The Queens College New Music Group Concert, April 13, 2010

by Patrick Kelley

It’s really quite a spectacular thing: eleven young composers sharing a program of original works, many of them world premieres, and all of them rather interesting.  And it’s remarkable what the composers at Queens are doing with their time – it seems most of them are coming up with new pieces every couple of weeks.  So it’s a shame that so many seats in LeFrak Concert Hall were unoccupied as the lights dimmed for the start of the concert on Tuesday.  The music coming out of the composition program at Queens is nothing if not prodigious, and any observer would be remiss not to note the enormous amount of creative energy exuding from these young composers.

After a brief introduction, the concert commenced with a piece called Symmetric Image by Jae-Myoung Kim.  Before the performance even began, it seemed likely that the work was not going to be a typically modern classical piece.  The instrumentation was leaning toward jazz instrumentation with piano, vibes, electric bass, and drum set; a flute was also part of the ensemble, an instrument that is at home in both the classical and jazz worlds, but more common in classical music.  And indeed, the music sounded very much like modern jazz – specifically, it sounded similar to the compositions of Dave Holland, the jazz bassist who leads a quintet.  One striking similarity between Kim’s and Holland’s instrumentation is the use of vibraphone, an instrument that is overshadowed by piano in modern jazz, but which lends a distinctly ethereal timbre to the proceedings. The inclusion of the flute in Kim’s ensemble also tugs at other associations such as third-stream music and jazz fusion.  Image is based around a strong Latin groove in 7.  The powerful groove and odd time signature are also characteristic of Holland’s music. Additionally, there was a laid-back, restrained atmosphere about the piece, something also characteristic of Holland’s work.  However, the two differ dramatically in their compositional focus.  Kim’s work is classically focused on the ensemble, not on solo improvisation, though the musical language and rhythm is steeped in jazz.  Holland’s pieces, of course, are vehicles for improvisation; the composition is subordinate to the solo.  Kim’s piece was enjoyable and an interesting start to the evening.  Right off, one is aware of the diverse nature of interests among the composers at Queens.

Emmanuel Sakora’s Four Piano Pieces was next on the program.  The first of the pieces, Harvest Moon, featured the whole tone scale (and the tritone in particular) quite prominently.  Despite this, the piece came off as being in a romantic, 19th-century kind of style, possibly after Schumann or Chopin.  The second piece, Recollections of Early Autumn, kept the same kind of harmonic language as the first piece but used it in a slightly more updated way.  The dissonances were striking and unexpected in a way that recalled the piano music of Scriabin, but the unclear, whole tone harmony and obvious lack of a tonal center was also characteristic of Debussy’s music.  The last piece, too, meandered harmonically in a more 20th century manner than the first or even the second.  This last piece, By the Brook, even had some hints of Ivesian dissonance.  And of course, the programmatic elements of Sakora’s work (each piece was meant to evoke the feeling of its title) owes something to both Debussy and Ives, two very programmatic composers.

Next on the program was an excerpt from Sean Noonan’s Lullabies from Around the World.  Noonan, a drummer by profession, writes intensely rhythmic music that often incorporates the drum set, and Lullabies is no exception.  The piece began with an unaccompanied recitation by Noonan, retelling the story of the brothers Sully and Sam, sons of Morpheus the god of dreams, who wreak havoc in the world of sleep during their father’s night off.  After turning to his drum set, back to the audience, Noonan commenced with a solo improvisation. One thing that sets Noonan’s music apart from most other contemporary composers’ music is his focus on improvisation, and particularly improvisation on the drum set.  With Noonan himself at the helm, one can hardly raise any qualms about the quality or musicality of both the improvisations themselves and how the improvisations fit into the composition as a whole; however, the results with a different drummer in the driver’s seat might produce a radically different kind of piece, and it would be interesting to know whether Noonan would be ok with alternate interpretations or if he writes his music with the sole intention that he and only he will play the solo part.  The overall form of the piece (or excerpt, in this case) seemed to be a more or less continuous drum improvisation, at times solo and at other times with string quartet accompaniment.  The quartet’s music was remarkably old-fashioned, sounding as if inspired by string quartet music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, particularly that of Mozart or Haydn, with a few more modern flourishes.  The dichotomy of free, solo drum set improvisation and classical-era string quartet is a confusing one, but perhaps that was Noonan’s intention.  It’s certainly a postmodern kind of music, having a free drum solo interrupted by Mozart, cohabitating in the same musical space.  But the story’s theme of mixing and disrupting dreams is also quite a postmodern idea – the brothers fragment, cut, and paste their way through a dreamworld that doesn’t even really exist.  Noonan’s harmonic choice for the string quartet is more difficult to make sense of (why Mozart?), but at the very least the piece provides some food for thought.

Jae Goo Lee’s The Duality of Emotion (II) was the only electronic piece on the program, and it was a short and energetic one at that.  It began with intense, swirling sounds in both channels; after a bit, some rather jarringly light-hearted, obviously electronic sounds were layered on top of the original swirling sounds.  These new sounds seemed to be of a different era – the swirling noise in the beginning sounded modern and exciting, whereas these other sounds seemed as if they might have been more at home in an early electronic composition of the kind Stockhausen and, later, Babbitt might have made.  These sounds combined with constant swirling mayhem gave Duality the impression of being like a more bubbly, exciting, on-steroids counterpart to Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge.  What is clear from Lee’s composition is that the back-and-forth struggle of the modern and anachronistic sounds were meant to represent some kind of duality of emotion, and the piece was certainly successful in conveying this.

The Chinese flute called the Shakuhachi was afforded a rare moment of concert hall recognition in Austin Shadduck’s duo for it and guitar entitled Haiku.  What is so interesting about the Shakuhachi is its chameleon-like nature – it has a very distinctive, Oriental flavor with its howling, hollow sound and its capability for dramatic bends; but it also has the ability to sound very much like a Western flute.  In Haiku, Shadduck explored both sound worlds.  The sparse texture of the piece appropriated a certain dream-like quality to the music despite mostly triadic harmonies.  The overall effect, surprisingly, was of an Asian influenced-type early 20th century French impressionist piece.  Even though the distinctness of the Shakuhachi shone through during several passages in the music, the flute and guitar instrumentation and unusual harmonic movement lent an impressionist air the piece.

David Bridges Ten Mills for Contralto and Piano ended the first half of the program.  Bridges piece is based on Robert Frost’s text Ten Mills, a collection of ten very short satirical tidbits on largely unrelated topics.  Accordingly, the piece is split up into ten small vignettes, each corresponding to one of Frost’s Mills.  It is significant that Bridges chose such an American text for this work; not only was it written by one of America’s most beloved poets, but the title of the poem, Ten Mills, is accessing a uniquely American subject.  And indeed, the fist two songs sounded distinctly American. They seemed to have much in common with the songs of Charles Ives in their square rhythms, changing meters, and dense, non-functional harmonies.  Bridges was not content, however, to remain in one tradition for more than one or two songs in a row.  The third, The Wrights’ Biplane, was much more tonal than the first two and changed harmonies much more slowly and methodically; combined with the fluttering, perpetual motion of the piano part, one might classify the piece with the American minimalists.  Waspish, the sixth song, was reminiscent of the first two, again in the style of Ives but this time with elements of the American show tune.  The seventh song, in contrast, took its cue from the French impressionists, Satie’s Gymnopedies in particular, with its slow triple meter and its slowly oscillating major- and minor-seventh harmonies.  The final song, In Divés’ Dive, also strongly evoked an American musical tradition – that of the great American song book, á la Gershwin or Rodgers.  More specifically, the song painted a picture of being in a saloon in the 1930s right before closing with the piano player playing some “wrong” notes and the singer not exactly sure where to come in.  Bridges is evoking here a very particular American era and experience.  Although each song in the bunch possessed a distinct kind of character, it was clear that Ten Mills was composed with America’s rich musical history in mind.

The second half of the concert was opened with a set of two solo piano pieces by Baick Ho Cha.  The works were very modern sounding, and in the tradition of the experimental 20th century composers, particularly Stockhausen and Boulez.  The second of the two pieces especially featured the manic, octave-displaced counterpoint that is so characteristic of Stockhausen’s own Klavierstücke.  Cha also employed several extended techniques, including plucking and scraping the piano strings (for a glissando effect), and hitting the strings with percussion mallets.  One striking element of Cha’s works were the extreme amounts of silence between musical events.  It’s unclear if the silences were composed out or if it was just impossible for the performer to switch quickly between the extended events (plucking, striking, etc.) and playing normally.  Regardless, there were large periods of silence in both pieces, so much so that the silence became the focus for the listener.  Whether this, too, was intended or not was not made clear by the composer, but it certainly achieved a striking effect.

Hirotaka Kato’s Piece for Piano Quartet followed.  This piece, like Noonan’s Lullabies was channeling an older kind of sound, in this case that of the mid to late 19th century.  The piece was quite dramatic but also romantic sounding.  Harmonically, the work was rich but quite traditional, which lent an air of familiarity to the music.  The piece was also endowed with a sense of soothing calm which was further heightened by the excellent pacing of musical events. This reviewer couldn’t help but recall the beautiful, serene, majestic landscape footage from Planet Earth while listening to the Quartet. The contrasting “B” section switched to a triple meter and proceeded in a French impressionist style, suggesting a Satie-like waltz in three.  Kato’s Quartet was not shockingly new in any way, but it was a beautiful piece and very welcome on the program.

Kaori Tanioka’s Harpsichord Quintet No. 1 followed, and was scored for string quartet plus harpsichord.  The most striking element of this piece (and a common trait among many of the pieces on this program) was the juxtaposition of old and new.  In the Quintet, the “old” is the instrumentation; using the harpsichord, a characteristically Baroque instrument, in a modern piece is highly unusual.  The harpsichord, in fact, stands as a kind of symbol for Baroque music, and therefore raises all kinds of associations for the audience about that period in music history and, more specifically, each individual audience member’s engagement with that kind of music. The “new” is the modern (and unquestionably un-Baroque) musical language with which Tanioka composed her piece.  Thus, the audience was forced by the composer to try to reconcile between the old and the new; namely, that the music coming from the harpsichord is not Baroque, but modern.  The effect of the music was one of uneasy beauty.  But Tanioka is not the only young Queens composer interested in marrying elements of old and new.  Noonan’s Lullabies achieves a similar effect; he uses the drum set and free, improvisatory drum music as his “new”, and he uses very traditional, tonal harmonic language as his “old”.  Shadduck’s use of Shakuhachi and Bridge’s recollections of Americana are also examples of the old merging with the modern.  Each of the composers’ approaches is unique and reflects the composers’ creative ability to approach a problem in different ways.

The second to last piece on the program was this reviewer’s piece, a trio for piano, violin, and cello.  While it would be both difficult and unfair for a composer to review his own work (difficult because it’s almost impossible to know whether he’s said too much or not enough, and unfair because he already knows and presumably likes the piece and would make a miserable showing of trying to be objective about it) , I would like to take a moment to discuss some of the sources from which I drew inspiration for the Trio.  One such influence was (and I think quite obviously) the music of Milton Babbitt.  My Trio is neither twelve-tone nor serial, but the highly syncopated rhythmic language and severe octave displacements recall, I think, pieces of Babbitt’s such as Semi-Simple Variations. The rhythmic virtuosity demanded of the players also took a cue from Babbitt’s (infinitely more) challenging rhythmic ideas.  The long drone section at the end was originally intended to be a recomposing of the chorale at the end of Stravinsky’s Symphonies for Wind Instruments; instead, it ended up as a naked, pianissimo three-note chord that barely stops for a break, accompanied by the extremely disrupting and decidedly non-chorale events of fortissimo cluster chords in the lowest register of the piano.  The similarities are not so striking, but with a little imagination, almost believable.

The last piece on the concert was a second Trio for piano, cello, and flute by Sunny Knable.  The piece performed on Tuesday was only a single movement extracted from a larger work, but even on its own the Trio sounded full and confident.  Knable’s music is attractive because of its underlying pulse – although he plays with our perception of the meter, often accenting upbeats instead of downbeats, the audience is perpetually aware of the pulse.  This makes the music fundamentally exciting to listen to as it develops.  In a way, Knable’s rhythmic language recalls in many ways the music of John Adams, who is as interested in maintaining a pulse as he is in destroying the audience’s conception of meter.  Knable’s harmonic language also shares some of the pseudo-tonal characteristics of Adams’s work.  He achieves a very enjoyable balance of more traditional harmony, which is often treated quite beautifully, and artful clashes of dissonance, further imbuing the music with a natural sense of excitement.

The composers and performers at Queens College certainly have a lot to be proud about after putting on such a successful concert with many diverse kinds of music being played back-to-back. It was a testament to the great creativity and work ethic of all musicians at the college, both composers and performers, and is an indicator of great things to come.