Anti-Social Music, February 23, 2006

by Barry Seroff

When one is confronted with an ensemble under the name "Anti-Social Music," the first thing that comes to mind is most likely not a contemporary classical music ensemble. More likely, one might imagine something more in a punk rock vein; noisy, aggressive and perfectly out of place in the annuls of Merkin Concert Hall. In fact, it is a combination of both; cutting-edge contemporary music packaged in a punk aesthetic.

It is only after the introductory monologue by cellist/founder Pat Muchmore that one truly realizes how poorly the group is named. His speech, delivered under a deep red light, introduces the ensemble in a way that implied the concept: to present new music to a larger audience by foregoing the stodgy atmosphere of the typical classical music concert and replace it with a more casual rock aesthetic. This was supported by the presentation of the ensemble’s members, who sat (and dressed) casually amongst postmodern metallic sculptures rather than backstage waiting for their moment to perform. Through the course of the concert, this atmosphere was strengthened by the composers’ brief, often comical introductions preceding a majority of the pieces. However, the focal point was still the music itself, though clearly both stem from the same artistic credo.

Pat Muchmore, brokenAphorism_15[-=] for saxophone quartet: Most immediately striking about the opening work by Pat Muchmore was the score. His wife (a sculptor) built a four sided pillar about six feet high. On the pillar were four screens, one on each side, placed at varying levels. It was on these screens that the music was projected. The musicians had to circle the pillar to read the various parts, which seemed to be a combination of strictly notated and more improvisatory music. Muchmore’s intention with this visual element can be summed up best in his program notes: "I thought a lot about how to create a pillar that wasn’t phallic, and eventually came to the conclusion that it can’t be done. Sorry about that." The presence of the theatrical would return through much of the concert though never becoming a developmental aspect; it owed more to George Crumb than Kiss.

The music itself was marked with a strong consciousness of rhythm and clear sense of thematic development; traits that would be seen in a majority of the pieces. The stylisticaspects of the piece seem to be indebted to Julius Hemphill in terms of melodic and harmonic motion, (difficult to avoid when writing for saxophone quartet) as well as rhythmic and tone qualities of heavy metal; in particular the use of the instruments’ lowest register at a very high dynamic.

Al Giusto: Anton the Holy Ghost for Solo electric dobro: This latter trait was expanded upon in this series of four one minute long solo dobro pieces that were interspersed throughout the program. The low strings were tuned a full octave down, and the piece was performed using both traditional fingering and slide techniques. The thought process that led to the use of the slide was made apparent in Mr. Giusto’s program notes: "[ Anton the Holy Ghost] is in four movements and is composed in Quarter Comma Meantone...Sharps and flats are not the same, with flats being higher than sharps. I chose to use 31 notes from 1/4 comma meantone, which include all double flats and sharps.’ While his compositional approach is clearly microtonal, the music itself seems more indebted to John Zorn’s Book of Heads, particularly in the juxtaposed stylistic changes. Again, the theatrical was prominent; in this case the composer performed the piece standing up, wearing a gas mask. All of these elements were combined to create an engaging set of works, although none were reminiscent of the music of Anton Webern, to whom these works were dedicated.

Peter Hess: Blood Meridian for alto flute, bass clarinet, contrabass and tuba: This piece was quite dark and brooding, owing no small amount to its unique orchestration. The emphasis on low end again owed a debt to heavy metal, further emphasized with a strong rhythmic ostinato in the bass. The melodic aspect was rimarily featured in the flute and clarinet, which played long, eastern-inflected lines in a call and response style. This structure led to very little harmonic development, instead using repetition, dynamic and rhythmic density to keep the piece moving.

Andrea La Rose: i blame you for jug and two musical saws: The piece following was easily the worst of the entire evening. Just upon hearing the instrumentation you get the idea of what you are in for: i blame you for jug and two musical saws. This is the kind of thing that composers will get in their head; "wouldn’t it be funny if" and if they know better will never actually attempt. Andrea La Rose does not know better. Plodding, annoying, with absolutely no sense of development or even interesting color. Just a jug blown into rhythmically (like a flute, not even like a proper jug) and two saws being bowed incessantly for what may have only been a few minutes, but felt like half the program. Thank goodness it ended, and I hope for the good of humanity it is never played again.

Dan Lasaga: Methadone for the Blooming Lotus for violin, viola, cello, tuba and alto saxophone: The ubiquitous bass ostinato was again featured in the next piece. This time, however, there was close attention to harmony, which blossomed through the introduction much in the vein of its title. There was a clear, audible sense of form, which was presented in a highly organic fashion. The rhythmic ostinato was developed on using complex polyrhythms in a style that was a mix of Stravinsky and Max Roach. These developments led to a piece that was most indebted to the western Classical tradition; using elements of popular music more as surface material, with a classical harmonic sense lying underneath.

It is interesting to note an event that occurred preceding the performance of this piece. In his introduction, the composer noted that this work is "most enjoyable when the listener is trying to quit heroin at a methadone clinic." One member of the audience felt the need to ask the composer if one could enjoy the piece while still using heroin. The composer considered this, and assented that they probably could, and the audience member should let him know how it worked out after the concert.

John Wriggle: Scooters Rag for Triangle and Accompaniment: The accompaniment was piano, cello, alto clarinet, and trombone. Though these instruments certainly had their moment to shine, it was the virtuoso triangle playing that distinguished the work. The rhythmic syncopations were clearly indebted to the ragtime tradition as seen through the lens of composers like Conlon Nancarrow. This required the trianglist to have highly syncopated and complex rhythmic structures during his solo sections. The sections featuring the other instruments gave more of a feel of Bernard Hermann’s Hitchcock scores. While the rag structure was not overtly proclaimed, it was strong enough so the listener got a sense of unity, but not feel that unity was owed to a classical form.

Ken Thomson: Throwback for viola and electric guitar solo, string quartet, contrabass and 6 sticks: Closing the concert was this fascinating piece by Ken Thomson. The strong visual aspect returned with this work: in the middle were the string quartet, the soloists were on either side and sticks (just drumsticks) on the far outside, three players on each side sitting indian style. The development was quite clear and quite dramatic, with the guitar and viola beginning with a minimalist unison line. This began large scale crescendo with the other sections entering, first the strings with a bitonal accompaniment, followed by the sticks playing a constantly shifting rhythmic patterns underneath. The melodic and rhythmic contrasts created large scale dramatic arc, concluding in the return of the opening passage in the same instrumentation, this time with stick accompaniment. The large scale structure seemed to be rooted in minimalism, with only one arc, although the musical development was highly organic and varied.

I believe the overall presentation of this group gives an idea of what young composers are thinking. There is an obvious attempt to connect with their audience on a personal level, rather than the ‘worship from afar’ tendency of many classical music concerts. This is represented by music that is significantly more accessible to a general audience than composers of the recent past, making it rebellious in the fact that it isn’t all that sonically rebellious, a la Cage or Stockhausen. Much of the music seems to be an attempt to make sense of all the music that has sprouted in the past 100 years or so, from Schoenberg to Jay-Z, and try and create a coherent tradition out of this sensibility. What results is music that has an interest in relating to the common public without compromising its classical roots; a difficult task in which only the future will tell of its success.