Blogpost: Vermont Counterpoint(s)

Posted by Sarah • November 18, 2011

Posted by Sarah • November 18, 2011

Reich two.jpg

The piece ended rather suddenly, almost completely without warning. The conductor held his position for a moment, then slowly brought his arms down. The theater erupted with applause as the twelve floutists slowly lowered their instruments and the conductor turned around and began surveying the audience. He took a bow with the performers, and then began scouring the audience, trying to pick out one person from their mass. He eventually found his target. He was sitting in the back corner, wearing his trademarked ball cap, and when he finally realized the attention was on him and no longer on the performers on stage, he gave the most American sign of approval possible: a fist pump.

He had never heard this piece performed by a full ensemble before, despite the fact that he had written it. All in all, he was pretty unassuming for a Pulitzer-prize winning composer.

The University of Vermont was extremely fortunate to play host to none other than Steve Reich, one of the most prolific modern composers and one of the progenitors of minimalism. I've written about him before for Scene Point Blank, and with good reason--he composes some absolutely wonderful music. naturally, I jumped at the opportunity to hear him speak and have a selection of his pieces performed. Turns out that his was going to be the second performance of two that day; the school was also hosting another performance of avant-garde and minimalist music earlier in the afternoon.

It was every music snob's wet dream, so of course I had to be a part of it.

The afternoon performance featured a solo performance from one of our own faculty members, Rachael Elliott, as well as a longer selection of pieces from the Electro Acoustic Reed Duo (also known as EAR Duo). Bassoonist Elliott performed a rendition of David Lang's Press Release, a 1991 piece originally written for bass clarinet, and honestly, it was a pretty inauspicious start. While I am in no way doubting her talent as a basoonist, it was clear she was struggling with the piece, the constant stream of radically shifting pitches causing undue squaks and squeeks. She seemed to regain some confidence and made it through the piece admirably, but it had cast doubts on my hopes for the day.

That is, until these fellows took the stage.

EAR duo.jpg

The EAR duo, consisting of bassoonist Dana Jensen and saxophonist Michael Straus, was an unexpected delight to hear perform. Their repertoire was admirable for its range of creativity; it ranged from the classics (Michael Gordon's Low Quartet arranged for bassoon and tape) to the aggressively minimalist (selections from Tom Johnson's Counting Duets). By far, however, the most astonishing piece was Jensen's original avant-garde composition, This person would be an animal. The piece is written to be played by 'interactive computer keyboard', and was performed with a large QWERTY keyboard and a text box projected behind her. Each of the keys was assigned a tone or sound related to it (e.g., 'R' produced a roll of the tongue), and the piece consisted of Jensen typing out paragraphs about a certain animal. It was extremely engaging, being stimulated by both the written content and the aural content at the same time--Jensen would often play with repetition in order to formulate musically-pleasing ideas that didin't necessarily make grammatical sense. It was also amusing to see her human typing reactions kick in while she was performing it; you could tell the urge to backspace and correct one or two spelling errors was incredibly strong (in fact, she did on a few occassions). Surprisingly, these only served to make the piece even more engaging.

As wonderful and provoking as that piece was, I definitely felt like their final piece, Terry Riley's Dorian Reeds, was the strongest of their performance. Originally a solo improvisational piece, this version was scored for bassoon, soprano saxophone, tape delay system and video accompaniment. The two played relatively simple lines with a delay, often interacting and playing off of their own echoes. The combined sound of six, seven, eight layered echos each created an overpowering feeling emotionally. If it weren't for the poor choice of venue, I have a feeling they would've let the piece get louder and louder until it was completely overwhelming; the piece felt akin to something Godspeed You! Black Emperor might perform. A short film Looking for Mushroooms by Bruce Conner rolled in the background (this is sounding more and more like GY!BE) as the duo peroformed, and the combined experience was incredible. The stop-and-go frame rate and the almost surreal quality of the imagery created an absolutely unforgettable experience. It was certainly the highlight of the afternoon performance.

Luckily for me, the evening performers were getting ready to top it.

The evening performance consisted entirely of selections from Reich's repertoire. If you hadn't guessed from the beginning description or the title of this piece, the concert began with his 1982 piece Vermont Counterpoint, played by every single flute player on this side of the state. The piece was originally written as a solo piece for solo floutist and tape, commissioned by none other than Ransom Wilson. Though this is certainly not the first time the piece has been played by a full flute ensemble, it was, surprisingly, the first time Reich had heard it performed with all of the parts live. The solo floutist, Anne Janson, seemed a bit shaky when she began, but before long, she was playing with apolmb, a word I will never use enough in my lifetime. This piece has always been one of my favourites, and not just because it's named after my home state. The buildup of these simple but complexly interrelated canons always struck me as disarmingly confusing--it doesn't seem like it should be terribly difficult at all to follow a piece in simple meters, but I always found myself having to watch the conductor in order to stay on the beat. (Reich later mentioned that he does this intentionally.)

The final live performance was of Reich's deceptively difficult piece, Piano Phase. One of his earliest works (1967) and one of his most well-known, the piece is written for two piano players, playing the exact same twelve-note phrase. The catch is that one player will begin to speed up slowly and gradually go out of sync with the other performer until coming to rest one beat away from where she began. After eleven more phases and about twenty minutes later, the two are back in sync, with one performer exactly one measure ahead of the other. Hearing this piece performed live is incredibly hypnotic; since the piece's twelve note phrase doesn't lend itself to a parcitularly strong downbeat, it's easily to get lost and confused in the ensuing mire. At the same time, there is incredible lovliness in the cacophony, and I found myself getting swept up in its beauty nonetheless.

Reich was adamant that the audience get to hear something more recent from him, as his latest few works have been far removed from his drastically more experimental early works. As such, the audience was afterwards treated to an audio recording of his Pulitzer-prize winning piece, Double Sextet, as performed by eighth blackbird. Though it's not unusual to hear pre-recorded tapes when hearing Reich's music, it was odd to have an audience gathered to listen to a studio recording (in fact, one I already own and have listened to dozens of times). Though I'm always glad to hear it again, it felt incredibly unnerving in a concert setting.

double sextet.jpg

The main draw of the evening, however, came after the performances. We were treated to a moderated 'discussion' with Steve Reich hiimself. I was actually amased at how incredibly personable and amiable this guy is. He discussed everything with an extremely likable and agreeable tone, and he was so easy to talk to. I got the feeling most people in the audience went into this part expecting to be intiimidated--you could sense everyone who stood up to talk to this man was experiencing the twin urges to be as pretentious as possible while still not saying anything disagreeable. There's something increidbly warm about hearing Reich talk about his music. It's clear the man enjoys everything he does, and he provided a lot of insight into the inner workings of his pieces.

Actually, I was most impressed with his incredible knowledge of modern popular music. His more recent pieces (like 2x5) had noticably been tending more towards rock influences. He confirmed this, saying "You have to be over seventy to really do rock." He mentioned his adoration for modern electronic composers like Aphex Twin as well as his recent appreciation of remixing (Reich recommended Aphex Twin's version of his own Pendulum Music). Reich actually expressed his like of Radiohead, mentioning that he was currently working on a piece called Radio Rewrite which would be based on remixes of Radiohead songs.

Of course, he also talked about the standard fare, such as his influences (Béla Bartók was mentioned several times, as well as Igor Stravinsky, Pérotin, Bach, west African drumming, and John Coltrane). He also discussed the description of his music as 'minimalism'; when asked if he considered his music to be as such, he answered by having everyone in the audience hop on a plane to Paris, take some shovels, and wake the resting corpse of Claude Debussy, all to ask him if he thought his own music was 'impressionist'. (Spoiler alert: no.) He quite rightfully made reference to something of a cultural zeitgeist that manifests in parallels between contemporaneous art and music.

The best part was that he wasn't above calling out people for asserting incorrect facts or asking silly questions. I remember vividly how he called for another try at the evening's final question as he literally couldn't parse the question some lady was asking him (it wasn't just him--everyone else was confused, too). He also reacted strongly when the moderator tried to characterise minimalism as an "anti-intellectual movement". Overall, however, he was incredibly easy to talk to. It gave me a warm, satisfactory feeling to experience a brief period in time with a composer who I unabashedly idolize.

Sarah • November 18, 2011

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