Austrian Cultural Forum New York
November 17, 2016
NEW YORK – Austrian Cultural Forum New York makes part of its mission supporting chamber musicians from Austria, bringing them to the United States for concerts. One of the best of these concerts I have attended was this past Thursday’s New York debut of Ensemble Lux, a string quartet with formidable technique and ambitious tastes in programming. Their concert ranged across a century’s worth of music, from Anton Webern’s 5 Movements for String Quartet (1909), to la pureté de l’envie blanche, a piece from 2010 by the Lux’s second violinist, Thomas Wally.
The concert opened with Olga Neuwirth’s settori, a showcase for extended techniques: alternate bowings, rapping on the wood of the instruments, Bartôk pizzicatos, altissimo register filigrees and harmonics. Neuwirth uses this expansive palette as the means to fascinating, expressive ends. Hans Erich Apostel (1901-’72) was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. The musical materials and aesthetics of the Second Viennese School are on display in Apostel’s 6 Epigramme. While the pieces are well constructed miniatures, his last name is telling of his relative place in the 12-tone pantheon.
More engaging was Schoenberg’s String Trio. Written after the composer’s heart attack, a program reflecting this experience is often ascribed to the work. Whether one thinks it appropriate to do so, the piece is a remarkable late work by Schoenberg, juxtaposing the techniques of twelve-tone music and neoclassical phrasing with some of the visceral gestural language of his earlier Expressionism. Lux’s performance paid note both to the work’s Apollonian and Dionysian features. Correspondingly, Webern’s 5 Movements, aphoristic vignettes written at the beginning of atonality’s appearance, were played with exquisite care by the quartet.
la pureté de l’envie blanche juxtaposed periods of silence with angular runs nearly at the instruments’ bridges. There were also tremendously quiet sustained passages. One was struck by the dynamic range the quartet had been able to deploy in ACFNY’s small performance space, from thunderous outbursts in settori to the extreme pianissimos of Wally’s work. Ensemble Lux’s precision and control mark them as a group with a promising future. Hopefully, their next visit to New York will be soon.
Note: There have been several passings of note in recent months. 2016 has been an unkind year for musicians: hence the number of obituaries on the blog.
I am saddened to learn of Pauline Oliveros’s passing. I use her book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice in my teaching: it has opened many students’ minds.
I didn’t know Pauline well but we were Facebook friends: she always liked it when I shared cat pictures. We recently connected on Academia.edu. I had looked forward to exchanging ideas in that forum and wish that it were to be so.
Earlier this year, when I was being treated for cancer, Pauline was an encouraging presence. I’ll miss her.
Computer music pioneer Jean-Claude Risset has died at age 78.
Meredith Monk turns 74 today. An early birthday present came from ECM Records on November 4th: a recording of Monk’s On Behalf of Nature project. We do not have the benefit of language: the “text” consists of songs, chants, and syllabification in unknown tongues. And there is no narrative per se, but there are clues present in the piece’s sound world that readily suggest its environmental message: at times with clarion calls; at others, with poignant vulnerability.
Joined by a versatile troupe of vocalists (many of whom also play instruments on the recording), Monk sings with tremendous vigor and impressive range. The panoply of extended techniques on display, both vocal and instrumental, elicit a veritable catalog of sounds. Some are imitative of all manner of fauna: insects, birds, and mammals. Vocal play with “nonsense” syllables moves between jazz scat and primordial language. Likewise, the materials inhabited by the instrumental forces coexist between rustic primitivism, minimalist ostinatos, and sophisticated microtonality.
Monk is not afraid to make sounds that aren’t conventionally “pretty:” howls, chittering, and screaming among them. However, she often manages to evoke beauty even in the most raw and unconventional moments of On Behalf of Nature. It is as if we are being implored, by any means necessary, to attend more fully to the world around us. While we are deprived the visual and choreographic elements of its staging in this audio-only recording (one hopes ECM might consider producing a film of the work’s acclaimed stage incarnation), the music is amply impressive all by itself. It is Meredith Monk’s birthday, true, but her gifts are shared with us.
After a period of inspiring dignity and courage while she sought treatment for pancreatic cancer, Sharon Jones has passed away, aged sixty. Jones continued to record and tour while being treated for her illness. Throughout her career, she served as an uplifting figure to so many people. This past year, while being treated for metastatic melanoma, I found her persistence and joy amid adversity to be a particular source of inspiration.