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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Concert Review: Boston Microtonal Society

Sunday night the Boston Microtonal Society (BMS) celebrated 20 years of history with a marathon concert of works a St. Paul's Cathedral on Tremont Street in Boston. The BMS has a mission to "showcase the enhanced expressive possibilities of composing and performing new music with new musical intervals."

The BMS was founded in 1988-89 by composer and saxophonist Joseph Maneri at the New England Conservatory, where he taught a course on micro-intervals. (Ezra Sims had previously taught a micro-tone course at NEC too in the 1970s). With a generation or two of devoted students, it seems that microtonalists are attaining critical mass and momentum. Composing outside of the even-tempered scale - which many claim has all but destroyed music - seems to function as a new found garden for many. They may not all agree the quantity and the relative size of intervals to partition the octave up into, but leaving the rigidity of 12 evenly-spaced pitches behind is something they all can agree on.

Modern music is often said to fall into camps: e.g. Electronic/Computer, Serial (or 12-tone), Aleatoric, Minimalism, New Romanticism, etc. Microtonalists have always been around in the mix, and it's a subculture that has a long history of musical exploration imbued with the rhetoric of contentious theoretical debate. I've always observed it from outside, not feeling the need to add more complexity into the already daunting task of writing with the standard number of pitches (Shirish Korde told me recently that he is working on a piece that utilizes just five pitches).

As a religion of sorts, it appears that those who practice the microtonal way are converts from all walks of musical life. The 20th Anniversary concert for BMS demonstrated this large tent with a wide spectrum of composers. The hefty concert featured works by 11 composers of contrasting age, background, training, and geographic perspective. There were six world premieres on the program. Not surprisingly, the first half of the concert (before the intermission) lasted for an hour and a half.

The commissioned works (all composed in 2009) were by New York-based Frank J. Oteri, John Mallia, James Bergin, Alain Bancquart, Caroline Park, and John Eaton.

The Frank Oteri piece, Spurl for solo alto saxophone, opened the program. Aside from being a composer, Oteri is a noted online journalist for the web-based newsletter of the American Music Center: Brian Ascawa, the sax soloist, announced to the audience that the composer did not mark many dynamics in his "minimalistic" piece. He asked the audience how we wanted the piece to end: loud or soft? A vote was taken, and the first round came to a dead tie. A retake election resulted in a narrow victory for the "loud" supporters. I was quite disappointed, since I have been a long term card carrying member of the of the Pianissimo Party. In any event, Spurl was probably not the best piece to start the program with. It was little more than a barrage of ascending scales and arpeggios with upper pitches that to my ear sounded more "out" than "in."

"but also nowhere" by BMS artistic director Julia Werntz was based on five poems by E.E. Cummings. It featured two very fine singers: Jennifer Ashe (soprano) and Martin Near (countertenor). Werntz exploits the "quirky" sound of microtonal singing, and finds great musicality in the junction between timbre of the performers, the sounds that the human voice can make, and the text itself. It was a pleasure to hear. Her treatment of the visual elements of the text is ingenious.

Manfred Stahnke's three movement "Viola Sonata in Just Intonation" (1991) was performed by Anne Black. Listening to the solo work, I had to wonder how this rather traditional piece is different from other performances of solo string music that I've heard. I don't think my ears are sharp enough to detect the subtle difference in intonation. It really sounded like any other solo viola piece to me.

The classic avant-garde work on the program was "Vili-Samovili" (1999) by Bojidar Spassov from Bulgaria. He studied in Moscow at the Conservatory (instrumentation with E. Denissov), and selected a poem by Russian poet W. Chlebnikov "who had - in order to avoid serving in the army - fled into a psychiatric clinic." While in the psycho ward, Chlebnikov developed his creative methods and "crazy" style of writing. This fragmented text (which was sung in Russian) illuminates exchanges between a water nymph, a forest fairy, a fisherman, an old man, and the wind itself. NYC-based alto Christina Ascher really brought this piece to life, and at various times through the work accompanied her dynamic singing with the drone of two bowed water-bowls. As Spassov's piece picked up a frenetic momentum coming into the final stretch, Ascher simultaneously sang meandering micro-tonal lines over the drone while articulating the music with percussive mouth-clicks. It was greatly entertaining.

John Mallia's new work "Dodo" for solo cello and electronics was yet another take on the microtonal sound world. Accompanied by "retro" sounding 1950s-era electronics, the cello part was written in a more pointalistic mode. The cello writing seemed to exploit atonality, dissonance, and angularity, which has not been a mainstream trend in the microtonal subculture of music. Cellist David Russell performed with great panache, but given the context of the concert I had trouble discerning the microtonal language. Perhaps the electronics (which were essentially non-pitched) injected too much complexity into the mix, and made it difficult to focus on the subtle differences in interval and tuning. I've always thought that electronic/computer music is a good option for microtonal composers, since pitch can be highly controllable and precise in its rendering of frequency. Overall, I didn't get the pitch-gestalt of this work, but the gestures, realization, and musical expression were right on.

"Langmusick" by James Bergin was also a premiere. Bergin is Executive Director of BMS and Director of the select ensemble of top Boston musicians who were performing in the concert: NotaRiotous. His work was for solo trombone and performed with confidence and skill by New York-based trombonist and new music specialist Will Lang. The trombone is a very natural instrument for microtonal composers, and the rich possibilities it allows for melodic line is one of the attractive enticements that microtonal music has to offer. Bergin exploited some of the extended techniques that are possible on the instrument, including singing and playing at the same time to create beat-tones. Bergin has many years under his belt composing in the micro-world, and his inventiveness in melodic construction in particular seem to extend the possibilities of what can be done within the limitation of a single voice. His formative training in the fundamentals of music under the guidance of his teacher Joseph Maneri was based on the equally formative text books of Arnold Schoenberg. I think you can hear this influence in his music.

Composers Ezra Sims and John Eaton

Concluding the first half of the program was "If I Told Him" by Ezra Sims. Sims composed his piece in 1996 under a commission from Christina Ascher and Christoph von Erffa, who premiered the work at Darmstadt, Germany the following year. The piece has been performed frequently, and has been recorded for a soon to be releated CD on New World Records. The Sunday night performance was rendered by Ascher (alto) with Ted Mook (cello) who clearly perform the work as if they know it inside and out. The fine line between spoken-pitch and vocalized-pitch is what makes this piece so interesting to me. The complexity of vocal sound is formative. How everyday speech around us contains inflections of pitch (often microtonally organized) is what set Sims (a singer by training) on his compositional path. He "found" the appropriate pitches to accompany the text by Gertrude Stein (based on a recording of her own reading of fragments of her poems). Sims uses a system of 72-note to the octave, which modulates, shifts and changes tonal focus based on transposition and key center. It's a formative system, with sound theoretical justification that I can't go into here - even if I fully understood it. His music been microtonal since 1960.

Beginning the second half of the concert we heard Jennifer Ashe and Will Lang together in a vocal/trombone duet by Joseph Maneri. This work, "Kohtlyn" was composed in 2000, and I remember it well from a performance given by the BMS years ago. It is based on text that composer invented - a made up imaginary language where sound plays king. This sound text comes from a book of poems that Maneri has been writing on the side. He constructs his music in 72-note equal temperament, but the performers do a lot of note bending, and one does hear plenty of the slide-whistle effect in Maneri's language as the performers articulate the score and express his written music.

Composer Alain Bancquart (b. 1934) was commissioned to write a piece for this concert as well. His work "Duettino" was for English horn and cello. It utilizes quarter-tone, sixth-tones, and eighth-tones. By this time in the long concert my ear was growing fatigued, and I was beginning to have trouble concentrating on all of this new music. I confess that after four of five days my memory of this work is fading, and I really can't say anything meaningful about it. I do know that it was well executed by Elizabeth England on English horn and David Russell on cello.

Study No. 2 (2009) by 23 year-old Caroline Park (recipient of the BMS Jonathan Keith Scholarship) was next on the program. The new work was written for - and performed by - soprano Lauren-Rose King. According to the composer's program note, the work was conceived as of a sort of "resonant sculpture." Park exploits the freedom of the human voice, which is devoid of all of the traps, customs, and technical baggage that traditional physical instruments carry with them. She appears liberated by the flexibility that voice provides, particularly in it's natural ability to sing any interval that one can mentally conceive. We should expect to hear more from this young composer, and it will be interesting to see where her compositions lead in the future.

Mat Maneri, violist and son of composer Joseph Maneri, performed an impromptu improvisation. He wished his mother, and all mothers present at the concert, a happy Mother's day before he began his solo microtonal improv. It started off with Webern-like whispers, sul ponticello gasps, and the random pitter patter of a bouncing bow. Eventually, the improv took direction and gained speed. Yes, one can improvise in microtones. It's not impossible, but I have to wonder how accurate it all is, and what's the tonal organization behind it all. What holds it together besides gesture, timbre, articulation, rhythm, and form? Why does one note have to follow another? I'm not sure I can find an an answer to that question, as convincingly as Mat Maneri played. He (and we) certainly got into the "grove" of his improvisation, but does it rise to the level of musical experience that we all strive for in great works of art? Who knows.

The commisioned work that concluded the program was "Some Reflections" (2009) by John Eaton (b. 1935). Like Ezra Sims (b. 1928) and Joseph Maneri (b. 1927), Eaton was once a 12-toner. Eaton studied at Princeton with the great serial masters. I find it interesting that all three of these established composers felt compelled to abandon not only the serial language, but the confining world of even-temperament to explore the wealth of microtones in their mature work. In fact, according to Matthew Guerrieri writing for the Boston Globe about this concert (published May 13, 2009), Eaton adapted the 72-note scale and highly refined pitch system of Ezra Sims for his new piece. Having heard a lot of Ezra's music, I have to say that the results are very different. Eaton approaches music very differently than Sims, and portrays a few vestiges of his volatile modernist past in his music. The opening of the piece unfolds with the extended possibilities of the flute (performed by Jessi Rosinski) by exploiting the harmonics and multiphonics of her instrument. The writing is intended to emphsize the "out-of-tune" nature of the over-tone series. The trombone (played by Will Lang) supplied beat-patterns and kept time - which a central idea of the poetic text (derived from fragments from the epic "Four Quartets" by T.S. Elliot). Jennifer Ashe and Martin Near sang with laser-sharp pitch clarity and commanding expression.

The overall caliber of performance Sunday evening was very impressive. The group NotaRiotous was formed in 2006, and already is making a name for itself in the Boston area. James Bergin conducts where needed. They have a devoted audience that seems to transcend the limited nature of cultural "ghettos" that new music specialists tend to breed. Could it be that microtonal music is an all-encompassing form of musical expression rather than the cult-driven "ism" it has been so unfairly labeled? Only time will tell how mainstream this music becomes, but the BMS and their performing organization NotaRiotous seem to have made a lot of headway in their 20 years of music making.

Pictured left to right: James Bergin, Joseph Maneri, and Julia Werntz (Photo by the Boston Globe).

Boston Microtonal Society

20th Anniversary Concert Celebration
St. Paul's Cathedral
Sunday May 10th, 2009