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Program Notes: 
SFCMP Plays Ustvolskaya, Berio, Oliveros, Xenakis, Oram, Feldman, etc.

Originally published in the program for the March 23–25, 2018 performances by the San Fransisco Contemporary Music Players. Reprinted with permission of SFCMP.


Grand Duet for Cello and Piano — Galina Ustvolskaya
La Catedral Abandona — Xavier Beteta
Cold mountains, one belt, heartbreak green — Carolyn Chen
Folk Songs — Luciano Berio
The Witness — Pauline Oliveros
Psappha — Iannis Xenakis
Movements from Ursonate — Kurt Schwitters
Dwell for Solo Percussion and 24 Radios, Or A Morse Play in Two Acts — Celeste Oram
Crippled Symmetry — Morton Feldman

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Grand Duet for Cello and Piano — Galina Ustvolskaya

 Call it brutish, or brutalist, or brooding. Any of them work to describe the music of a composer once referred to by a Dutch critic as “the woman with the hammer.” Born the year of the Russian Civil War, in 1919, Galina Ustvolskaya wrote music that often sounds as though it would rather be something else—a rivet gun, perhaps, or even just the merest matter. In its inexorability, her works can resemble the darker sides of Shostakovich, who taught the composer for a time and considered her one of his best students. But it was just as likely the other way around. “It is not you who are influenced by me; rather it is I who am influenced by you,” he claimed. Ustvolskaya, after all, was the one with the hammer.

Her Grand Duet is particularly relentless, oozing with industrial anti-charm. Written in 1959 for Mstislav Rostropovich, it was apparently never performed by the cellist, nor was such a thing ever discussed, possibly reflecting the danger that a performance might have posed in the censorious Soviet Union. Yet many might have preferred the political danger to that of the piece itself; in the opening, written in quadruple forte and with no barlines or time signature, there is nothing to contain or mediate the sound. The chains have come off. It is as though music, jealous of the solidity and inertia of actual objects, had been freed to try and shake itself loose from the page in order to do real work in the world. Or at least try.

La Catedral Abandona — Xavier Beteta

In the middle of the river Grijalva in Chiapas, Mexico stands an abandoned sixteenth-century cathedral, half submerged in water. In the middle of Strasbourg, Germany stands another cathedral, begun over a thousand years ago, that has been abandoned in its own way—now as much a temple of tourism as of worship. With those two images in mind, Guatemalan-born composer Xavier Beteta set out to write his La Catedral Abandona, devoted to the mystery, and perhaps re-enchantment, of those mysterious spaces.

At the beginning, a C-sharp repeats incessantly, passed around the various instruments in different guises, like an incantation intent on raising the dead. Half-diminished and augmented harmonies emerge, built on the C-sharp, whose ambiguous qualities seem to suspend the music in the air as spiritual mystery incarnate. Layers of sound elide and overlap, evoking the reverberation off of cathedral walls. After a virtuosic middle section featuring piano and marimba, we return once more to the repeated C-sharps, yet now in a more transfigured form. Beteta writes: “This more subtle and fragile atmosphere tries to approximate the idea of the divine. The material starts to ascend to signify reaching the celestial regions [constituting] a final dissolution into ‘the sky’ of the initial ‘call.’” Music here enacts a kind of ritual kinship with spirit, performing its own immateriality as it rises to reconsecrate the rafters.

Cold mountains, one belt, heartbreak green — Carolyn Chen

 For the Los Angeles-based composer Carolyn Chen, sound is always both cause and effect, connected to bodies as they move through space and ever affecting them in turn. It has origins and destinations. It exists socially. It is perhaps for that reason that she has worked so frequently with video. In one work, we see nothing but faces as they react in seeming slow motion to a Bruckner adagio. In another, a textured soundtrack results as a blindfolded Chen guides herself through a demolition zone with just a shard of glass.

In her work Cold mountains, one belt, heartbreak green, commissioned by SFCMP and scored for bass flute, violin, cello, harp, and percussion, sound is connected to what is, in some ways, a more traditional source for music—an imagistic scene—yet one whose images come to be juxtaposed in a peculiar way. Based on a poem by Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai (701–762), the work  seeks to capture the poem’s dramatic imagery along with the paratactical way those images are deployed.

Trees shading trees, mist-smoke weaves.
Cold mountains, a belt, of heart-breaking green.
Dusk enters a high tower;
In it someone grieves.
All alone upon the jade terrace;
Homing birds return in haste.
Where is the way to return?
Long rest, short rest, bower after bower.

— “Tune: ‘Beautiful Barbarians’” by Li Bai, translated by Wai Lim Yip

Of interest is the way Chinese poetry—not unlike modernist poetry or cinematic montage— juxtaposes images with little connective tissue in between, creating what Chen calls “an undifferentiated, timeless mode of being.” The idea is to deemphasize the linear connections between things in order to create what the poet Robert Creeley called a “series of objects in a field, a series of tensions.” In the words of the translator Wai Lim Yip, these juxtapositions releases images into their “immediate thereness,” preventing writing from “disfigur[ing] things in their immanent presences.”

In the music, Chen makes good on her intention to free images from syntactical rules by presenting the poem’s images out of order. The noun rules here, not the verb, and we begin with a section entitled simply “Mist Smoke.” Over a bed of shimmering cymbals and half harmonics in the strings, the bass flute repeats a hushed rising third, which both establishes the motivic seed of the piece while evoking the titular imagery. It is a fitting interval for an experiment in presence, content in a kind of inertial consonance, with little need to resolve anything or go anywhere. The remaining sections—”Weaves,” Trees Shading Trees,” “Cold,” and so on—flow into each other without interruption while indulging in similar forms of hypnotic repetition. Listen for more thirds throughout—stacked into augmented harmonies, flitting between major and minor, crunching into clusters—producing a music as beholden to the “what” as to the “how.”

Folk Songs — Luciano Berio

“I have a Utopian dream, though I know it cannot be realized.” Some might find it odd that the modernist Luciano Berio, composer of the thorny Sequenzas, was referring here to folk music—or more specifically, to the idea of marrying it with his own idiom to create a meaningful continuity between the two. Yet Berio maintained an interested in folk music throughout much of his life, whether in spirit, as in the 1976 work Coro, or as the thing itself, as in his Folk Songs, composed in 1964 for his then-wife Cathy Berberian. Perhaps it was because of the need to—as the spirit of Samuel Beckett put it in Berio’s Sinfonia—“keep going” in the wake of the seemingly exhausted musical possibilities of the twentieth century. But the music’s allure was surely also political. Music was, for Berio, a social act with its own kind of consequences, even if it was incapable of “lower[ing] the cost of bread,” as he once said. Embracing folk music in a modern idiom would at least put its fabled immediacy in dialogue with the sound of a fragmented, pluralistic present, ideally throwing a productive light on both.

But some qualifications are in order. The music of the first two songs (“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” and I Wonder as I Wander”) isn’t of folk origin at all but was instead composed in the nineteenth century by John Jacob Niles. Nos. 6 and 7 were written by Berio himself, based on his 4 Canzoni popolari. And the text of the final song (“Azerbaijan Love Song”) was transcribed phonetically from an old 78 by Berberian, who didn’t speak a word of the Azeri language. All of these curiosities add to the sense that what Berio meant to convey here, if only unconsciously, was that the immediacy of folk music could only be accessed obliquely, through its dispersals and rewritings in the present.

In “Black Is The Color…,” a certain relaxed naturalness in the melody belies the somewhat tortuous way it is notated, as though the notation itself were commenting on the labored mediation involved in apprehending the past. The viola fiddles in a separate, seemingly oblivious layer, adding to the sense of disjunction. In the old French song “Rossignolet du bois,” clarinet and harp offer a simple accompaniment based on the opening descending fifth of the melody, but then sabotage its modal disposition—perhaps itself a folk signifier—by dropping in mischievous major sevenths. Then there is the Sardinian song “Mottettu de Tristura,” about a woman bemoaning her sorrows, in which Berio makes us strikingly aware of how aloof folk songs can often be from their emotional content. As if to buck the trend, ominous smears of sound in the bass unsettlingly reinforce the darkness at the heart of the woman’s lament.  Yet not all is subterfuge here. In the Armenian song “Loosin Yelav…,” about the rising moon, listen for the clarinet line. Though it ironically sinks, it does so with as much crippling sweetness as anything Mozart ever wrote.

The Witness — Pauline Oliveros 

One day the late eighties, Pauline Oliveros and her accordion descended a fourteen-foot ladder leading down into a cistern beneath Fort Worden, WA. The space was cavernous, capable of holding two million gallons of water, but it was empty that day, which meant that it could hold something else instead: sound. Made entirely of concrete, the space produced a reverb that lasted forty-five seconds, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between direct and reflected tones. “We had to respect the sound that was coming back from the cistern walls,” she remembered.

Respect the sound. It was a formative moment for Oliveros, inspiring what is perhaps her most widely known conceptual contribution to music: deep listening. Referring to both the level of attentiveness involved and its subterranean inspiration, deep listening elided with many of the other ideas that had guided Oliveros’s unconventional aesthetic since the 1960s, particularly those taken from Buddhist, feminist, and Lakota philosophy. It meant abandoning oneself entirely to the sonic object, and, in the context of improvisation, responding to it in equal measure. It also meant listening to the grain of sound—its flux and timbre and texture—as much as to formal, developmental, or notational pretenses, which she saw as overvalued in the Western tradition. But perhaps most importantly, deep listening meant a way of being in the world, and one that had more than its share of ethical implications. Where there was deep listening, there would be connection. Where there was connection, there would be community. It was, for Oliveros, nothing less than her “life practice.”

The social implications of this mode of hearing are on display in a work like The Witness (1980), written before Oliveros’s cistern epiphany but still beholden to its principles. An entirely improvised work that, according to the “score,” “may be performed by a soloist as a duet with an imaginary partner” or as an ensemble with any number of performers, The Witness enacts a process of socialization in which isolated actors discover community.

In the first part, a kind of selfishness reigns; performers are to focus entirely on themselves, regardless of what others are doing. All sounds, gestures, and actions are to be discrete, separated by silence, and different from one another. In the second part, there is a discovery of the other, as it were. Performers are to focus on reacting to their partners and anticipating their actions. In the last section, performers are instructed to put their “attention all over.” She writes:

Give equal attention to your own and a partner’s performance, as if only one person were making all of the sounds, movements, or actions. Expand your field of attention, as far as possible, to include any environmental sound, movement or dramatic action as part of this unity.

The takeaway is not unlike Oliveros’s experience in the cistern, in which her own sounds came back to her as though from another. Actions don’t exist in a vacuum: they have consequences. They come back to us. The only way to realize this, of course, is to listen deeply.

Psappha — Iannis Xenakis

“What remains of music once one removes time?,” Iannis Xenakis once asked. Quite a bit, he ultimately decided. It’s an unsurprising conclusion coming from a former architect. But it wasn’t Xenakis’s experience with the spatial arts alone that led him to reconsider temporality in music. As part of his efforts to formalize composition and to tease apart the logical processes of the creative act, he had come up with two concepts—outside-time and inside-time—that allowed him to separate the temporal wheat from the chaff. A melody was an inside-time structure, since it relied on sequential ordering to preserve its identity. But the scale the melody was based on was an outside-time structure, since its notes could exist apart from any specific sequence. Crucially, so too could their durations, which, when abstracted from the events filling them, could also be analyzed in any order. It was, for Xenakis, a way of thinking that had fallen out of fashion. ‘This degradation of the outside-time structures of music since late medieval times is perhaps the most characteristic fact about the evolution of Western European music,” he wrote. And he wanted to change that.

Enter Psappha (1975), Xenakis’s fearsomely difficult, first solo work for percussion, composed to create an aural representation of this way of thinking about time. The name derives from the poet Sappho, a rhythmic innovator in Greek poetry, which used the kind of additive, non-subdivided rhythmic notions explored in the piece. Written for sixteen percussion instruments—Xenakis doesn’t specify which—divided among two timbral groups (skin/wood and metal), it features no pitched or sustained sonorities in order to focus the listener’s attention on the additive effect of the attacks. In essence, this allows for that aforementioned separation between events and durations: time here can only be experienced as the duration between attacks, not as the duration of the attacks themselves.

Much of this can be readily seen in the non-traditional score, which subjects the performer to an unrelenting stream of dots arrayed on a grid to represent individual percussive events. There are no barlines, since they would imply unwanted metrical subdivisions, nor are there many dynamic markings or other indications for the performer. It is left to timbre to indicate large sectional changes, which, along with the actual rhythmic content, are derived from a complex cocktail of algebraic number crunching—things like sieve theory, residual classes, congruence modulo m, and other concepts beyond the scope of these notes. But you needn’t listen for those things anyway. Try instead to hear each attack not in relation to a downbeat, say, or a larger metrical hierarchy, but as part of an ever-expanding present in which the structures of perception rewrite themselves anew in every moment.

Movements from Ursonate — Kurt Schwitters

Born in Hannover in 1887, the artist Kurt Schwitters is perhaps best known for the collages he created as part of his movement, Merz, which attempted to redeem the nonsensical by repurposing trash. Yet Schwitters was just as often drawn to the nonsensical itself, sabotaging literary salons with absurdist poetry and earning himself the label of degenerate artist from the Nazis (though admittedly, not the most difficult thing to do) In 1918, according to a possibly apocryphal story, he asked to join the Dadaists but was rejected. Too conventional, they ruled. Too drawn to beautiful things. Wasn’t against enough. But the veracity of that story aside, it points to a tension between aesthetic earnestness and absurdity that characterized Schwitter’s work for much of his life. “I feel sorry for nonsense,” he confessed in 1920, “because up to now it has so seldom been artistically molded.”

His Ursonate, from 1932, is perhaps a case in point. A spoken-word work based on a line from a poem by the artist Raoul Hausmann—”Fumms bö wö tää zää Uu, pögiff, kwii Ee”—the piece doesn’t exactly revel in lucidity or typical modes of transcendence. But that Schwitters cast those nonsensical phonemes in the most classical of all forms is a clue that there was more than a little dignity to be found in the abusurd. The work is in four parts: Ester Teil, Largo, Presto, and Scherzo. The Erster Teil and Presto are cast in sonata form, complete with exposition, development, and recapitulation, while the inner two movements have an ABA structure: listen for the return of the opening material at the end. It also features a coda, in which the German alphabet is recited backwards. The result is explosive, percussive, and hypnotic. And as the title suggests, it is perhaps as much a paean to the primitive origins of language as it is to Dadaist mischief making.

Dwell for Solo Percussion and 24 Radios, Or A Morse Play in Two Acts — Celeste Oram

 It’s an unlikely trio: Hadewijch of Antwerp, the thirteenth-century mystic who proffered rapturous visions of sacred and secular love; Mina Loy (1882–1966), the futurist-become-feminist, who sought liberation through expanded consciousness; and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Jorie Graham (b. 1950), whose fragmented verse unflinchingly dissects the agency of the self. Yet in composer Celeste Oram’s enigmatic stage play [insert morse code] for Solo Percussion and 24 Radios, they become something akin to a disembodied chorus of visionaries, speaking of ecstatic being while offering cryptic messages of liberation for those willing to listen.

Or tune in, as it were. The only person we meet on stage is Man With Drum, whose instrument is as much an ear—a tympanum or membrane he uses to receive radio prophecies and help speak them (via Morse code) in turn. His first interlocutor is La Futura, who speaks through Loy’s “Aphorisms on Futurism” by way of twenty-three radios suspended from the ceiling (known as the Creational Overture, a God-like notion that also comes from Loy), all tuned to the same frequency. Crackling beneath are the words of Hadewijch, rhapsodizing about divine love from another radio (known as Lucence) off to the side. Then there is The Questian, who engages with Man With Drum via queries taken from throughout Graham’s poetry, some of which he answers while knitting.

Oram herself offers as many questions as answers here. But if listening is itself a kind of question—an opening of the self in anticipation of receiving something, of letting something in—then her work is perhaps as much about that as anything. That and the wisdom of nine centuries of female voices that have, for too long, gone unheard.

Crippled Symmetry — Morton Feldman

“What I’m after is somewhat like Mondrian not wanting to paint ‘bouquets, but a single flower at a time’.” It is classic Morton Feldman: a nod to the visual arts instead of music, coupled with a diminutive metaphor, all in service of seemingly humble artistic intentions. We must see this statement, like so many others of his, in the context of a kind of end-of-history resignation Feldman often exuded in the wake of serialism’s overbearing experiments in the 1950s. As a reaction against the suffocating control he saw in those works, Feldman had committed himself to a music that attempted to let go and allow sound speak for itself, free of compositional systems. He was interested, as he said, in the wild beast, not the tamed animal.  “I don’t push sound around,” he once told Stockhausen.

One of the ways he accomplished this was by thinking small. If the listener was to focus on sound more than on what was done with it, then memory—the thing that gave music a sense of that doing, of where it had been and where it was going—would need to be disabled. Minutely varied repeated patterns became one of his answers, obsessively composed one at a time like Mondrian’s flowers, which would efface one another in memory and suspend the listener in the perpetual present. It was an aesthetic of second-to-second negation, deployed in works that, he felt, also needed to be long—six hours long, in the case of his second string quartet. Only then would the mind have time to stop trying to synthesize and simply listen.

Crippled Symmetry (1981), composed for flutes, piano, celesta, glockenspiel, and vibraphone, is hardly six hours, but still long in proportion to its paired-down material.  The name was inspired by the imperfect patterns Feldman had admired in handmade rugs from the Near- and Middle East: two designs that seemed symmetrical from afar were often actually slightly varied when viewed up close. The idea had, in a way, long existed in music in the form of the often imbalanced question-and-answer phrase structures that could be found throughout Western music. Yet Feldman had picked a metaphor from the visual arts for a reason: he wanted stasis, not the movement of one thing to another, not questions anticipating an answer. Imagine the sound of a Rothko and you’re most of the way there.

In the score, flute, piano, and vibraphone start things off, but each is notated in a different meter (4/8, 5/16, and 3/7, respectively), meaning that, in a matter of seconds, the parts visually fall out of sync with one another. The score is quickly rendered useless, in other words. But there were worse things for Feldman than losing sight of the whole. To notice “crippled symmetry” in a Turkish rug, one needs to view it up close, such that much of the rest of the rug becomes a blurry periphery. Crippled Symmetry can be listened to in much the same way: keep your ear on what’s in front of you, so to speak. Let the rest go.







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