab the attention of concertgoers; the poor advertising for concerts may keep away potential attendees; or the highly progressive programming might turn off music lovers, who just can’t adjust their ears to the acute sounds of works by composers of the last half-century.

Whatever the reason, it seems that — except when the group indulges in relatively popular taste, such as their performance of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in a jam-packed Warner Concert Hall in 2010 — hardly anyone gets excited about CME performances. The majority who remain indifferent to CME’s activities, however, may not be aware of what they are missing. Although the music is often complex and hard to access for the average listener, there is never a lack of enthusiasm for experimentation in performance from the ensemble.

Last Friday, CME certainly left out the popular fare in favor of a program that was dense and virtuosic. For shortly under an hour, they performed under the direction of conductor Timothy Weiss to a medium-sized audience in Warner Concert Hall. The concert began with the highlight of the performance, Visual Abstract, a three-movement work by Pierre Jalbert, OC ’89. In the program notes, Peter Laki calls the collection of instruments that make up the piece a “Pierrot ensemble,” referring to the condensed chamber group called for in Arnold Schoenberg’s early atonal work Pierrot Lunaire. The music of Visual Abstracts is very similar to Pierrot in terms of delicacy and economy of orchestration, making the rendition of the piece highly sensitive to the expression and accuracy of the individual performers. The CME group handled this challenge without incident, moving through the quasi-impressionistic passages with confidence and ease.

In the first movement, “Bells – Forwards and Backwards,” the ensemble expressionistically painted the sound of bells, ranging from loud clangs of a radiator-like percussion object to multi-phonic textures in the woodwinds and haunting sustains from the piano. The second movement, “Dome of Heaven,” took a turn away from the abstract, moving toward a more melodic landscape, with the strings expressively articulating phrases that were at times even singable.

The ensemble carried its momentum into the third and final movement, “Dance,” which called for exact replication of dizzying mixed-meter rhythms. In the program notes, Laki aptly points out this movement’s resemblance to some of the heavier moments of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; the Rite calls for a massive orchestra to pound out its primal rhythmic patterns as a means of creating a foreboding atmosphere, whereas CME achieved a similar intensity in Jalbert’s piece with an ensemble of only six musicians.

The concert continued with a work by Elliott Carter, one of the most well respected names in contemporary music for over 60 years. The ensemble welcomed guest soloist and Associate Professor of Flute Alexa Still for their performance of Carter’s Flute Concerto, a shorter work that the composer wrote in the year he turned 100. CME’s performance of the piece involved the largest ensemble of the night, containing 21 musicians. Despite the size of the ensemble, the textures were constantly quite sparse, leaving ample room for Still to stretch out in her solo.

The flute solo is somewhat uncharacteristic of Carter’s work. The use of extended instrumental techniques such as overblowing or pad clicking was almost absent. The most interesting aspect of the piece was the contrast between the deep, rich tone of Still’s phrasing and the thin, snake-like counter-melodies of the second flute part, which was more engaged in tongue rolls and other extended techniques.

The concert ended with the least engaging of the night’s works: The Comedy of Change, a 25-minute piece written by English composer Julian Anderson. The highly atonal and abstruse piece was conceived as an accompaniment to a ballet, and perhaps the absence of dancers at this performance was why the music was so difficult to engage with. As the piece was written for the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, Anderson’s overall concept in the work is to subtly introduce tiny differences in speed, timbre, and other elements into the music, which reflect the development of “new species.” These changes were often hard to detect, and without clues from the program notes, a listener might have been utterly lost in the piece’s extremely slow development over the course of no less than seven movements.

One amusing aspect of The Comedy of Change was the presence of a Yamaha Motif Keyboard on the stage plugged into a Roland amplifier— technology almost unheard-of in the usual acoustic delicacy of the CME environment. The sound on the keyboard was set to what sounded like a harp imitation, which was strange and disorienting against the sound of the real harp on the other side of the stage. But a listener with closed eyes would hardly be able to tell which was real and which was synthesized — perhaps a commentary from Anderson on the development of the species of electronic sounds. Despite the difficulty of Anderson’s piece, the piece as well as the concert as a whole succeeded and as always, CME delivered. The performance pushed listeners to think closely about their orientation to these strange sounds, what it means to really listen and how to judge a music’s worth.