Claire Chase at The Rotunda

I just got in from the Claire Chase concert presented by Bowerbird at The Rotunda here in Philadelphia. This was fantastic playing, a program of nearly continuous music lasting some 75 minutes, without intermission. Given the taxing nature of the evening, it was a feat of stamina, but her careful shaping of the music, and the light-footed precision of her rhythm made it more than an athletic event.

All the pieces save one involved pre-recorded sound. The evening began with a brief overture for electronic sound alone, Gradient Density by Du Yun. I have to admit that I enjoyed the playing more than the compositions, which offered one take or another on a minimalist viewpoint, including the cheerful dance of Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint (curious how, when all the multi-tracked flutes get going, the sound takes on a percussive quality we associate with Reich’s music for actual percussion instruments); and the more austere patterns of Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square. The music of Marcos Balter and Mario Diaz de León was more concerned with atmosphere, mood and dramatic gesture than with steadily pulsed processes, but, like Glass and Reich, both composers were interested in working with multiples of the same material as played live by Chase. To me the electronic components of these pieces were not terribly impressive – the Balter was yet another piece that recalled the sound of the Echoplex effects popular many decades ago, while the sound palette of the Diaz de León gave me a flashback to the sounds of the ElectroComp 100 that I used in my first undergrad electronic music class back in the same period. I was held more by Alvin Lucier’s work, which came off as a kind of installation piece: isolated single tones on Chase’s array of differently sized flutes played against slowly drifting sine waves – single petals of a Calder mobile floating in a silver room of elastic dimensions.

The evening’s closer, the only piece without electronics (sort of) was the classic Density 21.5 by Varèse. I say “sort of” because the flute was lightly amplified and reverberated, making for the best key pops I’ve ever heard in this piece. Chase brought to the piece, after more than an hour of punishing playing, a diabolic intensity that recalled the performance I heard Harvey Sollberger give at the very first new music concert I attended in NYC. When I heard Harvey, I got a sense of what the level of performance among New York players could be; that exalted level lives on.

Remembering and forgetting Varèse

The Lincoln Center Varèse concerts are this week; Alex Ross has various links and video of Varèse as a silent film actor. (I’m afraid I found the ICE theatrical trailer pretty dopey.)

These concerts remind me of being a student at Columbia at the time of the Varese centennial, and, as we were all Chou Wen-Chung students, being roped into working on an all-Varese concert. There was a panel discussion earlier in the day – all these elderly folks, I think Otto Luening and Meyer Schapiro among them – reminiscing about Varèse. Or, actually, talking about all kinds of things except Varèse. (The panel was called “Remembering Varèse”, but fellow student Paul Moravec referred to it as ‘Forgetting Varèse”.) The climax of the panel was when it was time for Varèse’s widow Louise to speak. Finally, we thought, this will be the real thing, the profound insight, the key to understanding the man and the artist. Louise leaned toward the microphone and said:
“There was never a dull moment.”
And that was all she said.
I notice that the Lincoln Center programs omit one very rare piece. Varèse actually composed three electronic works – everybody knows the Poéme and Deserts, but he also did some electronic music for a film by Thomas Bouchard called Around and About Joan Miro. The music was for a portion of the film called Procession at Verges. I only know about this because we projected the relevant portion of the film at that all-Varese concert at Columbia, along with some home movies of Varèse talking with Carl Ruggles. Ruggles sounded like Jimmy Cagney playing a gangster (“I thought Walt Whitman was the greatest American poet, see?”) while Varèse sounded like, well, like somebody doing an imitation of a cosmopolitan boulevardier.
(The image above is of Calder’s wire sculpture of Varese)