Dark Elegies


The sound of Frances-Marie Uitti’s cello resonates in the bloodstream. She would have it so; she has devoted considerable time and effort to enhancing the seductive throb of her instrument – developing a cello with six strings, and a way of playing with two bows. Next fall she starts a year’s residence at Berkeley, working on interactive electronic systems. I have no idea whether she uses this advanced technical stuff when she plays Bach or Dvorák; mostly she has hung out with the composers who match her visions: John Cage, Giacinto Scelsi, Iannis Xenakis. Born in Chicago, to Finnish parents, she now lives in Amsterdam, the world’s best place for visionaries.

On a new ECM disc, There Is Still Time, Uitti plays her own music while Paul Griffiths reads his poetry. Griffiths, Welsh-born, a sometime music critic and the author of some excellent writing on new music, has a voice that sounds like Uitti’s cello – don’t all Welshmen? – and he uses it the way she plays: intense, throbbing, now and then breaking off and darting in some unexpected direction. His poetry is darkly tinged with memory – “There it was, and it was, and it is gone.” Single words and phrases seem to dissolve into cello sound, and just as often the process is reversed. “Think of that day,” the poet intones. “Be there again,” he and the cello join to implore. “It was then … now it’s then again.” In Munich, where poet and cellist first performed the sequence live, Griffiths insisted on appearing barefoot.

There are 17 poems in There Is Still Time, some of few words, some crammed with words and breathless. When its 55 minutes are past, it is nearly impossible to resist playing the disc immediately again. I have written before about the Korean composer Unsuk Chin, mostly abut her great Violin Concerto, which we haven’t heard here yet, and about her Alice in Wonderland opera, which was supposed to show up at the L.A. Opera next season but is apparently lost down the rabbit hole. One major work of hers that has been performed here is the delightful Acrostic Wordplay, which George Benjamin conducted at a “Green Umbrella” concert seven years ago, and which heads a splendid collection of her short works on a recent Deutsche Grammophon disc. There is a hint of Alice in this 1993 work, too; the text is drawn from Lewis Carroll and other author, with narrative reduced to syllables or word fragments until only their significance remains. Text becomes music, music becomes text – or so the program notes imply, although I think that the aforementioned cello and reader achieve a more satisfactory metamorphosis. On its own, however, there is some delight in this bouncy, perky piece, and in the performance by the Ensemble InterContemporain, under Kazushi Ono, with Piia Komsi burbling out the syllables.


On the same disc is the formidable Xi from 1998, with the EIC led by David Robertson; they played it here, at Royce Hall, that same year. Xi calls for large ensemble plus electronics, and multichannel processing, and sends the sound on a single broad arc around the performing space. The title in Korean, says the composer, means “the smallest unit, the origin of all things … thus, the idea of metamorphosis.” The buildup is awesome, from the sound of simple breathing to a wrenching, percussive apotheosis. Don’t make the mistake I did, hearing the music first on a car stereo in murderous Friday traffic on I-405 on my way to the Philip Glass concert I’ll tell you about a couple of paragraphs down. The sense from the music, that the whole car was coming apart, was not, let’s say, pleasant; it took further hearings to restore the realization that Xi is, indeed, some kind of sonic masterpiece.

So is the extraordinary Violin Concerto by Marc-André Dalbavie, which comes with two other works by him on a new disc from a label known as Naïve, which it is anything but. Pierre Boulez led one work by Dalbavie at a “Green Umbrella” concert in 1998; another is scheduled here next season. The three works on the new disc are vast soundscapes, with Debussy in their ancestry – above all the sense of limitless space in works like La Mer and the Nocturnes. The Violin Concerto, stupendously dispatched by Eiichi Chijiwa with Christoph Eschenbach conducting, comes with voluminous program notes on relationships of music to space and the “spatialization” of sound objects. But the exhilaration of the music speaks for itself.


At Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Hall there was Philip Glass, his ensemble, an international gathering of participants, and Orion, 90 minutes of the usual accompaniments-plus-riffs that pass as his music these days. The gadget this time – there always is one – was the celebration in Athens last summer of the Olympics. Musics of many lands performed by talented proponents – Australia, China, Canada, the Gambia, Brazil, India, Greece – were stirred into the familiar background of our old friends, the Philip Glass Ensemble. The outdoor performance in Athens last June – a month when it never rains there – was accompanied by a howling downpour. Times were when people were more adept at heeding warnings from the gods.

What am I missing in the ongoing fame and acclaim surrounding the Philip Glass
phenomenon? I watch in wonderment as large audiences greet, with whoops and hollers
and standing ovations, works large and small – the Fifth Symphony, the new soundtracks
glued onto splendid old Cocteau movies, the insipid little Piano Etudes and now
this protracted venture in hands-across-the-seas patronization. I recoil at the
sheer tastelessness, not to mention the ugliness of sound, in combining the crystalline
elegance of Wu Man’s pipa (even if amplified to satisfy the space of Costa Mesa’s
barn of a hall) with the bovine keening of the alto sax from the Glass ensemble.
I reach for earplugs as the needlepoints in the sounds of an Indian sitar become
crammed into Western rhythmic patterns. What is put forth as assimilation, of
a joining of musical styles under the night sky lit by the stars of the Hunter
Orion, I hear as mindless exploitation. I do not enjoy mindlessness in a composer
I once admired. Come back to the beach, Einstein; we need you. Philip needs you.

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