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From the Vaults: the 1993 Music Frontiers festival at UC San Diego

July 31, 2010


Dr. Eric Lyon asks, "Do you have now, or have you ever had, Typhoid?"

The people have electronically spoken, and we have listened! So many page hits on a previous Eric Lyon review, that I am posting more Eric Lyon reviews. You have to scroll down a bit to get to Eric’s piece, but trust me, it’s worth the wait. I must admit that, nearly 2 decades later, I still have a firm sonic image of Eric’s work Typhoid in my head, including the melody I allude to. It’s the only piece I reviewed below to which I can honestly make that claim, and I haven’t heard it since the festival!

This review originally appeared in the La Jolla Light on May 27, 1993.

To christen a festival Music Frontiers this late in the 20th century is self-deluding; it blithely ignores that the most important musical explorations this century took place from roughly 1910 to 1930, and once again from 1950 to 1970. While a healthy portion of music from this latter period appeared on the series of concerts that took place at UCSD from May 12 to May 15, the implication of this title is that the more recent compositions are somehow blazing new trails.

But the territory these recent pieces occupy is no longer frontier; it is more akin to redecorating or touching up a room in a crumbling, old house in an overly developed community. Significant, beautiful works of art can still be produced in such a situation; but to believe oneself a Daniel Boone when the roads have already been paved years before is an onanistic con game.

And to insist, in this era of bountiful diversity, that music which is the offspring of the experimental, Modernist tradition, is the “best” music one can listen to and perform—the unspoken inference of this festival—is ideological fascism, not too philosophically distant from the idea of a “Master Race” or of “One, True Religion.”

I was able to attend four of the five concerts offered, devoted to UCSD faculty and students who have recently attended the Darmstadt International Courses for New Music, and to European composers who have been prominent there. The town of Darmstadt sent UCSD a musical present in the form of an exceptional string trio, the Trio Recherche from Freiburg.

Unfortunately, the musical excellence of this group was wasted on the compositional poverty of their repertory. Only two of the eight works they performed were pieces I would willingly listen to again—Ernst Krenek’s String Trio (1949) and James Dillon’s String Trio (1990).

Dillon’s trio stood out in its concern for perceptible motives and developmental processes, things the other European composers seemed uninterested in (with the exception of Klaus Huber’s overly long transpositio ad infinitum). The trio had an aggressive dense surface; there was plenty of musical information here, but it did not strain human cognitive limits. Another notable feature of this trio was its strong momentum, again an aspect lacking in so many of the festival offerings.

Krenek’s String Trio was the best offering on the Saturday night concert. Although the sacred name of Webern was intoned in the unattributed program notes, the broad Expressionism of Schoenberg and Berg, and their more robust sense of Classical forms were more obvious influences.

On the same concert, Brian Ferneyhough, the spiritual godfather of Darmstadt these days, received the American premiere of Terrain. This was conceived as a solo vehicle of the brilliant violinist Irvine Arditti, also present at UCSD courtesy of the town of Darmstadt.

While Ferneyhough writes that Terrain is also an homage to Varese (the accompanying ensemble is that same one used in Octandre), the musical language was quite removed from Varese’s incisive colors and rhythms, his clear, bracing harmonies, and his obsessive motives. Above all, Terrain was a demonic concerto for Arditti. Arditti’s eyes were glued to the music, his legs, torso, and head motionless, while his bow tore back and forth unevenly, and his left hand jumped on the fingerboard like a spider overdosed on caffeine. The nervous, agitated torrent of notes spewing from his instrument made him seem like an antique performing automaton gone out of control.

This piece remained a cipher to me; there was too much information to assimilate. Nevertheless, the surface was intriguing enough to invite subsequent hearings. Rand Steiger led SONOR in what seemed like a tight performance, no small task considering the music often changed tempo every measure.

Flautist John Fonville, pianist Alec Karis, and percussionist Steven Schick gave an exquisite reading of Morton Feldman’s Crippled Symmetry. Feldman’s delicate 90-minute opus was powerful proof that profundity can be generated through extremely simple means—in this case, a four-note motive varied and permuted in all the instruments throughout the entire piece.

On the first night’s concert, Harvey Sollberger  led a 24-piece orchestra in a rousing interpretation of Nono’s Incontri, a Golden Oldie from 1955. Incontri is a work which both thunders and caresses; Nono, unlike many of colleagues at Darmstadt, was concerned with emotional directness.

Stockhausen’s Kreuzpiel, from 1951, on the other hand, is a strange, self-contained world, one in which the operating principles are not apparent, but whose processes nevertheless fascinate us.

One could say the same thing about UCSD student Philippe Lierdeman’s brief Variations for Wind Quintet, composed this year. But where Stockhausen’s world seems a strange synthesis of Germanic serialism and African music, Lierdeman’s blocks of parallel chords betray an obvious French influence. However, the angular melodies and the constantly shifting rhythmic layers again intrigue us in spite of (and perhaps because of) the obscurity of their generating procedures.

"Typhoid" Mary

Eric Lyon’s Typhoid for violin and tape was the only work on the festival that displayed a sense of humor. Typhoid was composed for Mary Oliver; she gave it a wonderful performance, alternately abrasive, seductive, naïve, and funky. Typhoid is one of Lyon’s earlier endeavors into what he calls “the New Sensitivity;” it is a musical Cuisinart combining 1960’s analog tape pieces, Bing Crosby, industrial music, and possibly one of the most gloriously stupid melodies Lyon has ever written.

While the quality of compositions ranged from very good to abysmally awful, the level of performances was consistently high; every performer on these concerts deserves praise. One hopes that there will be more festivals like this in coming years—and wish that the level of the compositions is as high as that of the performances.

One Comment
  1. Eric Lyon reminds me that when Mary Oliver performed “Typhoid” at the 1990 Darmstadt festival, concertgoers booed and threw paper airplanes at Ms. Oliver.

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