Originally published in the program for the January 19, 2018 performance by the San Fransisco Contemporary Music Players. Reprinted with permission of SFCMP.
Seven Etudes for Piano (Don Byron)
Under the Rug (Ryan Brown)
Twist (Vivian Fung)
“Cave Song” (Meredith Monk)
“Ellis Island” (Meredith Monk)
Les Moutons de Panurge (Frederick Rzewski)
Cobra (John Zorn)
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If anyone were going to claim a Picasso painting, a forgotten soft drink ad, e.e. cummings, and the Viennese Waltz as influences in the same piece of music, it would be the clarinetist Don Byron. Known as much for his klezmer playing as for his contributions to things like Bill Frisell’s avant Americana, he is a voracious stylistic polymath for whom the etude—short pieces intended to tackle a wide range of technical and stylistic challenges—is a fitting genre. In his Seven Etudes for Piano (2009), which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and here performed in excerpts, Byron deploys that eclecticism in the name of the rhythmic pocket. “At this point in musical history, post-Stravinsky/Schoenberg,” he writes, “playing complicated rhythms correctly enough to create a groove may be the new frontier for the modern classical player.” Which is just a nice way of saying: time to start clapping on the offbeat.
At least here and there. In No.1 “Guernica,” a stuttering short-long rhythmic figure serves as the basis of both an ironic lyricism and something more caustic, dialoguing darkly with Picasso’s grim anti-war canvas. In No.2, melodic rhythm—perceived rhythmic changes caused by shifts in melodic direction—is the focus: sixteenth notes in the left hand imply alternating duple and triple meters as the right hand complicates things with cross rhythms. In No.5, Byron asks the pianist to navigate a landscape largely devoid of metric orientation. And No.6 is a macabre riff on the limping triple time of that earlier-mentioned waltz.
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From music born of technical struggle, we move on to a work that releases those fists decidedly: Bay-area composer Ryan Brown’s hypnotic Under the Rug, an oasis of paradisiacal, wintery calm scored for flute, harp, and viola. It was inspired by another creative chameleon:
The piece was written while I was obsessively transcribing Bjork’s album Vespertine—a crystalline, delicately textured work about wintertime intimacy, which is full of harps, whispers, and bell-like sounds. Under the Rug is my response to that beautiful album. It is my attempt to capture intimate secrets and hidden joys within the framework of a five-minute song.
For Bjork, Verspertine was an attempt to create a kind of private utopia. “It’s sort of about being in your own in your house with your laptop and whispering for a year and just writing a very peaceful song that tiptoes,” she has said. The notion is precious, but the album itself isn’t, and Under the Rug—remarkable for the disciplined, even austere, restraint it uses to achieve its tiptoeing—dutifully follows suit.
In the beginning, a series of open fourths and fifths delineated by the harp seem to float, creating a sense of peace rooted in mesmeric absorption. The opening pair, G-D, suggests that we are in the world of G here, but subsequent pairs—B-F#, then C#-F#, then G-D—imply that the work had actually begun away from home, so to speak (on the VI), and that B might be the real center. The entrance of the drum on the B-F# part of the cycle adds to the slight disorientation, as does the ambiguous downbeat, achieved in part by a mischievous exploitation of the way we hear the initial short-long rhythm of the opening. But all is still calm. As in a snow globe, disorientation is contained, serving a winter that hypnotizes even as it settles in due course.
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We return to an unhinged eclecticism in Vivian Fung’s Twist for guitar and violin, named for the spin it puts on three seemingly disparate musical entities: the Baroque prelude, traditional Chinese pipa music, and jam session licks. But there is perhaps a common thread here: all three idioms tend to lean heavily on idiomatic gestures—phrases or rhythmic devices that fall naturally in the hand of the musician—to achieve their results.
In “Twisted Prelude,” the technique of bariolage—essentially, bowed alternations between two strings to produce drone, timbral, or compound melody effects—is pushed to disintegrated lengths. Alluding to the historical use of the prelude as both a tightly crafted expressive device and a means of warming up, the work’s seesawing bow strokes induce a kind of delirium through which the line between gestural repetition and mechanical compulsion is manically crossed. In “Twisted Pipa,” referencing the four-stringed Chinese court instrument, guitar and violin share the allusive duties, using string bends, pizzicato, and resgatto strumming to deconstruct the sound of that evocative lute. Finally, in “Twisted Jam,” odd-metered grooves, aggressive interlocking phrases, and demented triple-time passages emerge from “licks” that—in one case, at least—do not not evoke the band Soundgarden.
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Meredith Monk is perhaps best known for her innovative approach to the human voice, which she uses less to convey singerly interiority and subjectivity and more to tap into something universal beyond those things. Her real subject, in other words, is perhaps the eternal, which is one lens we can use to understand her work “Cave Song” and, somewhat by extension, her piano piece “Ellis Island”.
Written for her 1988 film Book of Days, which concerns the prophetic, time-leaping inhabitants of a medieval village, “Cave Song” is a duet that embodies notions of temporal overcoming suggested by the film. In the latter, the Jews have been blamed for the impending Plague. And yet the characters’ constant references to the twentieth century—a little girl draws an airplane, for example—encourage us to also see contemporary catastrophes and their overcoming in that grim scene. Time is presented as transparent—the past is seen in the future and the future in the past—and what unites us all in the face of it, Monk suggests, is perseverance.
That along with art and wisdom. When we hear “Cave Song,” a madwoman, who can see all of history, and the little girl, who channels the future, have come together so that the elder can transmit her knowledge to the younger. As visionaries, they are also artist-like figures whose imaginations put them even more decidedly outside of time. In the song, two entities similarly unite to create a music that seems to stand outside of time: singer 1 (the girl) enters with a six-bar phrase that repeats before another (the woman) joins in, mid-cycle. Their vocal lines interweave throughout, with the madwoman’s part varying rhythmically over time. The piano work “Ellis Island,” which perhaps references another film (Ellis Island, 1981) Monk made about temporal transcendence and struggle, is constructed similarly—as a duet with staggered entrances whose parts interlock and have equal presence. Both works suggest that, though we may enter the temporal stream at different points, we are nonetheless, one.
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All hope of achieving oneness across time—at least of a certain kind—is dashed in Frederic Rzewski’s 1969 work Les Moutons de Panurge (Panurge’s Sheep), but not for lack of trying. Scored for “any number of musicians playing melody instruments, and any number of non-musicians playing anything,” it asks the players to inch their way through a single melody via additive and subtractive procedures that virtually guarantee that someone somewhere at some point will get lost. All part of the plan, it turns out.
In the score, where the notes of the aforementioned melody are numbered 1 through 65, Rzewski instructs:
Read from left to right, playing the notes as follows: 1, 1-2, 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, etc. When you have reached note 65, play the whole melody once again and then begin subtracting notes from the beginning: 2 through 65, 3 through 65, 4 through 65 and so forth. Hold the last note until everybody has reached it, then begin an improvisation using any instruments.
But then, crucially: “In the melody […], never stop or falter, always play loud. Stay together as long as you can, but if you get lost, stay lost. Do not try to find your way back to the fold.”
He is alluding here to the work’s inspiration: a scene from Rabelais’s satire “Gargantua and Pantagruel,” in which the impulse to stay together ultimately has consequences: out at sea, a man named Panurge takes revenge on a sheep dealer—he was overcharged—by throwing one of his rams overboard. The rest of the sheep instinctively follow and drown.
Rzewski, it would appear, would prefer that his musicians not drown. But Les Moutons de Panurge can’t quite be called a mere critique of the blind leading the blind, since the only way to abandon the flock here is to make a mistake. The question to ask, then, is how to best frame these mistakes and our inevitable enjoyment of them. After all, as with a NASCAR race, much of the thrill in this piece comes from waiting for the musicians to crash.
Except that crashing here means accidental canons and other bits of counterpoint that can be hypnotic and downright pleasant. The “mistakes” retroactively make the unison melody seem like a bad, boring idea. What at first looked like a flub now looks like following one’s gut. From here, the political implications follow clearly enough: personal conviction, even when contrary to consensus, is everything. Les Moutons de Panurge was written in 1969, a year that saw the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history, and by a composer who, just six years later, would write the sprawling piano piece The People United Will Never Be Defeated. Rzewski believes in flocks, in other words. But only those capable of accommodating difference and dissent.
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One can be either a sheep or a shepherd—or rather, a grunt or a general—in John Zorn’s Cobra (1984), a game piece that allows the musicians to define the parameters of the improvisational goings on. Widely recognized as one of the iconic works of New York’s Downtown scene in the 80s, Cobra has no score, relying instead on an elaborate series of cues relayed between players and a prompter to define the plan of attack. The metaphor is intentional: the title comes from a once-popular war simulation game (think Dungeons & Dragons) that allowed players to recreate WWII cat-and-mousing on the Normandy peninsula.
Until the 1990s, the workings of Cobra were Normandy-level classified due to Zorn’s insistence that its rules only be transmitted orally. But secrets get out, and today, it’s easy to find the cues and their rules. They are hand signals, for the most part, which the musicians offer up to a prompter, who then chooses among them to determine the course of the music. Some examples: If a player covers her mouth and holds up three fingers, those playing must stop and those not playing must come in; if another dons a headband—a “guerrilla” tactic, as the cue sheet says—they become “lone renegades” and can, for the time being, play whatever they want. And so on.
What we are rewarded with by this cryptic spectacle is not only potentially riveting cacophony but also a “psychodrama,” to use Zorn’s word, in which the personality of the individual players plays a part. Who would dare touch their ear and raise one finger—the signal to radically change the music at the downbeat—but someone fairly bold or impetuous? Who would put on the headband and play renegade? Perhaps someone with dad issues.
Cobra is not a work for shrinking violets, in other words. But then again, what work is? All good ensemble playing demands assertiveness while being at the mercy of subtle group dynamics. In Cobra, the difference is that all of those mini-dramas of desire and assertion, acceptance and rejection, are made explicit. As in Les Moutons de Panurge, there is no hiding from one’s convictions. For the sake of the group, that’s a good thing.