Civic Orchestra Composers Project Finale Concert

by
Mark Mahoney

I HATE ME MORE THAN YOU HATE ME. I read these words—printed in all-capital, bolded letters at the top of the program—again and again as I paced around the atrium, waiting to be let into the concert hall.

I had arrived late, underdressed and a bit frazzled, as is my wont. It was my first time in Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall, a space with great acoustics and the appearance of a middle school gymnasium. This setting, combined with my vague sense of shame at my late arrival, contributed to some lurid school band concert flashbacks.

Of course, the Civic Orchestra is no school band, and the music (not to mention the free beer) quickly dispelled this perception. The evening represented the culmination of the Civic Orchestra’s Composers Project, which sought scores from emerging composers across the Midwest. It consisted of four new commissions alongside two other recently-composed pieces. The composite nature of the program makes it difficult to sum up with a single overarching impression, so what follows is a smattering of basically chronological impressions from the course of the evening.

The concert began with Melody Eotvos’s The King in Yellow, a beguiling programmatic work in three movements which, due to my late arrival, I had to experience through the magic of YouTube rather than live performance.

I was allowed in in time for the second piece, Baldwin Giang’s reeling. reeling is a concerto-like work with a microtonal twist: the instruments are divided into ensembles based on tuning, with one ensemble tuned to the conventional A=440Hz and the other tuned a sixth of a tone lower. The piece offered a spare, deliberate exploration of a range of extended techniques and unusual timbres: clicks and clacks, sudden registral shifts, growls from the bass clarinet. A few recurring motives were continually tossed between the instruments in a kind of postmodern klangfarbenmelodie. Pieces like this, which eschew melodic and harmonic development in favor of texture and color, can sometimes devolve into kitchen-sink showcases of extended techniques, but Giang kept things taught and cohesive, using the motives to anchor the piece and welcome the audience into it. The piece suggested a debt to Toru Takemitsu in its subtle explorations of shifting timbres, but its other influences proved more difficult to place. It was a challenging and rewarding work that set the tone for what was to come.

Next came Haerim Seok’s restoring force. The piece, we’re told in the program notes, “is focused on the theory of the Seven Emotions” and the attempt to find balance between these various emotions. The music began with a playful pastiche as, it seemed, each emotion was represented in turn. As restoring force progressed, the different elements began to cohere and the piece rather quickly lost steam, smoothing out into a lyrical ebb and flow. I found the latter part of the piece a bit tedious at times—would it be missing the point entirely to suggest that a piece about “finding equilibrium” could have benefitted from a bit more dynamism?

If there was anything lacking in Ofir Klemperer’s A Love Song (2007), it certainly wasn’t dynamism. A shockingly convincing synthesis of chamber music and hardcore punk, it’s the kind of piece that effectively constitutes its own sub-genre. While most attempted syntheses of such disparate genres seem doomed to fail, I knew this piece had succeeded when I found myself wishing there were space at the front of the hall for a mosh pit. It was mesmerizing to watch pianist Soo-Young Kim aggressively pound out clusters across the length of the piano with her hands, forearms and elbows. There was a palpable energy and buzz in the room following A Love Song that is uncommon among ‘New Music’ audiences, where a kind of disinterested contemplation often seems to be the norm.

It was only after the piece’s that I checked the program notes. As is so often the case, the program notes were more baffling than illuminating. Klemperer writes,

“This piece is an attempt to mock the sensitive male by mixing a bunch of stereotypes … In this piece the sincere male obsession is presented by misogyny mixed with self-involvement and pity. The devotion itself is kept as the winning force over ridiculousness. But devotion to what?”

Anyone care to hazard an answer to that question? Perhaps part of my incomprehension is the result of a language barrier, but at any rate I hope the day will soon come when ‘New Music’ composers can unabashedly embrace popular music without the reflexive need to prove their critical distance from these same materials. I’m sympathetic to Klemperer’s stated aims, if I’m understanding them correctly, but if the piece was intended to operate as a metatheatrical critique of gender conventions, it basically failed in the eyes and ears of this listener. As an expression of visceral angst and an exercise in pure sonic intensity, however, it succeeded wonderfully.

As the orchestra began preparing for Christine Burke’s from the signal (2017), the bright auditorium lights gave way to mood lighting. from the signal is essentially a drone piece, and Burke mines her materials masterfully. Percussionist Matt Kibort provided the anchoring pitch with his EBow as he very gradually progressed down the length of a guitar string. Over this backdrop the violinists played ethereal, fluttering upper harmonics while other instruments drifted in and out of tune with the ‘drone’ pitch on the guitar, producing gentle warbling sounds. The resultant spectral tapestry was both beautiful and unsettling. Before I knew it, the music had faded back into silence.

Composer Jonathan Hannau provided the final piece of the evening, entitled Who Are These, Who Come Like Clouds? (2017). The piece is part of the early-music-as-new-music school of compositional thought, drawing in this case from Hildegard Von Bingen’s “Ordo Virtutum,” written in 1151. The early-music-as-new-music approach has nobly attempted to counteract some of the ahistorical tendencies within ‘New Music’ (embedded in the genre’s very name), finding common ground between composers working before and after the common-practice period and frequently championing under-heralded composers such as Hildegard. The danger of this approach is that the early music can sometimes feels like a prop, used and then discarded without really informing the composition on more than a superficial level. Aside from some obvious quotations in Who Are These, Who Come Like Clouds?, it wasn’t always easy to discern the influence of Hildegard’s source material on the music, if that was even the composer’s intention. That’s not necessarily a criticism, though; Hannau’s own compositional vocabulary was sufficiently compelling to make the piece engaging throughout, and there was something satisfying about closing an evening of ‘New Music’ with the recitation of a Latin passage from a millennium-old morality play.

The Civic Orchestra’s performance Sunday night represented a cross-section of many current trends in New Music, and with that comes the almost overwhelming temptation to join in on the endless pontification and handwringing over the state and direction of ‘New Music.’ It seems that criticizing ‘new music’ or diagnosing its ‘crisis’ has become a cottage industry. ‘New Music’ thrives off of such criticism, often re-appropriating it as its aesthetic object without addressing the structural issues that led to that criticism in the first place.

“I HATE ME MORE THAN YOU HATE ME” is an appropriately solipsistic catch-phrase for the endlessly self-critical New Music fan, critic, composer, etc. If New Music is going to overcome its own insularity, it should strive to invert the titular formulation. ‘YOU HATE ME MORE THAN I HATE ME’ has a nice ring to it. In other words, New Music needs some haters who are not among the initiated, and in order to achieve this it has to ruffle some feathers.

As I was walking out of Symphony Center, I overheard a couple discussing the concert. “What’d you think of the piece with the screaming guy?’ one asked. ‘I really hated it,’ the other replied.

I felt a surge of glee. It was a minor victory against indifference.