The Sounds of Tomorrow
BargeMusic, Old Fulton Street, Brooklyn
Here and Now: American Contemporary Music Series:
Don Byron: Thoughts on Marvin Gaye
Iván Naranjo: Vibrating Soundless Hum (World Premiere)
David Lang: Wed
Alvin Lucier: Group Tapper (New York Premiere)
Katherine Young: Inside UFO 53-32 (World Premiere)
Giacinto Scelsi: String Quartet No. 2 (for String Quartet and Metallic Mutes)
Flux Quartet: Tom Chiu (Violin), Conrad Harris (Violin), Max Mandel (Viola), Felix Fan (Cello)
Flux: Chu, Mandel, Fan, Harris (© Harry Rolnick)
On a muggy, rain-sodden evening in Brooklyn, the Flux Quartet provided a program that seemed to be made for lazy reviewers. The titles, in fact, said it all. What more do we need to know about Vibrating Soundless Hum. Or Alvin Lucier’s Group Tapper? That’s easy. Some musicians sit around and tap. Even the iconic composer Giacinto Scelsi made things graphic, his string quartet written for four players and “metallic mutes”. If they’re mute, why bother to even listen? When it came to David Lang’s Wed, it would obviously be cancelled, since the concert was on Fri.
But this isn’t the way the dynamic young Flux Quartet operates. The four players not only play, they compose, they work with stars like Yo-yo Ma and Ornette Coleman, DJ Spooky, Meryl Streep and Tiny Tim, they improvise over radio scripts. And this afternoon (Saturday), they will be playing music based on drawings submitted by an audience.
In other words, the Flux Quartet is the face of avant-garde music. And their program last night for a full house at BargeMusic was evidence of their fans.
The only name familiar to me was Giacinto Scelsi, the reclusive Italian aristocrat who journeyed from feverishly dissonant composer to a sometimes infuriating mystic who would concentrate on a single note. Or perhaps one note and its contiguous cousins, as well as the spaces in between. In his String Quartet Number 2, the Flux Quartet played all five movements. And while one agonized over the first four, the finale made it all worthwhile.
The first movement took in G sharp, A and A sharp, that was all. But each note had its own dynamics, its attacks, those infinite spaces in between, and the tension in us wanting to get back to the terra firma of A instead of the terra incognita around the note. I have no watch, but would gather those peripatetic notes took around ten minutes. The next three movements were almost the same. Different notes, but wide ranges of rhythmic variety, sounds, combinations and…….
Well, and boredom. Unlike, say, a Morton Feldman piece, I was neither hypnotized nor fascinated. Not until the fifth movement, which took off like a bat out of listener’s hell. That is, three or four other tonal harmonies were added. The same slow meter, the same wanderings, but here were ecclesiastical distances, a sense of religion and—finally—finality.
The Scelsi, though, was child’s play compared to Naranjo’s Vibrating Soundless Hum. That well described it. The four instruments played—with one or two sudden exceptions—as softly as possible throughout. (I saw the score, which varied from ppppp to pppp.) Everything was in the highest register, it was slow, it, yes, hummed, it did vibrate, and, in spite of the cellist using two bows, it was practically soundless. Not great music, but certainly truth in advertising.
After this, David Lang’s Wed—not the day but the marital state—was a short delight. Evocative of George Rochberg’s very tonal quartet, this one breathed contentment and satisfaction. The harmonies were thick, they sometimes became amorphously obscure, but one knew that a tonal centre was behind them.
Two other works were novelties. Jazz flutist Don Byron had worked on music of Marvin Gaye, and two of his “thoughts” were here. Not terribly interesting except the ending, where the four instruments played a delightful bouncing col legno fugue. The Group Tapper was the most moving music, literally. That is, the four players all stood and slowly moved around each other, each tapping on their instruments in different changing rhythms. It was hypnotic, but little less than a novelty.
And now we come to Katherine Young’s Inside UFO 53-32. In a colloquy with the performers (the intimacy of BargeMusic allows such talk), she mentioned that it came from a “science-fiction adventure book”, and the sounds of the Flux Quartet gave the whole story. We had whizzing upward movements, engines throttling (is that the word??), mystical revelations, a measure of mock-waltz, a few measures of alien tongues, and a whole collage of sci-fi adventure.
Ms. Young isn’t even 30 years old, but she writes like a child who can entertain itself with all the sounds needed for a story. This is the kind of naïveté which inspires David Del Tredici and Oliver Knussen, and the very mature Flux Quartet gave the work all the locomotive power in their extensive aural repertoire.