Monday, March 14, 2011

Three concerts: A triple dog dare involving Reich, Bach and G. Prokofiev

No Bach puns here.
By Barry Johnson

When Michael Kaiser, the head of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and itinerant national arts consultant without portfolio, was here last year, he said, among many other things, that arts groups needed to program adventurously, take on challenges, play for high stakes. This would tickle their audiences in their ticklish places and give their marketing departments half a chance to attract an audience.

As someone who writes about the arts, that sounded like very good advice to me. Take on something great and maybe they will come. And even if they don't, I, at least, will have an interesting time of it. Oh, we arts writers are a self-centered lot.

Anyway, I saw some serious risks taken this weekend, some major challenges accepted, and it all felt like a great adventure of a certain sort. Third Angle Ensemble gathered its potent percussion forces for Steve Reich's Drumming, Portland Baroque Orchestra summoned vocal reinforcements from here and abroad for Bach's St. John Passion, and Fear No Music played music with and by Gabriel Prokofiev, a young composer attempting to integrate the beats of the contemporary dance hall into his classical compositions, some of which he accompanied as DJ.  This was not your granny's trip hop.

I'm following my own chronological course, starting with Third Angle.

In a world full of data (and the signatures of data), repetition is the only guarantee that a specific string of data will make itself heard. Here's how physicist Freeman Dyson says it:
"Shannon law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant."
Claude Shannon was the father of information theory, and Dyson's quote comes from the middle of his review of James Gleick's new book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.  That review was on my mind as I listened to Third Angle Ensemble's account of three Steve Reich compositions at Montgomery Park Friday night.

Not that Reich had information in mind when he wrote Violin Phase, New York Counterpoint and Drumming, of course not. But they are all built on simple patterns, melodic or rhythmic, that Reich then manipulates, primarily by repeating them in different "phases," a few beats behind each other, a little like a round ("Row, Row, Your Boat") but not quite so obvious. From something pretty simple, Reich builds compositions that turn out to be satisfyingly complex. Still, at the heart of them is that brief "information stream," repeated over and over. And Gleick's book begins with a fascinating analysis of a drum language in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I like to think of my own head as the supplier of the "noise" in this case. Even when I sit down to listen to a concert, it's noisy up there with random thoughts, anxieties and information from my digestive tract, say (I could just be getting a little thirsty!). And then the music itself starts to generate "sympathetic" memories, allusions, thoughts. Where were we?! With Reich, you know: Right, that little rhythm. Look at what it's turned into now.

These compositions all seem a bit like experiments in data stream manipulation, but obviously they are more than that. They are "anthropological": of, by and for people. These data manipulations are pleasing, by which I think all I mean is "culturally appropriate," at least for the part of the culture that is open to this sort of thing.  But then repetition is a useful strategy in arenas other than information theory. Religious practices incorporate repetition, for example, especially chanting and specific prayers or mantras, though I'm also thinking of whirling Dervishes and the ecstasies of dance.

Yes, ecstasies. Repetition can lead to ecstasy, inexplicably perhaps to the cognitive part of our brain, which seems always to be looking for new information to analyze. And Reich's compositions Friday night demonstrated how that might happen: each repetition building until it kicks off a new phase that interlocks with the first phrase in a different way and then eventually leads to a third phase, and so on. In the hands of a skilled composer, which Reich is, the series of build-ups and releases raises the stakes higher and higher. I actually started laughing at the end of New York Counterpoint, played by the quartet of John Nastos, Kirt Peterson, Rob Davis an Tim Jensen on saxophones and clarinet, it was so delightful, though I can't claim to have achieved a breakthrough to another plane.

Drumming, at around an hour, was the most ambitious part of the program (and Violin Phase, performed by Third Angle artistic director Ron Blessinger, was the perfect hors d'oeuvres for that percussion buffet), with its collection of drums, marimbas, glockenspiels, two voices, a piccolo and a whistling human. And it sounds pretty complex, though we can follow it if the noise in our head doesn't drown it out. Where does it all come from? Here's Reich, as quoted in the program:
"There is, then, only one basic rhythmic pattern for all of Drumming. This pattern undergoes changes of phase position, pitch, and timbre, but all the performers play this pattern, or some part of it, throughout the entire piece."
I watched the musicians in Drumming closely for a while as they played,  and it took obvious hard concentration to keep the patterns going, especially when new phases began. It looked exhausting. And after Facebook exchange with a drummer friend, I started thinking of their efforts compared to those of maybe the Burundi Drummers, in which the drummers seem to participate in the ecstasy their repetitions produced. That led me to a train of thought comparing  conscious systemic data manipulation to the products of "deep" culture, which seem similar but which arrive in seemingly different ways. I say "seemingly" because that's one of the issues, isn't it? If we think of music as a close friend of mathematics, which I think we should, then generations of rhythmic repetition and creation can end up in a very "sophisticated" place.  By then, though I was so far afield of the concert that I just sat and listened to the Burundi Drummers on YouTube for a while and wandered away.

Because the "phases" that Reich talks about are so important, Montgomery Park's atrium, as visually arresting as it is, wasn't such a great concert hall. The echoing blurred the effect, especially the farther back in the audience you sat (which I gathered from some of the people seated in the rear). Still, Third Angle takes this music seriously and has for the past 25 years (!) -- the playing was precise and focused. The musicians knew they were taking on "canonical" compositions and responded with appropriate energy -- and maybe even trepidation? Because once we in the audience understand that rhythmic phrase, we're going to notice if someone mess it up!

After the players finished Drumming, I thought, well, that wasn't Everest that they'd just climbed, but it was at least Mt. Hood. And a friend said, "Maybe more like K-2," and we'll leave him with last word.

Extolling the 'Passion' 

My old colleague James McQuillen isn't generally effusive in print. Heck, he isn't effusive in person. But he was positively blurb-able on the subject of Portland Baroque Orchestra's St. John Passion. Here's the key bit from his online review for The Oregonian:
"Saturday's concert was not only a landmark performance by the ensemble but also the strongest performance of any kind this season."
I don't have the perspective to make either claim with assurance. But I know enough to be looking forward to the recording that PBO is doing with all the principals of this concert, because they were so accomplished and so committed to the "idea" of the music. I think by Sunday, when I saw the concert, they understood that something special was happening on stage. Executive director Tom Cirillo did, because he had a print-out of McQuillen's review close at hand and the happiest possible look on his face when I ran into him before the show. And I couldn't blame him a bit.

The great thing about this St. John Passion is its economy -- the effects both Bach and PBO, under musical director and violinist Monica Huggett, achieve with relatively small numbers is amazing. I counted 12 vocalists (including six soloists from Les Voix Baroques and six chorus members drawn from the Portland Cappella Romana) and 13 PBO musicians.  They give us Bach's emotional account of the last days of Jesus, according to the Gospel of John, and the subtle musical explorations of the Baroque that he epitomizes. (It involves lots of repetition! See above.)

Rather than go into the music itself (you're better off heading over to Wikipedia for that), I'll detour to the text, which is mostly drawn straight from John in the Bible of Martin Luther.  The High Priest (Hohenpriester) has asked Jesus about the preaching he has done with his disciples, and Jesus answers him:
"I have spoken freely and openly before the world. I have always taught in the synagogue and in the Temple, where all Jews come together, and have spoken nothing in secret. Why do you ask me about this? About this, ask those who have heard what I have spoken to them! Behold, these same ones know what I have said."
Yes. "I have spoken freely and openly before the world." This particular kernel of meaning, which Bach passes along to us in his musical version of the story,  is so revolutionary, so thrilling. Even in semi-democratic America, we know that there are repercussions for speaking freely and openly, and so we are guarded. Which, just to be clear, isn't to encourage the kind of crazy talk that pollutes what's left of the democracy we still have.  The preservation of this ideal, and not just in Bach, is one of those things beyond value to us, homo sapiens, because free and honest discourse is so central to the things that really matter to us.

Before we get too giddy about this revolutionary Bach document, however, here's Peter, who has just denied being a disciple of Jesus: "In the world there is no counsel whatsoever, and in my heart remain the agonies of my misdeed: for the servant has disavowed the Lord." Now that would have been a familiar formulation in Leipzig (or just about anywhere else in the world) in 1724, a more powerful injunction in the secular world than speaking freely and openly. (I like what the military guys say in the movies: "Permission to speak freely, sir.")

Finally, Bach preserves the philosophical discussion in the back-and-forth between Jesus and Pontius Pilate:
Jesus: You say that I am a king. For this I am begotten and come into this world: that I shall bear witness to the truth. Whoever is of the truth, he hears my voice.
Pilate: What is truth?
And, yeah, Pilate has a point -- if we are talking about logic and evidence. Jesus has already said he's not about this world, though, not about rational debate. So he can't dispute him on this particular ground; the rationalist can't find a foothold for argument. Which by the way, is why the separation of church and state, Caesar and God, is so important. Religious claims and conclusions about the good life are fine for the believer, but in the secular arena, the rules of logic and evidence are necessary to persuade those with a different set of beliefs and values.

Of course, we've wandered far afield of the pleasures of Bach and the St. John Passsion, which is probably a mistake. Fortunately, the recording that's in the works will be able to restore PBO's splendid version to us.

Fear No Music shows its classical hops

Having heard Reich and Bach, by Sunday night I was looking for something a little different, a little less formal, and Fear No Music had just what I needed -- casual classical. Not that it took any less skill to pull off. The music of Gabriel Prokofiev (the grandson of Sergei) is thorny in the way that contemporary classical music can be -- it's intermittent, saws against the grain of any temporarily suggested melody, subverts the auditor's expectations at every turn. Think you're going to get a nice fat chord here? How about a little dissonance, Scarecrow? Even if you're in a sound-proof booth, you can tell if the musicians are playing this sort of thing -- they are picking and plucking and knocking and swatting their instruments with their bows. The whole bow-on-string action is kept to a minimum!

Prokoviev, like a lot of young composers in the world's music centers these days, is attempting to reinvigorate classical music with what he calls the folk music of our time -- dance music. To that end, he himself occupied the DJs chair for a composition, and between pieces and at intermission, he did re-mixes of the music we'd just heard, snatching fragments of the compositions and laying a throbbing bass line under them, say. And with the accoutrement at hand, we also heard a cello solo (by Nancy Ives, principal with the Oregon Symphony) which intersected with a taped loop of the same solo, giving me a flashback to the Reich Violin Phase I'd heard on Friday night.

My favorite moment, speaking of dance rhythms, may have been the duet by violinist Paloma Griffin  and dancer Gavin Larsen, a push-and-pull both between music and choreographer AND dancer and violinist. We've extolled the virtues of Larsen before, and the application of dance to the fits and starts of Prokofiev's violin solo, energized by Griffin's playing, emphasized the piece's emotional layer. It made me wish more choreographers took on today's alt.classical or casual classical or contemporary classical music -- they serve each other in many ways.

Finally, Prokofiev himself was a genial presence onstage, supplying us with interesting information about the music we were about to hear and then responding to what he'd just heard the Fear No Music musicians play with genuine admiration. The ensemble plays really well, after all. And I hope that the relationship the group has forged with Prokofiev continues.

In conclusion...

So, right, how many more conclusions could I possibly have at this point? I'm all concluded out. We go out into the world looking for something, and sometimes we stumble upon things that we didn't know we needed, and then there they are. Perfect. And even if they aren't exactly right, somehow we make them work.  We're not helpless, after all.

I'm still thinking about Kaiser's advice from way up there in the first paragraph, and I'm giving the three concerts I attended this weekend high marks for their daring. Because if they can't speak openly and freely, who can?

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