the notes that make culture

henry andersen: soft soft loud—the americas, perth festival

CONSIDER THE AMERICAN DREAM. FREEDOM. OPPORTUNITY. EXCESS. NOW, CONSIDER AMERICAN MUSIC, SPECIFICALLY CLASSICAL. MUSIC IS OFTEN INDICATIVE OF THE PLACE WHERE IT WAS WRITTEN AND ACCORDINGLY, THE CLASSICAL CANON OF THE AMERICAS HAS A FAR DIFFERENT CHARACTER FROM THAT OF EUROPE. IN THE AMERICAS, CLASSICAL MUSIC IS AN IMPORT. WITHOUT THE SAME WEIGHT OF TRADITION, AMERICAN COMPOSERS ARE FREER TO PULL IN A VARIETY OF INFLUENCES FROM JAZZ, ROCK AND OTHER NATIVE MUSICS.

As part of the Perth International Arts Festival, Soft Soft Loud presented contemporary chamber music by composers from USA, Mexico and Argentina. In every piece, there was a sense of music’s role as a cultural signifier.

Take, for example, Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov’s voice and ensemble piece Ayre, which uses religious melodies to explore music’s ability to simultaneously evoke and transcend culture. “With a little bend, a melody goes from Jewish to Arab to Christian,” says Golijov. The piece had some beautiful softer melodies but its inclusion of (admittedly, tongue in cheek) rock sections and drum machines came off as heavy-handed. Rapid stylistic shifts also featured in American Andy Akiho’s Hamba iro (for steel pan, drum kit, string quintet and harp) but the changes were far smoother. The piece pulled itself, serpent-like, through waves of cool jazz, brooding classicism and energetic Caribbean.

Woven through the program were movements from George Crumb’s beautiful Eine Kleine Mitternacht Musik (Ruminations on ‘Round Midnight’ by Thelonious Monk) for solo piano. The American Crumb’s music is the most European sounding of the program, transporting the original Thelonious Monk tune from New World cool to Old World sadness. As a pianist, Monk revelled in music’s stray threads, those moments when the tune falls away into some angular, atonal gesture. In Crumb’s variations, the situation is reversed so that atonality is the norm and the original theme is the interruption—a fond memory or a hopeful rumour of a tune.

The night’s highlight was Steve Reich’s response to the Twin Tower attacks, WTC 9/11, for tape and string quartet. The story goes that on the day of the attacks, a panicked Reich rang his son in New York. After a few minutes, all New York’s phones cut out suddenly, leaving a blaring alarm on the phone line. The piece opens with this alarm, its unrelenting F’s picked up and augmented by the violins to gradually create a chilling cluster chord. Like Reich’s 1988 Different Trains (which dealt with the Holocaust), WTC 9/11 uses fragments of cut-up speech which are mimicked and accompanied by live strings. It’s a detached, almost documentarian approach to dealing with horror which manages to be affecting without feeling manipulative.

Reich’s influence was clear in Mexican Javier Alvarez’s string quartet Metro Nativitas (from 1999, the oldest piece on an impressively contemporary program). The piece uses Reichian minimalist forms but with dense, atonal harmonies and rhythms taken from South American folk dance. The result was an absorbingly static dissonance with a sudden, sheer finish. Another Reich piece, his Pulitzer winning Double Sextet closed the concert. Reich is perhaps the most purely American of any composer. His sound is a grab-bag of tropes from classical, jazz and rock all pulled together by the music’s relentless forward motion, its dogged insistence on growth. It is music that doesn’t sound like anywhere else. Freedom, opportunity and occasional excess.

Perth International Arts Festival: Soft Soft Loud—The Americas; Artistic director Matthew Hoy, Fremantle Arts Centre, Feb 12, 2012

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 5

© Henry Andersen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

10 April 2012