Acoustic Hygiene, Lunar Eclipses, and Orientalism

Monday, September 18, 2023 10:06 AM

Scenes from the fall season's first salon of the New York Composers Circle

Ben Gambuzza (original article here)

Yesterday, in a little studio on the eighth floor of the National Opera Center on Seventh Avenue, members of the New York Composers Circle (NYCC) met to workshop their music and learn about improvisation. A dozen or so composers sat in person, while another dozen joined over Zoom.

NYCC has been around since 2002, when Jacob E. Goodman gathered fellow composers to play their works for one another, and discuss and critique them. Since then, its members have included Elliot Carter, whose legendary career spanned over a century, and Tania Leon, who won the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 2021 for her orchestral work Stride. But the vast majority of its members are far from famous. They are all, however, established. As a result, Sunday afternoon’s meeting was a charming look into the inner-workings of Manhattan’s composer-to-composer circuit.

The main event was a talk on “comprovisation” — a mixture of predetermined arrangements of notated music and spontaneous creation — by the French-American composer and multi-instrumentalist Etienne Rolin. Lanky, bespectacled, and bald, Rolin gave a lively presentation on his bewildering method of notation and showed off his brand spanking new, 3D-printed Glissotar.

Bringing the room’s attention to one of his scores on a PowerPoint presentation, Rolin pointed to geometric shapes, squiggles, and graphs. He explained that he had over 1,500 different symbols in his head for instructing musicians how to play — whether for how long, how loud, how smoothly, or how freely. He would often act these out as he talked, running two pronged fingers down his arm to signal lower volume, for example.

Rather than use the traditional bar-line structure of metered musical notation, Rolin employs geometric shapes. Triangles, for example, signify three beats. Squares have four beats. Circles mean free improvisation — a “shark pool,” in his Rolin’s words, of indeterminacy. The players can play anything they want, just as long, Rolin said, as they play something that’s his sound and not make up something that sounds like Mozart.

Why does he write like this? He explained by quoting the French baroque composer Francois Couperin, who said (originally in French), “We write in one manner, we play in another.” Rolin’s system takes full advantage of this human folly. Since no one can ever play a piece of written-out music perfectly, why not have a little fun with it and improvise? This practice can serve as “acoustic hygiene” for musicians, Rolin said, meaning, I guess, periodically “cleaning off” the standard of perfection thrust upon us.

The result, upon listening, is kind of cool, but nothing groundbreaking. Rolin showed us a YouTube video of a Hamburg orchestra playing a piece he wrote as an homage to Jean-Philippe Rameau, another composer of the French baroque. While listening, harrowing memories of Boulez’s and Stockhausen’s music flooded my mind’s ear. Boulez predetermined every aspect of his music down to the timbre, in a method known as total serialization, which is diametrically opposed to Rolin’s emphasis on freedom for each player. But Stockhausen was one of the fathers of aleatoric music, and some of his pieces, like Klavierstück VI, approach the randomness which Rolin is experimenting with. And yet there was an amorphous direction, but direction nonetheless, palpable in this music.

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly which aspect of the music lends it this direction, this flow, this going from point A to point B. But I suspect it is a result, at least in part, of Rolin’s studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Boulanger taught Stravinsky, Copland, Quincy Jones, and a host of other musicians who went on to shape twentieth century music. But for all the revolutionary talent that came out of her tutelage, her own sensibility was surprisingly archaic. If you watch any of her lessons on YouTube (the one that begins at 2:00 here is my favorite) or listen to any of her compositions (Psalm XXIV is my favorite), you get the sense that she valued classic directionality — thinking in phrases, in where a line stops and starts. The natural conclusions of Mozart, the driving force of Beethoven, the melodic flow of Chopin. This, in contradistinction to focusing on mere harmony and counterpoint. And you can see and hear that, although she fostered each student’s distinct talent and voice, she trained them to always have a core in their compositions. And so it’s this ineffable core that makes Rolin’s music that we heard coherent and fun to listen to, despite the randomness and plucky stuff that surprises the listener at every turn.

But Rolin’s music is neither moving nor profound. And that is part and parcel of his intention. Children at play, is how he described the experience of making music. Robert S. Cohen, a composer sitting in the front row, seconded this. He chimed in to state that he thought we should just be giving instruments to kids who have no idea how to play them, show them a picture or graphic notation, and see how they interpret it. That, he said, might be better than giving this weird, improvisatory, indeterminate music to hyper-professional musicians from conservatories who have to actually unlearn what they’ve been taught in order to play it. Away with technique! Apply the aural deodorant of naïveté!

But the thing with children at play making sounds is, nobody wants to hear it.

Maybe that’s why a composer sitting in front of me plugged his ears when Rolin began to toot his Glissotar. A conical, clarinet-like wind instrument, the Glissotar produces an infinite number of pitches due to a compressible magnetic ribbon that lays on the slit that runs down the body of the instrument in place of traditional holes or buttons. The instrument gets its name from glissando, a glide from one pitch to another like you see pianists do when they run the back of their fingers across the keyboard. Rolin made it sound nice and jazzy but also squeaky and forbidding. He growled into it, resulting in multiple pitches, and made sounds like when you put your finger into your cheek and pop it out to make that bubble-popping sound. He played a composition on it that he wrote for the NYCC called Midtown Mezzanine. Airy, bluesy, nocturnal, screeching, and searching, the piece sounded like walking down a dark and damp alley in Midtown. But I wouldn’t listen to it again. Capitalizing on the novelty of the instrument, it was a piece, like Rolin’s other piece we heard, that is more for the curious musician or composer looking for new sounds than the emotionally starved concert-goer looking for sonic therapy. And let’s be honest: that’s most of us.

I left at the two-hour mark, but I witnessed workshop discussions of three pieces: Restless Moon, a piece for string quartet by the aforementioned Robert S. CohenParaphrase on the Peruvian National Anthem, by Emmanuel Sikora, and Orientalism, by the promising young composer, and new member of the Circle, Sami Seif.

Cohen, who has been been a member of the Circle since 2008, wore round, red-rimmed hippy glasses and a Hawaiian shirt, and stretched his legs before the session started because of a strenuous tennis match earlier in the day against a “West Coast guy.” His piece reflected the subject of his musing program note but not its humor. Beginning by saying, “The Moon has issues,” Cohen’s funny preamble goes on to celebrate lunar eclipses, which finally allow the moon to “get a good night’s sleep.” His piece was about to give me a good night’s sleep. Alternating between hesitant, slow, sliding harmonics, high-pitched tremolos, and luminous, spacious melody, it left much to be desired in way of sheer interest. But that’s what this workshop is for. And nothing is supposed to be perfect here. One fellow composer, David Mecionis, suggested that Cohen enrich the texture and add, in a way, more notes, perhaps boosting the importance of the viola lines. Richard Brooks concurred, but noted that “violas don’t like to go above the staff.”

Emmanuel Sikora, who is Peruvian-American, received similar critique for his piano piece, Paraphrase on the Peruvian National Anthem, a belabored, Chopin pastiche. He is an organist, and his rendition, which incorporated his own original block-like hymn melody, would be better suited to that instrument. But his colleagues gave constructive critique. Pipe-smoking Barrett Kalellis, a Zoom attendee, suggested that Sikora study some of Liszt’s opera transcriptions to find better ways to accompany the melody in the right-hand melody, while Cohen suggested moving the melody to the left hand now and then to liven it up.

Sami Seif, who wore a black baseball cap and sat in the back of the room, was the only non-white composer in the room. Born in 1998, he was also one of, if not the youngest. Originally from a small mountain town in Lebanon, Seif was raised in Abu Dhabi by a nonmusical family. He taught himself to read music by devouring theory books and, when he was 12, started playing on specially made keyboard instruments that could accommodate the microtones of Arabic music. He’s now in a Ph.D. program at CUNY.

For the workshop, he brought a piece for string quartet, Orientalism, based on the groundbreaking book by Edward Said, the Palestinian-American scholar who was also a brilliant music critic. It began with exchanges of recitative-like phrases scattered amongst the instruments in the Phrygian mode. The appearances of these phrases were so subtle, that it almost sounded like we were hearing distant musicians. I hesitate to say the sound was “authentic,” but when you consider how Western composers have bastardized this “snake-charmer” mode in favor of enforcing a stereotypical Eastern sound, Seif’s use of it was refreshing.

The rest of the piece was equally as fantastic. Taking Edward Said’s idea that the West always thinks of the East as a monolith, Seif created a sort of mini-concerto grosso, exploring the opposition between individual instrument and the rest of the ensemble. Seif writes in a program note that the piece grew out of “the constant disparity I felt between my experience of being an Arab, and the representation of Arabs which I saw in art, media, and what even claimed to be scientific literature.” A personal dilemma founded on a solid scholastic theory — the perfect combination.

Unlike a traditional string quartet, which, according to Seif, “seeks to blend the individual player with the quartet,” Orientalism lets each instrument lead the ensemble at various times, deciding tempi in a way that results in a feeling of fractured time, starting and stopping seemingly at will. Overlapping cascades of fast scales ascending and descending, racing toward interceding appearances of the Phrygian recitative, made the music wildly exciting to listen to. It was also fun to follow along with in the sheet music, because Seif, unlike Rolin, employs fairly traditional notation, even if he fills the page with detailed instructions for the players.

The typical listener will never get to see this notation and the beauty of how the music looks on the page. Likewise, the audience of one of Rolin’s concerts will never get to see, let alone understand, his wacky but fascinating geometric notation. Is this a problem? Is one crucial aspect of the music — how the music “looks” — denied to the listener? It might be. Then again, it’s always been. But it’s a problem that was brightly highlighted in this symposium of composers talking to composers.

Solution? I don’t know, maybe project the score onto a screen behind the ensemble. That would be fun and tacky. All I know is that part of the reason why a lot of new experimental music might be unenjoyable for the listener is because we haven’t seen the instructions. We’re missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Showing us the whole puzzle involves teaching the audience, and didacticism has never been good for music. But maybe one of you can come up with something.

Show us the map!