A music lover recently asked me what the music in this week’s soundON festival would be like. I didn’t know, I answered, because I’d never heard any of it; the festival presents recent works by living composers. My friend turned aside the thought of an entire evening filled with such music.
Later, I realized I could have given him a better answer. New music reflects our lives, which is filled with uncertainty and surprise. “You walk out the door and don’t know what’s going to happen to you,” said Morris Palter, from NOISE, which has organized the festival.
A couple of weeks ago, in the first story of this series, I suggested that June’s music offerings in San Diego were like your freshman Music Appreciation 101 course. This was merely a conceit; from the Bach Collegium to Mainly Mozart, you could hear music laid out neatly from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, like a college course along with its music lab. soundON, which runs June 19-21 at the Athenaeum, is the final part of the course, and it is orderly on its own terms.
We hear soundON’s music, or at least the sounds on which it draws, every day. The context for this music is all around us, for instance, on “CSI: NY.” Listen especially to those tracks during times when the investigators are silently analyzing forensic material. “CSI: NY” does use music from groups like The Who and Dollyrots.
Bill Brown, the show’s principal composer, however, has brought an orchestral sound to the show from twentieth-century composers who have inspired him. He lists some of them on his website: Hindemith, Shostakovich, Bartok, Pendereki and Ralph Vaughn Williams, as well as film composers like John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Add to those sources Brown’s studies of modern instrumentation (including electronic) at Boston’s Berklee College. Brown’s music, in short, is just one musical manifestation of the sounds that we hear all the time. His process is no different from Franz Schubert drawing on the Austrian landscape for his “Trout” Quintet.
The music you’ll hear at soundON is another manifestation. It’s so new that I describe it as written 15 minutes ago. That’s not literally true; Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Music for Electric Metronomes” dates from 1960, making it the oldest piece in the three-day festival that runs from June 19-21 at La Jolla’s Athenaeum. Nine of the 13 works on the full concert programs are world, U.S., or west coast premieres, and seven of the 11 composers will be here.
soundON’s debut last summer was a mixed success, drawing sparse audiences until closing night, when the Athenaeum’s performance space was crowded with an enthusiastic audience of young and old. NOISE — Colin McAllister (guitar), Morris Palter (percussion), Lisa Cella (flute) and Christopher Adler (piano and composer-in-residence) — has gathered from San Diego, Baltimore and Fairbanks for this summer’s round. Joining them will be guest composers and performers from around the country.
Listening to music you’ve never heard before can be relatively easy, McAllister said. If you’ve listened to Beethoven’s music and you hear a work of his you’ve never heard, you have a frame of reference. The same is true if you listen to music by a relatively well-known modern composer like Steve Reich.
“If it’s a new composer, all bets are off,” McAllister said, when he and Palter talked about the festival at Café Italia before a rehearsal.
That’s particularly true for the music of the new century. This past month, presenters have given us music that unrolled over three centuries toward expanded emotional content and new structures, harmonies, melodies and sounds. Formulas like the classical sonata and the romantic tone poem disappeared or were vastly transformed. Among the results of that unrolling have been big, ear-shattering works, inspiration from outside mainstream Europe (like jazz and Asian music), and the erosion of a musical edifice, even as warfare and other mass cruelties were breaking apart the world’s moral and political codes.
In this time line, soundON’s music was indeed written 15 minutes ago. How do we listen to something so new?
Same old, same old. Palter listens with his heart, for his own emotional response to the music, which might be the same for a Beethoven work as for a contemporary one. “Don’t draw the lines: old music, I like it; new music, I’m scared of it,” he said.
Palter has recently been exposed to an entirely new form of music in Alaska, where he lives. Native communities are isolated and far from mainstream communication, and the complex rhythms of their music can be disconcerting. “The music they make is new music, but I get that emotional reaction,” he said.
McAllister said that music patrons approach new music with apprehension. They fear a loss of tonality, that is, music with melodies and harmonies that resolve themselves comfortably to the ear. Some new music, however, is tonal, although the tonal materials are changed.
For instance, soundON will perform the world premiere of “Rain, Sea and Sky,” for piano, vibraphone and computer generated sounds by Madelyn Byrne. McAllister said that Byrne is an example of “a continuum of people using tonal materials but tonal materials that are changed.”
Dissonance shows up in contemporary music, because much of modern life sounds noisy and off-key. “People are used to it but don’t accept it in the concert hall, although it’s been here for 100 years,” McAllister said. Maybe you can’t sing the melody, but you can expect other rewards from contemporary music like rhythm, texture, tone color, density, weight.
Two of the large-ensemble pieces at the festival reflect these elements. In “Illuminaciones,” Ecuadoran-born Juan Campoverde Q. has produced what McAllister described as a “new complexity.” The work, which soundON will present in its U.S. premiere, is very fragile, sensuous, and rhythmically challenging. Campoverde also asks musicians to do things outside normal performance practice, like a clarinetist having to breathe differently. “Illuminaciones,” said McAllister, is in “the European high modernist style.”
In a different mode is Chris Adler’s “Ecstatic Volutions in a Neon Haze” from 2005. Adler’s music generally, and this piece in particular, is very American. It’s groove-oriented with repeated rhythmic patterns, a significant overlay of jazz and rock, and influences from minimalism. McAllister said.
Diversity is a hallmark of new music. First, in the politically correct meaning of that term, this music is global. Steve Reich had been a jazz drummer who went to Africa; he now writes music deeply rooted in African styles. For soundON, NOISE has issued an International Call for Scores. This year’s winner is Alfio Fazio, from Genoa.
Diversity can also signify enormous differences in structure and texture among works and even shifts within a single work from a composer. Terry Riley’s “In C” varies with every performance, depending on the number of musicians and their extemporaneous leaps from a base score. The piece was a hit of last year’s soundON, so the festival will repeat it this year.
Another new music marker is the mix of electronic and acoustical materials that will be heard in Byrne’s piece and the world premiere of Eric Simonson’s “Towards an Interaction.” Film composer Brown mixes live players with electronic effects to humanize his music.
Because composers and performers alike have roots in popular and world music, new music and its performers are infused with the energy of the real world. McAllister, the director of the guitar program at UCSD, said that few guitarists today have played only classical guitar. Palter started as a rock musician. Adler plays jazz and fusion. Lisa Cella has no experience playing in rock bands, but she gets it, simply from hearing it. So, Palter said, “she knows what to do with an Adler score, because she gets it.”
I don’t think my friend will go to soundON. Too bad. I tell older people who are afraid of new music that Mozart and Beethoven were always writing “new” music and would probably be shocked to know that we are still listening to their “old” music instead of our own. “What if Mozart had written ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik’ and no one showed up?” I suggest to them.
Who should go to this festival? As Palter put it, “Who shouldn’t?” If you’re feeling insecure, bring the teenagers; they’ll get it.
The Athenaeum and San Diego New Music are once again sponsoring the event, with funding from a MetLife Creative Connections program and the Puffin Foundation. They are taking a chance that music from events like soundON is not only great to hear but will also endure.
The Athenaeum Music and Arts Library and New Music San Diego present soundON Festival of Modern Music, Thurs. June 19 through Sat. June 21 at the Athenaeum. Eight events are scheduled; two brief NOISE in the Street concerts are free. All others require a festival pass. One-day passes are $15 for Athenaeum members and $20 for the general public; three day passes are $40 and $50. For tickets, call 858-454-5872 or go to www.ljathenaeum.org.
Information about NOISE and guest composers and the complete schedule for soundON are available here.
Meanwhile, here is a brief schedule:
Thurs., June 19: Noon-1 p.m., NOISE in the Street; 7 p.m. Music of a New Century, Part I. Fri., June 20, Noon-12:30 p.m., NOISE in the Street; 2-5 p.m., Open rehearsals; 7 p.m., Community Concert; Sat. June 21, 10 a.m.-noon, Lisa Cella leads a workshop for young and old on making performances with everyday objects; 2-4 p.m., Composer, performers and audience in dialogue; 7 p.m., Music of a New Century, Part II.
Mainly Mozart Update: The closing concerts for Mainly Mozart overlap with soundON. Someday, presenters will talk to each other and relieve audiences of these choices! David Atherton and his band of nearly perfect players, who have been vetted through our best orchestras, have been filling the newly-restored Balboa Theatre with great music. If you’re a Ferengi or a Vulcan, with supersensitive ears, you might find some flaws in Balboa’s acoustics, but I’ve heard from music people who have sat all over the hall and report fine sound. Save some bucks; side orchestra seats at $20 are fine. The traffic and parking situation has left patrons dazed and confused. Leave at least 30 minutes to crawl through Downtown traffic into the Westfield parking structure. For three free hours, validate your parking ticket inside Horton Plaza. You must do this before the concert, because the validation machines shut down at 9 p.m. Figure 15 minutes to get out of the parking structure.