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CUNY Graduate Center Advocate


California Dreaming (at Juilliard)

Music Review / Naomi Parley

FOCUS! Festival at Lincoln Center.

In trying to untie the many strands of classical music’s storied history, one of the most common techniques is to proceed country-by-country: the Austro-German school with its musical superheroes (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms) ostensibly dominates, but there are equally fascinating stories to be told about the histories of the French, Italian, Russian, British, and of course, American musical traditions.

Juilliard’s recent FOCUS! festival went one step further, focusing on the music of just one state: California. In his thoughtful introductory note to the FOCUS! programme booklet, the festival’s director Joel Sachs asks: “Is there a ‘California music’ and, if so, what is it?” His reply: “Yes, and it is everything imaginable, and more.” After attending five of the festival’s six concerts, I have to agree wholeheartedly with this assessment. As I sat in the theatre, I experienced the auditory equivalent of strolling around a World’s Fair. While California’s most renowned composers, Henry Cowell and John Adams, featured prominently in the festival, the vast majority of the works performed each night were by relatively obscure composers. The festival presented an excellent opportunity to get to know some works that rarely travel across the country.

The most exciting performances were those that involved electronics, extended techniques, or unusual instruments. This is not simply because these works by necessity have a unique sound, quite distinctive from standard chamber music concert fare. Rather, I was continually amazed by both Juilliard’s willingness to program such unconventional works, and by the extraordinarily high level of performance attained by the students involved in the festival. Finally, while the festival proved through sheer quantity that Californian music is “everything,” these were the works that resonated most strongly with my preconception of what California music might be.

The finale of the January 26 concert, Chinary Ung’s Grand Alap—“A Window in the Sky”—is a case in point. Ung, who was born in 1942, grew up in Cambodia and later came to the United States to continue his musical studies. In addition to his training as a classical composer, he has extensively researched traditional Cambodian music, and his compositions fuse Eastern and Western styles and instruments. This type of cultural fusion seems endemic to Californian music—it reaches back past the midcentury immigrants to America such as Ung, to California’s earliest composers, such as American-born Henry Cowell, who grew up alongside Asian immigrants in the slums of San Francisco, and forward to California-born composers such as Gabriela Lena Frank, whose mother was of Peruvian-Chinese ancestry, and whose father was a Lithuanian Jew.

Grand Alap, for cello and percussion, derives its title from the opening, improvisatory passage of Indian Raga music, the alap. Ung merges this Indian concept with musical materials derived from the traditions of South and Southeast Asia, to create a work of great beauty and intense emotion. To say that this is merely a work for cello and percussion would be misleading; both the cellist and percussionist have extensive vocal parts as well. For instrumentalists, there are few concepts more daunting than singing alone in public. I think it has to do with not being able to mediate our voices through our instruments, as we are accustomed to doing. That being said, these two talented musicians rose to the task and performed beautifully. This was without a doubt my favourite performance in a night full of excellent performances.

There were a few other compositions in which the musicians were called on to use their voices instead of their instruments—only in these instances as speakers. At the January 26 concert, the pianist Evan Shinners performed Pauline Oliveros’s The Autobiography of Lady Steinway. Oliveros describes her composition thus: “The performer imagines himself to be the invisible voice of the piano and tells the stories, relationships and feelings that may be resonating within the piano.” The performer not only acts out the part of the Steinway, but in fact writes his own part. Shinners’s monologue detailed the (often humorous) daily trials and tribulations of a Steinway, including an affair she once had with a Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, who was considerate enough not to stamp all over her gold feet. I was surprised to learn that Shinner himself was a pianist; his delivery was so good, I assumed that he was an acting student.

One of my favourite works on the program was Paul Chihara’s Logs, which could be performed by any number of double basses (at this performance, there were four). The work is part of a larger group of pieces dealing with trees, including Branches, Redwood, Driftwood, and Forest Music, to name a few. Logs consists of a main phrase and several contrasting phrases which are continuously repeated and varied by the bassists. The double-bass is a perfect choice for a piece about logs; the instrument, after all, is made out of wood, and is rather large. In addition to the traditional means of playing a bass, that is by bowing or plucking the strings, the bassists played on the instruments themselves, treating them almost as very delicate percussion instruments. The result was a work of naturalistic beauty that transported me out of the concert hall, out of a cold New York in January, and into one of California’s redwood forests.

The earliest composer represented at the Focus! Festival was Henry Cowell, one of America’s great modernist composers. Cowell gained widespread notoriety in the 1920s for his revolutionary approach to the piano. In his many compositions for the instrument, Cowell uses a variety of techniques that no one before him had dared to introduce, such as using a fist or the entire forearm to play a whole cluster of notes at once, or reaching inside the piano to play on the strings themselves. These advances in piano composition were important not just because of the unique sound that they imparted to his works, but because of the effect they had on later generations of composers. In the 1940s, John Cage (a student of Cowell’s) began to “prepare” pianos by placing objects such as screws and erasers on the strings, creating a completely different timbre more akin to an Eastern percussion ensemble than a piano. Since the time of Cage and Cowell, many composers have begun to use extended techniques of all sorts on every instrument, including several of the composers featured at the Focus! Festival.

Given this context, it was a wonderful treat to hear Euntaek Kim play some of Cowell’s piano pieces on January 28. Particularly exciting was his performance of The Harp of Life. In Cowell’s words, “According to Irish mythology, the god of life created a new living creature with each tone sounded on his great cosmic harp, a harp described as reaching from above heaven to beneath hell.” The work consists basically of a simple melody, accompanied by tone clusters in the piano’s lowest range; these clusters start off as rumbles in the depths of the instrument that gradually grow in intensity. Kim conveyed all the nuances of this work with great command, and in doing so, turned the focus away from the unusual techniques required of him by Cowell, and back to where it should be: on the music itself.

One aspect of Californian music that has gained recognition throughout the country is the pioneering work that has been done in the field of tape music, largely at the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Out of the many tape and electronic works presented at the festival, Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes, scored for tape and brass, stood out as the most obviously Californian. The tape part consists of ambient noise from the San Francisco Bay, most notably the sound of foghorns, as well as some vocalisations and some sounds on the gambuh, a Balinese bamboo flute. The work’s climax is especially striking: as the lowest-sounding foghorns get louder and become more and more prevalent in the work’s texture, the brass sound a minor chord in unison above them.

Sachs admitted that since the point of FOCUS! is to provide performance opportunities for Juilliard’s students, it had to “shortchange” California’s performance-art scene. Most performance artists compose exclusively for themselves, often not writing down their music, thus making it nearly impossible for others to perform their works. However, the festival did include one work by San Francisco-based Pamela Z. For the most part, Pamela Z composes for her own voice and electronics. The work performed on January 28, Four Movements for Cello and Delays, is in fact the only solely instrumental work she has written. In each of the four movements, the cello and its delayed playback interact in a different way. In the first movement, the opening motive became an ostinato underlying the rest of the movement, In the second, by contrast, the cello’s long, rich melodies were superimposed on one another, so that at first, only one line was heard, then two in counterpoint, then three, and so on. The sense of formal cohesion and motivic unity present in each movement, combined with Pamela Z’s conception of the cello as an extension of the human voice, made this a work of incredible beauty, and possibly my favourite of the entire festival.

For the grand finale of the festival, John Adams led Juilliard’s musicians (joined by the Concert Chorale of New York) in a moving performance of Death of Klinghoffer. Concert performances of operas (where the opera is not staged at all, merely played and sung through) can often be quite dull, not to mention confusing. However, this was easily the most exciting concert performance of an opera I have seen to date. To begin with, the opera lends itself well to this type of presentation. The opera is mostly reflective in character; the individual characters have their own arias, which are interspersed with choruses, but rarely do they interact in the way that they would in a play or in a more conventional opera. Most of the action takes place offstage, and the characters rarely enter into dialogue with each other; rather they sing at each other. Beyond the opera’s natural capacity for this type of performance, this production tried to make the concert setting as realistic as possible. The characters were all in costume to some extent, and the cast did their best to act out the parts given the obvious constraints on their movements.

All told, Death of Klinghoffer provided the perfect end to a thrilling week of Californian music at the FOCUS! Festival, and left me filled with anticipation for next year’s offerings. 

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