MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Daedalus Quartet Plays Huck Hodge and Beethoven

AAR Portrait

Huck Hodge, portrait by Mark Rabinowitz for the American Academy in Rome

Pairing Beethoven with a world premiere: that’s my kind of program, and it’s what the Daedalus Quartet unpacked for their recital Friday night at Meany Hall under the auspices of the University of Washington’s World Series (soon to be rebranded as “Meany Center for the Performing Arts”).

The Daedalus Quartet consists of Min-Young Kim and Matilda Kaul, violins; Jessica Thompson, viola; and Thomas Kraines, cello. This adventurous young ensemble, which has been quartet-in-residence at the University of Pennsylvania since 2006 while also maintaining a busy touring schedule, is a proud champion of an impressive range of contemporary music: George Perle, Ligeti, Carter, Kurtág, Joan Tower, and Fred Lerdahl are all part of the group’s rep.

On Friday Daedalus gave the world premiere of The Topography of Desire by Huck Hodge. Currently an associate professor on UW’s School of Music Faculty, the 39-year-old Hodge studied with Lerdahl and Tristan Murail and spent time in Stuttgart and as a fellow of the American Academy in Rome — all the while evidently developing a heady mix of philosophical, psychological and poetic interests that are embedded in his bold musical investigations.

His output includes compositions that draw on such material for inspiration as the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Gestalt theory of perceptual illusions, stellar parallax, seascapes at night, the poetry of Jorge Luis Borges.

The program note for his new piece observes that Hodge is also inspired by “uniquely northwestern American light patterns … ‘the way that a piercing slant of light, breaking through a dreary cloudscape, casts an intense, otherworldly chiaroscuro on the landscape,’ the ethereal yellowness of the light in bas-relief against the yawning darkness of the sky.”

Hodge himself took to the stage to introduce The Topography of Desire — a substantial work for string quartet cast in a single movement, which shared the program with two Beethoven quartets. The central question he sets out to explore in this music is nothing less than the insatiability of desire itself: the unbridgeable “gap between our needs and the way we come to represent them in the mind.”

While the composer’s printed note frames the issue of desire and non-fulfillment in terms familiar from French post-structuralist theory, Hodge’s comments onstage yielded a more-straightforward description of the two basic musical techniques he used to construct the piece. First is “detuning” of the inner voices (second violin and viola) vis-a-vis the “normal” tuning of the other instruments by  a fractional tone, so as to build in harmonic friction. Such dissonance becomes an audible symbol of the “gap” and the itch for unison harmony.

The second technique involves Hodge’s use of a “phantom theme” — the ever-present melodic source content that derives from the overtone series, appearing in spread-out or super-speeded-up incarnations such that we never hear it clearly spelt out. That strategy reminded me, conceptually, a bit of the “enigma theme” in Elgar’s famous Variations.

The result of these techniques of “deferring unity” is to generate what Hodge aptly calls a “poetics of the near miss.” Presented in this context, Topography initially brought to mind the way we often encounter a contemporary art installation, via explanatory placards that help guide the view and point the way toward interesting things to look for — and I mean that in a good way, because the concert music scene has much to learn, in my view, from the presentation of new visual art.

Of course the ineluctable difference is that, once the music starts, you can’t scurry back and forth between the wall text and “the piece.” (If you do dip back into the program notes, you’re already losing the music however long your distraction lasts.)  Hodge’s Topography was genuinely immersive, continually revealing surprises and new, unexpected corners as it unfolded.

The Daedalus Quartet played with the conviction and focus necessary to thread listeners through this musical labyrinth. The key idea of desire, for example, is emphatically not something to be “gotten” as soon as your ears have acclimated to the weird tuning. That’s simply a given, part of the foundation Hodge uses to then design an astonishingly varied edifice. Sometimes the fractional pitch differences (at times played with a sort of vibrato effect by the same instrument) sounded more conventionally “dissonant,” yet Hodge creates pockets — through shifting tempo, register, and counterpoint — in which the effect suddenly turns curiously peaceful and serene.

The composer referred to his experiences in Indonesia last summer studying Balinese gamelan music and the shimmering, vibrant quality of multiple tunings. Hodge manages to replicate this sensation with his scoring for four Western string instruments: Goethe’s famous metaphor of the Classical quartet as “a conversation among four reasonable people” is supplanted by a music alternately evoking confusion and prayer. At times it touches on the otherworldly spaces that Ligeti weaves with his micropolyphony.

Hodge’s intrepid ambition doesn’t stop at sharing a program with two Beethoven quartets (including what is arguably among the top five ultimate masterpieces in the genre, Op. 132). He also invites comparison with Richard Wagner, whom he mentioned in his remarks as the “grand master of the poetics of the near miss,” referring to the chromatic frustrations and delayed resolutions in Tristan und Isolde.

If you invoke Wagner/Tristan, you raise the issue of “the art of transition” — of mediating between strongly contrasting material through musically sensible and sensitive connections. Here I found myself less convinced by the structure of Topography — which is comparable in length to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (if not longer — I was unintentionally without watch). But the score is too richly layered to possibly grasp in one hearing, and I hope to have the opportunity for future encounters.

Heading outside at intermission after Topography, I was struck by how fitting the last glints of setting sun appeared as a commentary on the music — to the point of speculating how Hodge’s new work might sound as a site-specific, environment-based experience in the manner of John Luther Adams….

The Daedalus Quartet opened the program with the Quartet in D major from Beethoven’s inaugural Op. 18 set (replacing the originally announced Quartet in F major). Though no. 3 in the Op. 18 sequence, the D major is actually the first Beethoven completed.

Some indecisive intonation and tentative phrasing gave the impression that they hadn’t quite settled on an interpretation. Thematically, in any case, the yearning two notes of the opening phrase suggested an interesting Classical starting point for the music of desire that would follow in Topography.

They brought a more identifiable point of view to the ineffable Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, which filled out the program’s second half. Overall, the Daedalus steer clear of obvious dramatics. Their style is ultra-refined, elegant, even understated. There’s no playing to the gallery. This approach enhanced the mysterious melancholy of the first movement, which almost hinted at a dark undercurrent of repression.

Daedalus underscored the “normalcy”of the movements framing Beethoven’s “holy song of thanksgiving.” Even the theatrics of the recitative were restrained — too demure for my taste — and they kept the anxious passion of the finale from rising to a proper boil. Here, their subtlety of approach felt excessive, just when the reins should be loosened.

The centerpiece of Op. 132, the beyond-the-battle Heiliger Dankgesang, got an intriguing  approach that was not without risk. They exaggerated the vibrato-less purity of the “Lydian” theme, which enhanced not only its archaic quality but the contrast with the “modern,” vibrato-colored Andante theme in this loose set of double variations.

Upon each variation of the opening section, they introduced more and more vibrato, converging on a richly resonant sonority in the final section. Initially the movement sounded too weightless, but the strategy proved to offer emotional satisfactions I wasn’t expecting.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Beethoven, chamber music, new music, review

Dutilleux City: Morlot and Seattle Symphony Continue Their Survey of the French Master

Dutilleux City: Thanks to the vision and musicianship of Ludovic Morlot and Seattle Symphony, the Emerald City can legitimately claim to have become one of the globe’s top spots  to hear authoritative performances of the French master.

This weekend’s program includes a not-to-be-missed chance to enjoy Dutilleux’s Timbres, espace, mouvement, which is being recorded for release as part of the third volume in  the SSO’s ongoing survey of his orchestral music on the house label. (Vol. 2, featuring soloist Augustin Hadelich, garnered the orchestra a Grammy in February.)

But nothing compares with the experience of this music in live performance. By now it’s a built-in expectation that Morlot and the SSO will sustain an almost superhuman focus when bringing a Dutilleux score to life — with the result that, to borrow Schoenberg’s famous encomium (re his student Anton Webern’s music): “every glance is a poem, every sigh a novel.”

It’s been fascinating to watch Morlot, over his now half-decade with the ensemble, inspiring the players to the level of poetic accuracy, of fluent command of an incalculably subtle idiom, such as was on display in last night’s performance. Even by Dutilleux’s standards, Timbres, espace, mouvement, ou “La nuit etoilée” (from 1978, with a section added in 1991) pushes the bar still higher.

Morlot gave a brief intro to the piece, accompanied by relevant visuals to contextualize some of the composer’s extra-musical inspirations: the constellations, a gorgeous interstellar nebula, and van Gogh’s famous painting cited in Dutilleux’s alternate title (“Starry Night”).

The music director explained that the last-named is reflected in the unusual scoring for a large orchestra, which however omits violins and violas: their lack focuses the registral weight at a lower band to evoke the nocturnal mystery especially at the bottom portion of van Gogh’s canvas.

The early Romantics had their “blue flower.” Dutilleux has his “blue flame,” as Morlot memorably characterizes the composer’s sound world, contrasting its unique incandescence with the more obvious brilliance of a yellow flame: “music that evaporates” before our ears, but not before kindling an extraordinary intensity.

None of this is “program music” in the old-fashioned sense — a soundtrack to the Big Bang, or an attempt to “illustrate” van Gogh’s painting. (Why would a masterpiece painting need to be illustrated anyway?)

A better way to think of the piece — which was certainly encouraged by this performance — is in terms of what the first part of the title itself indicates: timbres that move about in musical space, the mystery of sonorities as they begin to coalesce and cluster across the orchestral field.

A critical element here is the timing — not just what’s written in the score, but the unquantitatable rightness of overall pacing, of relation of part to whole, of the transition between ideas that should emerge in performance. Morlot tapped into and sustained the necessary sense of cosmic awe and mystery: source of our very capacity to experience beauty.

Especially captivating were the echoings of the long, sinuous melody that shoots across the orchestral canvas, as juxtaposed so effectively with Dutilleux’s watchmaker-precision scoring for his percussion section. (Terrific work from the woodwinds in particular, with a key role for Mary Lynch’s superb stylings on oboe.)

The piece’s spare but powerful climaxes aren’t narrative “events” or outcomes but announce sudden shifts of perspective, a kind of turning of the cosmic wheel. I also admired how Morlot countered the receding horizon of Dutilleux’s most amorphous gestures with a sense of finality in the score’s massive unisons.

How this composer achieved such rending beauty remains one of the mysteries of contemporary music — not the sort of beauty that washes lazily over a passive listener, but a co-creative beauty of imagination, requiring incarnation in sound…

The ensuing Beethoven — the Fourth Piano Concerto — marked a continuation of the SSO’s ongoing two-year cycle devoted to Herr Ludwig van. As usual with these strong contrasts, I couldn’t help but hear a few “foretastes” of those mesmerizing sinuosities from the Dutilleux in a few of Beethoven’s woodwind phrasings in the first movement, though I’m willing to concede that this might have resulted from some sort of psychoacoustic aftereffect.

Unfortunately, I have to report my deep disappointment in the contributions of the soloist, Imogen Cooper. The British pianist commands a formidable reputation on the international circuit — in particular for this repertoire — which is why I was all the more baffled by this experience.

Cooper’s point of attack and phrasing of the all-important opening solo immediately signaled the basic problem that, to this taste, bedeviled her account throughout. It was clear, clean … and bereft of poetry, personality, or point of view.

Despite Morlot’s efforts to tease out character from the orchestra’s interactions, the whole first movement came across as flaccid, too relaxed — mostly because the points of tension needed to anchor Beethoven’s serenely lyrical writing kept going slack in Cooper’s performance. Even that initial cleanness was offset at several points by notably strong left-hand attacks; but rather than suggest a particular reading, they simply made for an eccentric (and, frankly, off-putting) mannerism.

The middle movement accentuated the problem even more. Morlot whipped up the drama with sternly accentuated string recitative — the “wild beasts” to be tamed by Orpheus/the pianist, in the popular reading of this movement (which also anticipates the strategy of the Ninth’s finale.) Of this Andante Tchaikovsky wrote: “I know of no greater work of genius … and I always pale and chill when I hear it.”

But Cooper’s timid phrasings hardly initiated a dialectic, adhering instead to the same over-relaxed sonority at each entrance. Problems with coordination between Cooper and the ensemble recurred in the outer movements.

Morlot closed the program with the rarely heard final symphony by Prokofiev, the Seventh. Written near the very end of the Russian composer’s life, this is an enigmatic symphonic swan song: the big, sweeping, “Socialist Realist” rhetoric of Romeo and Juliet comes face to face with sonic images of innocence and childhood, of clocks winding down. It’s immensely accessible — and emotionally attractive, in the SSO’s rich-bodied but finely detailed performance — yet somehow riddling all the same.

Morlot played up the perplexing shifts in direction that accentuate the piece — especially in the curious second movement and in the final pages of the finale — as if to underscore the question marks that remain beneath the surface of such “simple” music.

–(c)2016 Thomas May All rights reserved


Filed under: Beethoven, Henri Dutilleux, Prokofiev, review, Seattle Symphony

New from Mason Bates: Auditorium

A day in the life of Mason Bates: after this morning’s Santa Fe Opera season announcement, with a foretaste of The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs, the San Francisco Symphony tonight unveils his latest orchestral piece, Auditorium. Here’s my introduction:

The relationship between Mason Bates and the San Francisco Symphony has played a pivotal role in the emergence of one of the most frequently performed American composers at work today. It began in 2009 with the first SFS commission of an orchestral work by Bates, The B-Sides: Five Pieces for Orchestra and Electronica (dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas), and has continued through this most recent collaboration, which receives its world premiere on this program.

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Filed under: commissions, Mason Bates, new music, program notes, San Francisco Symphony

Classical Editor’s Picks: April 2016


Here’s my list for Rhapsody for this month:

On top of being the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, April 2016 is when the world marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. Rufus Wainwright pays tribute to the poetry of the Bard with one of his most beguiling albums to date: Take All My Loves, a project years in the making that sets nine of Shakespeare’s sonnets to music.

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Filed under: editor picks, Rhapsody

Strad on the Run


My feature on the extraordinary luthier Rafael Carrabba  for the Seattle Times is now available:

Lately, Rafael Carrabba has been able to breathe just a little bit easier.

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Filed under: Seattle Times, Strad

Shakespeare Homage from Seattle Symphony

Mark PadmorePhoto: Marco Borggreve

Mark Padmore Photo: Marco Borggreve

The countdown to Shakespeare400 continues. Here’s my look ahead at this week’s Shakespeare-themed program from Seattle Symphony and Ludovic Morlot, with guest artist Mark Padmore:

If music be the food of love, centuries of composers have failed to surfeit the appetite of our collective passion for Shakespeare.

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Filed under: Seattle Symphony, Seattle Times, Shakespeare

RIP Prince

Devastated by the news today…

Filed under: music news, Prince

Magickal Mysterie


Filed under: photography

Congratulations to Henry Threadgill

This year’s Pulitzer winners were just announced, and the hugely imaginative avant-garde jazz legend Henry Threadgill has been awarded the Music Pulitzer for In for a Penny, In for a Pound. From the Pulitzer Committee’s citation:

In for a Penny, In for a Pound is the latest installment in saxophonist/flutist/composer Henry Threadgill’s ongoing exploration of his singular system for integrating composition with group improvisation. The music for his band Zooid — Threadgill’s main music-making vehicle for the past fourteen years and the longest running band of his illustrious forty plus-year career — is no less than his attempt to completely deconstruct standard jazz form, steering the improvisatory language towards an entirely new system based on preconceived series of intervals. His compositions create a polyphonic platform that encourages each musician to improvise with an ear for counterpoint and, in the process, creating striking new harmonies.

Threadgill is widely considered to be among the most important artists in jazz. The New York Times called him “one of the most thrillingly elusive composers in and around the jazz idiom: a sly maestro of unconventional timbres, bristling counterpoint and tough but slippery rhythms,” and NPR called him “a true idiosyncratic great.” He is a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its founding this year, and he continues to adhere to one of that august organization’s basic tenets: that of finding one’s individual path through original music. He continues to create music that is pushing the boundaries for what is possible.

The new work, which Threadgill calls an “epic,” includes four main movements written specifically to feature each of the musicians in Zooid: “Ceroepic” for Elliott Kavee on drums and percussion, “Dosepic” for Christopher Hoffman on cello, “Tresepic” for Jose Davila on trombone and tuba, and “Unoepic” for Liberty Ellman on guitar. They are introduced by an opening shorter piece and sandwich an exordium (“In for a Penny, In for a Pound” and “Off The Prompt Box,” respectively.) Threadgill’s own alto saxophone, flute and bass flute is woven throughout each section. In for a Penny, In for a Pound utilizes, as with all of his music for Zooid, a strategy of Threadgill’s own device: a set of three note intervals assigned to each player that serves as the starting point for improvisation. While this may seem simple on the surface, the juxtaposition of the notes played on each instruments alternately meld and clash, creating surprising chords and harmonies on-the-spot. Not held together by any chordal preconceptions, the result is true, improvised four-part polyphony. Of this music, Liberty Ellman, who will release Radiate, his first new album as a leader since 2006’s Ophiuchus Butterfly later this year, says: “Henry is extending the forms and writing more varied thematic material. There is even more dynamic and timbral contrast with ensemble vignettes turning to sparse monologues or group improvisation on the turn of a dime.” Zooid is certainly the only group able to perform these compositions since they involve a wholly different way of engaging in group improvisation. Thoroughly attuned with each other, the band continues to provide Threadgill with the foundation to expand on his ever evolving musical inspirations.

In all the discussion about the complex terrain of his compositions, it is sometimes easy to lose sight of Threadgill’s power as a player. In his review of Zooid’s performance at the Village Vanguard in 2014 — the first time Threadgill had played at that iconic venue as a leader in almost 25 years — critic Ben Ratliff of the New York Times, who chose it as one of his top ten top concerts of the year, wrote: “The intensifying strokes… were his alto saxophone solos. They were built of epigrammatic phrases, aligned with the moving intervals but pivoting off from them. They were out in front, gestural, actorly, elegant, noisy and tragic. Dealt in short segments, their essence could be absorbed piece by piece, as if he were feeding you with crumbs. They’d often end without traditional resolution, but with a sense of something serious hanging in the air.” A great Threadgill solo sets you on edge: you know that it’s going to be a jab, an uppercut or a body blow, but you never know how or when it’s going to hit you. It’s the same way with his compositions on In for a Penny, In for a Pound: it comes at you from every angle, at different speeds, in infinite combinations. That’s the beauty of Threadgill’s music for Zooid: that sense of constant surprise.

Seth Coulter Wells did an interesting interview with the artist for The Guardian:

Prior to Monday, the only jazz performers to win a Pulitzer prize for music (while still alive) were Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman….

On what his Pulitzer could mean for the school of ‘creative music’ pioneered by the AACM

Well, you know – we have no control over anything but what we do. I just try to stay hopeful: I don’t want to get too pessimistic about anything. Hopefully like some type of enlightenment will come about. Which is better for everyone, for all of humanity. Any time we can understand a little bit more about culture, I think it makes us better as a group of people, and more civilized as a group of people.


Filed under: awards, jazz, music news

Mason Bates’s Violin Concerto


Here’s my program note on the Violin Concerto Mason Bates wrote for Anne Akiko Meyers, on this weekend’s program with the National Symphony Orchestra:

With the Violin Concerto of Mason Bates, this all-American program extends to music being written in the 21st century. At the same time, Bates’s adventurous outlook and interest in expanding the possibilities of the orchestral sound world link him to the American maverick tradition represented by such composers as Charles Ives, whose music concludes the program.

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Filed under: Mason Bates, National Symphony, new music

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