I’m not writing this for a Globe audience, so this may be a little bit rougher around the edges.
New music is the reason I write. It’s the reason I continue to write. On the last night of the Rubin Institute a year ago, I wrote to a friend, “When I’m set loose I’ll write like I learned to here, about everything I couldn’t write about here.” Though both of the reviews with which I applied to the Institute were of contemporary programs, there wasn’t any new music on the slate, and I immediately started reviewing anything new or inventively programmed that I could take in once I got out.
New music is also the genre I’m maybe second most insecure writing about, because I don’t begin to understand the technical and theoretical aspects of it. I can’t play it – I can sing it in choirs, but not solo – and every time I sit down to write about a new piece, I have to stop myself from falling into a loop of agonizing over who I am to say anything about it.
In the same vein, new music is sometimes the easiest thing to write about. Aside from maybe some of the composer’s previous work (and when I’m writing 400 words, I can take or leave that) there’s nothing I absolutely have to mention. The genre I’m most insecure writing about is opera in the common repertoire, because opera fandom is intense. If I don’t mention that a few bars of music got omitted here or there, or if I don’t talk about a certain aria, or if I haven’t listened to enough recordings, or if I don’t know how every major Tosca from 1950 to 2000* jumped (or didn’t) off the battlements, I will lose all my credibility with a select few. With new music, it’s just me, a blank page, and a piece of music no one else in the audience has probably heard before.
“I can’t remember anything. I remember only ideas and sensations,” says Buck Mulligan near the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Don’t ask me to hum something from tonight’s Ensemble Dal Niente concert back to you, because I don’t remember it. Even the incessant melody from the first section of Kreidler’s Stil 1i, one I thought would never leave my head, was sandblasted away. It repeated again and again in the most ridiculous combinations of synth samples and canned beats, with a starburst cluster signaling a change in configuration. If Andy Warhol painted a triptych of an iPhone, its ringtone would be that melody.
It might be interesting to try to hum Helmut Lachenmann’s Guero, so maybe I’d try it. I’m not sure how accurate it would be, or how much humming it would capture the spirit of the piece. It was the most atonal piece I’d ever heard, “atonal” here meaning “having no tones.” Mabel Kwan slid her fingers along the slender undersides of the piano’s keyboard, scraping her nails off the edges, plucking the muted strings, never once calling on the familiar keystroke of the instrument. She was almost scientific in her approach, her face calm and her motions deliberate with no hint of irony or mischief.
matthias spahlinger’s adieu m’amour, played by violinist Tam Travers and cellist Chris Wild at separate ends of the stage. The stage lights went down, the house lights stayed up. It felt like we were the ones on display, and I couldn’t immerse myself until I closed my eyes. The piece itself was like a journey down a dark, slow-moving river, with mournful, detuned voices softly calling to each other from opposite banks. When a harsh buzz erupted from the cello it felt like a shock, even though not particularly loud compared to many of the evening’s sounds.
Mark Andre’s zu staub had the most arresting harmonic journey. It began with small, staccato sounds in solo or small combinations, spaced out by long silences. Sustained background notes gradually appeared, and the little jumps of activity faded into the distance, just as a small detail in close up becomes imperceptible in the bigger picture. Strings creaking and gongs echoing created a beautifully bleak atmosphere. Visually, it evoked a derelict ship, abandoned, only a few last rats scurrying through the cracks. When the scale of the sound shrunk again, I sensed not that we had zoomed back in but that we were still further out, the earlier behemoth now far in the distance.
One last thought: in twenty years, will flautists playing Carola Bauckholt’s chilly Zopf be able to find any more cassette tape cases to swing and squeak?
*purely facetious example