Photo by Betty Freeman
Bill Kraft pushes on toward 80; Mort Subotnick has just steamed past 70. Leonard Stein’s 87th looms on the horizon. In successive Wednesday-night concerts at the County Museum in May, all three geezers were the matter at hand: Bill and Mort with major compositions performed by two of our best musical adventurers, Leonard in a piano recital that became a timeline of his own decades in service to his art.
There were other connections as well, if you like playing that game. Kraft’s Settings From Pierrot Lunaire stem from a project initiated by Stein at the Schoenberg Institute back when it was still nourished by USC. Inasmuch as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire used only 21 of the nearly 50 poems in Albert Giraud’s collection of spook-haunted, expressionistic poems, the Institute came up with the idea of commissioning composers to deal with the poems that Schoenberg hadn’t got to. The scoring was to be the same as Schoenberg’s – singer/speaker, piano, a couple of strings and winds, with percussion as the single new addition. The results were performed in a series of programs in the mid-1980s. Kraft then went on to create his own extended work: four of the Pierrot poems set to music plus instrumental interludes, the whole thing lasting about 25 minutes. His Settings have been recorded, on Albany. Haunting, subtle, exquisite yet intense, they form one of Kraft’s strongest works; I listen to them often. The cherishable Daisietta Kim, who doesn’t perform nearly often enough anymore, sang them magically; the ensemble we know as XTET, energized by the moonbeams from Dorothy Stone’s flute, matched her all the way.
The next week the California EAR Unit, with Dorothy Stone this time at the piano, celebrated Subotnick with five works old and new, ending – no, make that “culminating” – with the 1985 The Key to Songs, which occupies the same place in Subotnick’s legacy as the Settings do in Kraft’s: an elegant, shapely work of pure imagination, stretching the credulity and rewarding the attention. There are interesting if tenuous connections between the two works. Subotnick, too, draws his inspiration from the indefinable fantasies of that unfathomable surrealist, the painter/poet Max Ernst, whose shadow falls over a number of Subotnick’s works. The inspiration here is an Ernst novel that I don’t pretend to understand, except in the moments in Subotnick’s score when, out of nowhere, quotations from a couple of Schubert songs poke into the texture. Subotnick wrote the piece for the EAR Unit as it existed at CalArts in 1985; it was recorded on New Albion and is still available.
What connects these two works above all is the fact that their musical existence draws upon other music. Luciano Berio died last week, and one of the most extraordinary aspects of his life in music was the range of his ability to nourish his own music from the musical world around him. In everything I know about Berio’s music, I am charmed by where Berio has located himself in these works. In every one of his Sequenze for solo instruments – including the one for cello that Rohan de Saram played here recently, and emphatically in the one Berio wrote for the solo voice of his beloved Cathy Berberian – it is the voice of Berio in this music, exploring, proclaiming, filling empty spaces with the emanations from his awful cigars.
The famous movement of his Sinfonia has Berio somewhere in the middle, attempting to listen to a favorite bit of Mahler while the whole world – perhaps at open windows in some Roman apartment complex – tries to get in his way. He spoke about his A-Ronne, the piece for actors, as a kind of “documentary” on the Edoardo Sanguineti poem they were trying to perform. His Rendering, a late work, seems to re-enact his own delight in discovering a manuscript of Schubert sketches and his burning need to share it with us. His wonderful opera Un Re in Ascolto, which begs for local performance, is also a “documentary,” an exploration of the several simultaneous human tragedies in Shakespeare’s King Lear. His music – the great works that the world now knows, and even the tiny wisp of a piano piece, Interlinea, that Leonard Stein played at his recital last week – has this mysterious power to take us close to itself, but also close to what it means to be in love with all music. (About Pierre Boulez’s Third Sonata, with which Leonard Stein grappled manfully, I wish I could say the same, but cannot – as yet.) With Berio the man no longer among us, it becomes even more important to hold on to that power to love that his own art radiates.
Last week was not a good time for jabberwocky. At Ojai, Karen Painter – musicologist, woman of mystery, mother-to-be – began the latest festival with one of her famously convoluted speeches, this one on matters of modernism and postmodernism consistent with the presence of Pierre Boulez as this year’s musical eminence. Distracted to some degree by Dr. Painter’s stage presence – including a choreography with a rebellious sweater and a manner of delivery in the soprano register that would make KPCC’s Kitty Felde a basso profundo by contrast – I was able to glean that modernism throughout history has been followed by postmodernism, and that is what is happening today, but not as much. More on Ojai next week.
At LACMA the “Conversation” with Boulez and Frank Gehry sold out at the box office in 12 minutes. That was as it should be: Two great shaping forces in the arts, in particular prominence due to current local events, should have crucial messages for an expectant arts-consuming audience. Some of this actually happened; some didn’t. The evening’s interlocutor, one Paul Holdengräber – who apparently is employed by LACMA to keep such events on track (buffered by a vaguely exotic “artistic” accent) – actually did everything in his power to derail the conversation. Rather than following the line of thought from his participants, or even doing them the courtesy of listening to them instead of playing the eye game with notables in the audience, he continually tried to break into the conversation with his own card file of irrelevant changes of subject. Only when Frank Gehry, bless ‘im!, finally ordered Holdengräber to shut up (in just those words) did the evening take on something worth the price of those tickets.
Never underestimate, therefore, the self-importance of the unimportant.