Take Timeout for Music in Time 

Music of “the other John Adams” (with a John Kennedy interlude)

Among the Spoleto USA events I particularly look forward to every year are the four evergreen Music in Time (MIT) series. And that’s because I learn more about music — specifically the music of now — in these concerts than in any other Spoleto events, save perhaps in some of the juicy new operas. And the series’ director, John Kennedy, probably does more to expose people to the best of cutting-edge contemporary musical art than anybody else on the planet.

And to think I get to sit at the guru’s feet in this series three more times in the next two weeks, and get a little smarter about what the coolest composers anywhere are up to these days. And, with more composers alive and working nowadays than have collectively existed throughout all of human history, Kennedy’s service to the world of serious music is truly a valuable one.

Saturday’s MIT series opener lived up fully to my expectations. I’ve long known of John Luther Adams by reputation and have been tantalized by bits and pieces of his music on CD. But I’ve never gotten around to exploring it in greater detail. That is until this past Saturday. And it’s about time, because Adams has just been awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for music, and I just had to find out what the fuss was all about. Mission accomplished.

From Kennedy’s remarks beforehand, we learned that Adams is closely attuned to the natural world, and that his very expressive compositions usually seek to imitate natural environments or processes. As Adams himself puts it, “My hope is that the music creates a strange, beautiful, overwhelming — sometimes even frightening landscape, and invites you to get lost in it.” After yesterday, I can report that he achieves that goal well.

The first of his two works featured in this program was The Light Within, a piece for chamber ensemble (violin, cello, alto flute, bass clarinet, percussion and piano) that comes across as distinctly minimalistic in style. Its purported goal is to evoke an impression of slowly shifting palettes of light and color. The image that it inspired in my mind while listening was something like the gradual fading of skylight and post-sunset hues as dusk gives way to darkness. Or maybe the reverse process of dawn. Instrumental techniques were mostly quite simple, with the strings and woodwinds playing an array of long, drawn-out single tones, with each instrument shifting notes ever-so-slowly against a background of repetitive figurations from the piano and percussion. And indeed, I quickly “got lost in it,” luxuriating in the hypnotic sonic textures. After it ended, it seemed as if I were waking up out of a peaceful and pleasant dream.

Then, to provide what Kennedy described as something “aurally different,” we got to hear his own recent composition for mixed percussion and piano. Inequalities was written specifically for the two remarkable artists who performed it here — pianist Conor Hanick and percussionist George Nickson, both of whom have graced Spoleto before (both of them performed splendidly in all three of the concert’s pieces). In this one, Kennedy sought to offer music that compares and contrasts the varied sonorities between the two. Since the piano is essentially a percussion instrument, there are indeed some similarities in tone, timbre and sonic texture between the two, but the battery of percussion on hand (including a vibraphone, woodblocks, triangles, bells, woodblocks, a gong, and a BIG bass drum) offered, of course, a much broader array of characteristic sounds.

And indeed, as the music unfolded, there were moments of what I thought of as ”sonic confluence” between the two, but they invariably gave way to interludes of wildly differing aural impressions. The same scheme of contrasts also seemed to apply to harmonic structures, conventionally harmonic one moment, but discordant the next. Tracing said confluences and contrasts via my “mind’s ear” definitely turned out to be an absorbing mental exercise that I wouldn’t mind repeating.

The program ended with another fascinating number by Adams, his Four Thousand Holes, also for piano and percussion (and played by the same artists), but with a prerecorded foundation of shifting single electronic tones sounding from on stage speakers. Quite different from his first piece, this work was mostly tonal harmonically, involving a continuous web of sound created by the “cycling” of major and minor triads. The composer’s apparent intent here was to move between sections of spare, often transparent aural textures to passages of sonic saturation. My own impression suggested repetitive, but varied cycles in which sonic spaces would gradually fill up and then drain away. Amazing stuff.

I’m keenly anticipating the next MIT event, a single work known as Schnee (Fri. May 30), by Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. Kennedy told me well before the festival kicked off that, if I could only make it to one of the four MIT events, that’s the one I shouldn’t miss. And I won’t.

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