Queens College New Music Group, December 20, 2011

by Jeremy Barbaro

The Queens College New Music Group (QCNMG) concluded its Fall 2011 concert season with a concert of thirteen new works on Tuesday, December 20 in LeFrak Concert Hall at the Aaron Copland School of Music, Queens College, Flushing, NY. The featured performers included Svetlana Stegantseva on oboe and PUBLIQuartet, a string ensemble comprised of violinists Curtis Stewart and Jessie Montgomery, violist Nick Revel and violoncellist Amanda Gookin. I had the pleasure of being in attendance at this concert; although there were not many others in attendance, it was a better turnout than at the previous new music concert at Queens in October.

The evening began with six short works for oboe under the heading Portable Music; the six works were by six different composers and were played in succession without applause until the very end of the final work. Han Man Woong’s Pierrot was the first piece played. One can hear specific key areas being visited in the work, as Woong started the piece in C minor, but in a playful manner, with staccati (as Pierrot was known as the “sad clown.”) Key areas were especially ephemeral, moving from C minor to A major in a brief A section, then to B minor in the B section before an arpeggiated section using half-diminished and minor sonorities. Just before a return to A, Woong utilized an interesting scalar pattern in the key of C# that contained a lowered 2, 6, and 7 but a major third; this reminded me a bit of some of Bartok’s scalar passages from the third movement of his Suite for Piano, Op. 14. Because the piece was so short and in ABA form, it brought back to my memory the second prelude in Scriabin’s opus 74 collection.

Next on the program was William Wheeler’s Spem in Alium. Himself a treble woodwind player (clarinet,) Wheeler spun out some beautiful sustained lines in this miniature work (and in fact far exceeded the prescribed one-minute time frame for the work; however, the extra time was necessary to complete the musical thoughts presented at the onset of the piece.) The piece began with the introduction of a recurring motive, G—D—F--A, followed by an ascending “spinning out” to the higher end of the oboe, not remaining in the key area of G; the process was then repeated two times (although not literally, the gestures are quite similar); the ascending spinning out resembled specific treble passages in the Mässig of Schoenberg’s Klavierstücke, Opus 11. The motive was then transposed up a minor seventh to F; this time, however, the motion was downward Schoenberg’s, and definitely established Bb as a temporary tonic. After two episodic ascending “spinnings out,” Wheeler returned to the original “key” of the motive, (albeit an octave higher) and descended down the “white keys” to end on an F (this final gesture reminded me of some similar gestures used by Debussy in any number of his works.)

Maria Mykolenko’s lines in space was the next piece performed. At first, it was not clear to me if there was an underlying programmatic meaning for such a title; however, I soon realized that it was a description of the content of the piece: several melodic lines being superimposed over silence. The lines were lyrical, not really in any type of key area, mostly in stepwise motion (half steps, mostly) with occasional disjunct leaps, including a couple of seventh leaps. As is typical of many of Mykolenko’s works, spoken text was introduced early on in the work (“nu” after the first two notes.) The work was definitely economical in terms of material used, leading me to believe there were some thoughts of minimalism involved in the creation of this piece.

Svetlana Stegantseva then continued with Sean Havrilla’s Pointillist Etude #1. Havrilla is an oboist, and showed his prowess with an appropriately idiosyncratic atonal work. As suggested by the title, the piece had a lighter feel with many staccati, exploring both ends of the oboe’s range in large leaps. The melodic lines were initially mostly angular, with frequent interjections breaking brief silences; as the work continued, several brief legato motives helped provide contrast and balance. Havrilla even threw in a multiphonic chord right near the end of the piece (one of my favorite moments of the evening.) The large leaps combined with Havrilla’s manner of inserting staccato reminded me of a faster version of portions of the flute and oboe parts in canon towards the middle of Charles Ives’ Central Park in the Dark.

Howie Kenty’s An Unwilling Descent into Torpor evoked memories of passages from the slow movements of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps with its slow, lyrical double-reed melody; Kenty actually ended the tonally ambiguous first phrase on the same notes of the bassoon part from the opening of Le Sacre (B—A.) This piece was constructed more around pitch centers than keys per se, and Kenty effectively used sequences of a couple of brief motives in maintaining this construction, once in the middle of the work and once at the conclusion. The final oboe work immediately followed, Manuel Ciordia’s She’s Too Good for Me (that’s what they told me). Ciordia’s “tune” (an appropriate moniker given the style he chose to write in) could have been taken straight out of Tin Pan Alley, or more specifically, one of George Gershwin’s songbooks, it was so reminiscent of the musical theatre-style writing of the earlier decades of the 1900’s. A very singable melody that began in the key of G minor (actually imitating “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess for the first few notes) moved towards b minor, then a middle section starting in B Major visited several different keys until “returning” to the key area of Bb major at the end (the final key is ambiguous until the final note.) Ciordia added a few ornaments to the basic melodic line and immediately reminded me of the jazz “standards” that were actually derived from older musical theatre literature. This work provided a tasteful contrast to the more modern-sounding preceding offerings.

The first piece PUBLIQuartet played was Han Man Woong’s String Quartet (movements I and II.) The work itself was based on Korean folk motives; the first movement was based on the beginning line of Ohchejilgut (a Korean folk drumming rhythm pattern.) Set in a moderate tempo in 12/8 time, this first movement explored several different modes based in pitch center D, including Lydian (reminiscent of some of Benjamin Britten’s string works,) Ionian and Aeolian (mode mixture a la Ravel.) Woong set off the beginning of each sub-section with a pizzicato on open strings (he also inserted a more lengthy pizzicato section later on in the movement. Towards the middle of the movement, he relaxed the focus on the key of D a bit with some augmented triads outlined approaching the style of Debussy and Ravel, only to return to the key of D in a partial return of the A section (introduced with an arco version of the open-strings intro, followed immediately by the original pizzicato version. The second movement “was inspired from a rowing chant from Incheon…utilizing a sense of call-and response that the original chant consists of” (composer’s words.) This movement (also in triple meter, but with a faster-moving feel) began with a longer-still pizzicato section, imitating what was done in both Debussy’s and Ravel’s string quartets. The movement began in a C major/A minor tonal center and, after briefly touching a few other harmonies, moved to D Major before returning to C/A. In a developmental B section, another lengthy pizzicato section ensued and was followed by an arco passage moving the tonality from C major to G# minor, then to D major; some tonally ambiguous material highlighting the tritone followed before a partial repeat of the G# minor section. Again, Woong chose to bring back an abridged version of the opening section in this movement, injecting some dissonant, parallel-moving (like in Debussy’s music) chords before ending on a C6 harmony (again like Ravel in expanding the sense of tonality.)

PUBLIQuartet then played Sunny Knable’s 3 Dances for String Quartet. The first movement, a Twisted Tarantella, featured a fast tempo with strong Stravinsky influence, especially with regards to the feeling of constantly changing groupings in time signature (Le Sacre du Printemps.) The writing is highly chromatic and only seems to land in a key for a little while in the middle (C major) before traversing somewhere else. Knable effectively varied his textures by staggering entrances of each part in several different ways. This first movement ended with some white-note chords played in open fifths (feeling of C major) and then a sudden shift to a C# major chord, really leaving the listener in suspense. The second movement, Waffling Waltz, an extremely tonal work in b minor, was a theme and variations featuring a mensuration canon. Knable’s counterpoint was exquisite; the piece effectively combined old and new, much like Stravinsky arranging Pergolesi’s Pulcinella or Webern re-orchestrating a Bach Ricercare. An exciting moment came midway through the movement with some fast rhythmic hemiola; the piece ended vaguely with either an extremely extended chord or a bi-tonal chord. Jangly Jig, the final movement (interesting to note how these movements are dance forms/pastiches, like Ravel so often wrote,) was, as advertised in the title, a fast-moving lilting piece which featured what could best be described as “fiddle” music. It evoked images of cowboy music of the Midwest, approaching Copland in some ways. The piece was tonal (D major) but highly chromatic; Knable wrote the work between the years 2006 and 2009.

Maria Mykolenko also contributed a string quartet work to this concert, kgt. Mykolenko again used sonic aspects as well as silence and the spoken word, as in her earlier work on this program. The bookends of the work consisted of oscillation between loud sonic blasts followed by absolute silence; at the beginning of the piece, she also introduced sustained single-note harmonics (Mykolenko is an accomplished violinist and has an understanding of advanced technique for this instrument family,) individual sustained notes in one part, and then the chant “kgt.” What followed was a series of slower repeated notes in each instrument (the players were asked to be free with the exact rhythms in the slower sections,) with one instrument changing notes at a time; this was very much in the style of Schoenberg in his "Farben" from Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 16 and the third movement of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet (without the hairpin dynamics present in both of these works.) A middle section established D minor (sometimes shifting to D Dorian) as an over-arching key area through an increase in tempo (when a key could be identified in the work, it was most often D minor.) Some more sonic blasts and harmonics were interspersed throughout, eventually closing in the way mentioned above (with some chanting “kgt” and a couple of sonic blasts.) Mykolenko’s two works exemplify her current signature sound and style: use of spoken word, silence, and fairly straightforward melodies (with deviation, of course.)

The next piece on the program was my work, Wave(s). I took two collections of augmented triads a half-step apart from each other to form a set; I then determined the traditional triads and seventh chords that could be constructed from such notes, and that was how I formed the first half of the work. For the middle of the piece, I added another set of two augmented triads to the set; the result of my choice was a nine-note set, which added more chord choices (for good measure, I sporadically included chords that could not be classified traditionally, hence causing an “irregularity” in some of the wave(s).) I then added a tenth note before condensing the four stringed instruments to two final notes a half-step apart: one of the two notes was the “newest” note. The tempo for the work was grave, with a constant eighth-note pulse through a constantly-changing time signature (every measure had a time signature change except one measure near the beginning.) Feedback I had received concerning the work spoke of the atonal yet highly lyrical writing (I am a professional vocalist) and that it was Schoenbergian in sound.

Adam Kaufman’s Angst was the next work to be performed. Kaufman, a prodigy, has been working on and off Broadway as a musical director and keyboardist since he was a teenager. This clearly tonal piece began in the key of C minor with quartal harmonies, then settled into a quick, foot-tapping 3/4 meter (the cellist actually was instructed to stomp her feet in all of the quicker sections,) with a mixed modal melody (C Aeolian, Dorian and Mixolydian) and quartal harmonies emerging above an active “bass line” being played by the cello. Many techniques of musical theatre/commercial music were present in this piece, including a stylistic type of pitch bend in the treble voices typically used by vocalists. A couple of appropriate contrasts were provided throughout, including a brief pizzicato episode, a slower rubato section featuring a melody in the cello, a middle section that sounded much more atonal (or at the very least highly chromatic) and strategically-placed short silences or an occasional one-measure meter change to keep the 3/4 time from becoming banal. Before a brief return to the A section at the end, a more prolonged pizzicato section in the upper strings established E as a temporary tonal center while the cello played a rhythmic melodic figure; then a few loud tutti chords led into the abridged A section. The return of beginning material was “interrupted” a couple of times by the contrasting figures mentioned earlier as well as the tutti chords and some new material. The piece ended with quick tutti scalar passages and a loud pizzicato C6 chord. The work did not resemble any of the literature covered in Music 784 but was exciting to listen to; keep an ear open for Adam Kaufman’s works in days to come (he is a true talent.)

Daniel Liot Fine next offered up the second movement of his Still it is Night, entitled Purgatorio. In this movement, Fine made much use of clusters of very close intervals, creating mini-“walls” of sound. Also prevalent in this piece were myriad coloristic effects on the strings; Fine created a continuum of sounds ranging from different gradations of sur la touche to almost-on-the-bridge instances of sul ponticello (the sonic results were captivating, from sounds resembling brass “wolf tones” to sounds resembling electric guitar distortion.) In the composer’s own words, “as the movement develops…the music repeatedly attempts with mounting intensity, pathos and desperation to break free of this stasis, [tone clusters, static harmonic field] employing violent gestures and distorted dance forms only to find itself constantly pulled back into its own immoblilty—its own musical purgatory—until , at the very end, through the sheer violence of gesture, it tears free with a demonic “organ” music that would seem to indicate a destination more in the region of Hell than of Heaven.” Fine started the movement with a single pitch (Bb,) and built the range up a couple of half steps, then down a half step from the starting point; this was how he established the range for the tone clusters. Pizzicati were added afterwards, including a cello ostinato underneath the “stasis” mentioned above. Fine then employed the first of many substantial portamenti, adding this into his cumulative mix of colors. An alarm-like portamento canon followed in the upper strings; this was where the color palette expanded to include the wolf tones as well as the “distortion” sound. After a pizzicato was played concurrently with the highest note in the work (a high B,), tonality was almost briefly visited, with a passage sounding like it could have been in the key of C minor. Following another “resistance” (tone clusters, more pizzicati,) ideas approximating a type of D minor mode entered in the guise of upward moving portamenti alarms. One final resistance of tonal clusters and portamenti alarms ensued, followed by a four-fold statement of the aforementioned “organ music” establishing D as tonic for the end of the work. In my opinion, this movement could have been the brainchild of George Crumb (some ideas were comparable to Black Angels without the electrically amplified string instruments.) Having spoken with several string instrumentalists over the course of several years, I found that the string players enjoyed playing the works of Daniel Fine; they found them creative as well as challenging.

To close the program, Richard Boukas presented his thesis work, O Campeão (The Champion.) Divided into two movements, Despedaçado (Broken into Pieces) and Expansão (Expansion,) this work was dedicated to the Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal. Boukas is a composer of predominantly Brazilian-influenced jazz and chamber works and teaches music at The New School in Manhattan. In this work, he attempted to compose freely without predispositions to Brazilian influences. Boukas opened Despedaçado “with overlapping entries similar to the opening of Bartok’s First String Quartet (composer’s own words.) The tempo was moderately slow at the beginning, with long, legato phrases not in any specific key; there were, however, extended tertian sonorities such as 9ths and 11th chords that could be heard (like in Ravel’s works.) The cello then had a brief solo, followed by a two-layered texture where the lower voices came in and were joined by the upper two voices (this happened two times in succession.) The next two-voiced statement (more actively moving tempo) centered around the pitch A without actually being in the key (the first hint of a key area.) After the other two instruments returned in no clear key, a few loud sonic chords ensued, extending the range of the piece in both directions. Boukas then used some parallel sixths as transition material (he used sixths often in this movement) to transition to a section where more definite tonality could be heard (Ab Major, then Db Major/Bb minor.) A second section of the first movement commenced with a longer, rhythmically active pizzicato section (Ravel, Debussy’s quartets.) The cello then continued with a pizzicato ostinato while the upper three string players entered separately in three distinct layers, with the first violin and viola on double stops and the second violin with a lyrical melodic figure approaching the key of D (Boukas mentioned in his notes that this ostinato section recalled Stravinsky’s folkloric period.) Another brief transition in parallel sixths brought back a partial return to the A section, where the movement concluded.

In my opinion, Boukas’ attempt to compose freely without Brazilian influence was mostly successful in the first movement; he chose to make the second movement (Expansão) in an overt southern Brazilian genre, the guarânia; this offering was in animated 3/4 time, in C Lydian mode. The accompanimental rhythm throughout the A section was a syncopated figure, eighth-quarter-quarter-eighth in the lower three parts, over which the first violin soared with a jazz-flavored melody. A softer B section utilized hemiola, keeping the same underlying pulse but feeling as if in 2/4 or 6/8 time; a natural rubato feel was also written into the parts, making it seem as if the tempo had slowed dramatically. The recapitulation was “in C Minor” (Boukas’ words) and brought back the syncopated (albeit slightly altered) accompaniment figure. A brief coda ended with two chords built on sixths in all four instruments (sixths highlighted as in the first movement.) Boukas’ work was pleasant to listen to; although nothing about the second movement struck me as being terribly innovative, it was effectively written in the style in which he is most comfortable writing; thus ended a concert of equally diverse and effective new compositions.