Fizzle, Puzzle, Dazzle

Gerald Levinson’s Five Fires wasted the Philharmonic’s time (and mine) two weeks ago with the same bag of aimless sound effects that afflicted his Second Symphony here eight years ago – shorter this time but no less distasteful. Both works, in fact, were apparently cut from the same cloth – or, to drag in a more useful metaphor, culled from the same box of post cards collected by the composer during a sojourn in Bali. Gongs resound, chimes and cymbals whir and twitter, the roar of brass and timpani keeps everything earthbound. It’s late in the day, I should think, to sell chunks of fabricated exotica – nine minutes’ worth of this new work, 37 minutes of the Second Symphony, music so truly awful that I remember every note – merely by daubing travelogue colors onto an impoverished musical design. Lou Harrison knew better how to deal with such irresistible material.

The Levinson piece temporarily shook my confidence in the present and future of our music; two nights later, the group known as eighth blackbird (lower case, they insist) flew into town to restore it. Six Oberlin graduates, currently resident at two fortunate Chicago universities, play new music, mostly brand-new stuff that willing composers old and young have created for this most appealing group. Their basic ensemble is that of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire: violin/viola, cello, piano, flute and clarinet, plus percussion. It’s a scoring that lends itself to wide possibilities. (On May 14, at LACMA, the fine local ensemble XTET performs an extended suite of Bill Kraft’s pieces for a similar “Pierrot ensemble,” and you should be there.)

For its concert at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, the blackbirds put together “Di/Verge,” a set of commissioned works by four members of New York’s Minimum Security Composers Collective, ballsy and smart composers in their early 30s (as are the ‘birds). Each composer – Dennis DeSantis, Roshanne Etezady, Adam Silverman and Ken Ueno – had come up with a four-movement suite; the 16 movements were then shuffled and performed as two continuous sets of eight. The players had memorized their music, and this gave them the chance to wander around the stage in an easygoing choreography. The music, too, could be counted as easygoing: small, angular conceits, sometimes breaking down into a flowing melodic line, mostly acrobatic – some jagged Hindemith here, a harmony that Ravel might recognize. It all came together as an evening of pure pleasure – modest, immensely likable, and, in its own way, original and enterprising.

Concord and discord: Charles Ives’ Second Piano Sonata is a work apart. Purely on the strength of its size and scope, it demands to be taken seriously; those who would hack their tortuous way through its thorny convolutions stand as a band of heroes. To performer and hearer alike, the “Concord” Sonata is as daunting a task as the repertory offers. The musical challenges are murderous; blend them – as Ives demanded – with invocations of the great minds of Concord, and the task is insurmountable. At Zipper Hall last week, Susan Svrcek took on the beast as the culminating work in her Piano Spheres recital, and scored an impressive victory.

Is it worth the struggle? I’ve changed my mind on the matter more than once. The opening pins you to your seat; it’s a veritable tsunami of unbridled rhetoric – as much Beethovenian as Emersonian, and with an intrusive, ubiquitous quote from the Fifth Symphony – but where does it go? Soon after, the suspicion sets in that all these notes are busily engaged in chasing all those notes, that the composer has stumbled into a vast musical design, a maze, perhaps, without a clue as to how to get out. The accounts from reliable sources (Elliott Carter, for one) of Ives juicing up his score by adding “modern” dissonances long after completing the work add to my unrest. The Beethoven references are of no help; you can go da-da-da-DAH all night and the lamps remain unlit. Emerson, that eloquent logician, is of even less help; nobody has ever accused the “Concord” Sonata of logical design. You begin to suspect that Ives has brought his first movement to an end simply because he has run out of paper.

It gets better. Hawthorne and the Alcotts, serene and jovial presences, whisper intimations of Schubert in their respective movements, and the tensions subside. Thoreau is not quite at peace, with us or with himself, but at the end he wanders off and plays his beloved flute – as did Dorothy Stone, in Zipper’s balcony. The music doesn’t really end, as Emerson or Beethoven or Schubert might define “ending,” but – some 50 minutes after the hurly-burly of that beginning – at least it stops.

Morton Subotnick turned 70 last week, and CalArts gave him a small musical celebration. (The California EAR Unit does better by him at LACMA next month.) Subotnick came to CalArts in 1969, early enough in that school’s history that he ranks as a founding father. When you think of CalArts music, you think of Subotnick first. In New York in the 1960s, he had laid down his parameters for tape music, working with Donald Buchla’s synthesizer, the first gadget that brought musical electronics down to desktop size. In his time at CalArts, the computer had also arrived at desktop size, and it was Mort Subotnick who led the generations of student experimenters to postulate the interaction between electronically produced music and the means to put that music through computerized hoops of all shapes and sizes.

He hasn’t stopped. He still comes to CalArts (along with other destinations), and he is still obsessed with involving young musical experimenters – sometimes very young – in music making. I play with some of his interactive “making music” programs aimed at restoring the notion of children as active participants in the creative process; I learn a lot from them.

At the CalArts concert last week there were some of his full-of-beans early works for instruments and computer – Axolotl for solo cello and After the Butterfly for solo trumpet and instrumental octet. Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick was again the solo cellist, as she had been in 1981. Subotnick sat at a Mac laptop, no larger than this page, and pressed a button or two to release the feverish, ongoing energy of the tape piece Until Spring. The composer Nicholas Chase produced a kind of music by playing some of the old Nonesuch and Sony LPs of Subotnick’s music from way back when, and monkeying around with the turntables to create a distorted collage of some of the great moments. I’m not sure I understand this new turntable art form; if I ever do, it will probably be under Mort’s guidance. That’s the way it has always been.