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Bubble and Boo

11/27/1998 -  

27 November 1998
Harry Partch: Five verses from And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, Daphne of the Dunes, Castor and Pollux
Dean Drummond: Before the Last Laugh, Dance of the Seven Veils
Dean Drummond (conductor)

28 November 1997
Elliott Carter String Quartet No. 5, Piano Quintet, Symphonia
Oliver Knussen (conductor)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Arditi Quartet
Ursula Oppens (piano)

The American Pioneers season at the Barbican has managed to deliver the extremes of contemporary American music on consecutive nights. Harry Partch's instruments, used in compositions that tell simple stories, provide the most basic human pleasures of sight and sound. Elliott Carter's compositions reflect on the classical European tradition, and demand considerable reflection and effort by performers and audience. This conjunction seems to have happened less by design than by accident: Elliot Carter's nintieth birthday coincides with the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music. This includes a second UK performance by Newband which just about justifies shipping twenty nine crates of fragile instruments across the Atlantic. But as W.H. Auden reflected in Paul Bunyan, "once in a while, the odd thing happens", especially to American pioneers.

Harry Partch developed a personal music out of his experience of extreme poverty in the rural Southwest during the Depression, inventing a forty-three note scale and building instruments to play it. The key instrument is the Chromelodeon, a retuned harmonium which provides persistent pitches. The rest of the instruments are mainly variant marimbas, including the Boo or bamboo marimba, and the Marimba Eroica, with resonators the size of a piano, or Harmonic Canons and citharas, plucked string instruments with custom bridges to create unique scales. The Cloud Chamber Bowls, sawn off cloud chambers, the Spoils of War, a collection of percussion that includes tuned shell-casings, and the Gourd Tree, a set of Chinese temple bells on a eucalyptus branch provide visual as well as textural contrast.

There is a strong element of play and theatre in Partch's compositions. And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma builds up minimalist-style from dialogues and trios of instruments, each segment lasting one minute, to a complex structure that uses them all. Daphne of the Dunes is film/dance music for the story of Apollo's pursuit of Daphne. Castor and Pollux combines the cumulative technique with narrative by relating the conception and hatching of each twin separately. Dean Drummond's compositions are in a similar spirit: Before the Last Laugh is an excerpt from a score for the Murnau film, close to the freer form of Daphne though more chaotic to reflect the disruptive theme of the humiliated teacher; Dance of the Seven Veils is in seven segments with a postlude, again essentially dance music.

The theatrical element is also important in the performance. Drummond's Seven Veils especially, but all the works except Petals, require the performers to play multiple instruments, and the usual logistical complexities of a percussion section move to centre stage. The performance itself was fine, but there was a fair bit of onstage chaos between works, including some missing music sheets. This gave a rather appropriate spotaneity, not to say edge, to the proceedings. In a question-and-answer session at the end, Dean Drummond was visibly frazzled himself, and commented frequently on the physical fragility and transience of the instruments.

Elliott Carter, by contrast, has pretty much achieved nirvana. In a pre-concert interview with David Schiff he said that while nineteenth-century music reproduces the physical rhythms of people marching and the horse-drawn ice cart on which he used to hitch a ride to school, he wants his music to reflect the speed and smoothness of jet travel. He wasn't, clearly, talking about modernism, about the imitation of modern life, but about the possibility of eliminating imitation from music altogether. In one of the segments of Frank Scheffer's film-in-progress, A Labyrinth in Time, shown during the concert, Carter comments that for him, music exists in the same way as talk, based in formal structures (grammar, classical form) and emotions but not "about" them. Rather, he seems music as the process of performance itself, renegotiated every time (as he says to Ursula Oppens in another segment of the film) between the composer's text and the performer. A third segment of the film is an amusing and enlightening discussion between Carter and Pierre Boulez about the interpretation of dynamics by conductors.

Carter also commented that his work needs repeated performances to get it right. It is likewise perhaps impossible for an audience unfamiliar with his idiom to grasp a work fully on one hearing. This programme wasn't easy listening, but it astutely dealt with this problem. The Fifth Quartet, lucidly played by the Arditi Quartet, includes the "rehearsal", tentative experimental playing, of each of its six short momevents, allowing the audience to become familiar with the music to come and to consolidate their understanding by restatement of elements later. There is also a rare element of play-acting in the instuments in search of a composition. The Piano Quintet, played by Ursula Oppens and the Arditi Quartet, is also playful if not dramatic, with the piano forming a strongly contrasting voice to the strings, in a series of six movements that develop by contrasts of speed and shape, and getting the last note in in an almost toddler-like way.

Symphonia: sum fluxae pretium spei has a programme, the Latin poem on a bubble by Richard Crashaw from which its epigraph comes. But the poem reflects on the transience of glory, of beauty, and the point seems to be again the moment of interaction between composer, performers, and audience. Nevertheless, the conjunction of three separately commissioned movements has a form that makes sense in classical terms: a violent, chaotic Partita, an Adagio tenebroso with even notes and an Allegro scorrevole that threatens to dissolve like bubbles, ending with two notes on the piccolo disappearing upwards. Although Carter told Schiff in the interview that the connection was not so explicit, it is difficult not to see the first movement as the flashy chaos of war and violence, the second as a measured, mourning response, and the final movement as a celebration of the beauty of the most fragile hope. What Carter called a different kind of nobility, perhaps not so far removed from Partch's discovery of music in shell casings after all.

H.E. Elsom



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