American Sublime

A seriously important festival of Morton Feldman’s late music here in Philly, June 4 through the 12. Curated by Bowerbird and called “American Sublime” (quite elegant website), the programs include pieces like Triadic Memories. Crippled Symmetry, and the six-hour-long String Quartet #2. Performers include heavy-hitters like Marilyn Nonken, the Jack Quartet, Joan LaBarbara, and more. This is an uncommon series of events, presenting important music that is new to the area. Read the article that inspired the title of the festival here.


Anthony Tommasini’s Arts and Leisure essay in the Times today speaks about the end of dogma in programming new music, citing an evening by the Ensemble ACJW at Poisson Rouge to make the case.  Tommasini mentions the stylistic debates that dominated the lunch table during his time as a student at Yale, but it is not news that those arguments have quieted down.

More interesting to me in the article is the staying power of the high modernist composers that everybody is supposed to hate (the article mentions Babbitt and Davidovsky among others). It turns out that the music is less about compositional ideology (Davidovsky in particular is the most asystematic of uptown composers) and more about – among other things – a celebration of virtuosity. Since a performer is always happy to play something that makes him/her sound brilliant, it is not surprising that Ensemble ACJW would program Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #9 or that the Jack Quartet would advocate for Xenakis, or that the superb violinist Miranda Cuckson would issue first-rate discs of music by Shapey and Martino (about which more in a future post).

The other point of interest for me is one that Tommasini makes, but then backs away from as a “passing worry for now”, and this is the problem of the neglected “notes and rhythms” composer, to use the playful phrase of John Harbison that the article quotes. Tommasini mentions Hartke, Stucky, Rouse, Melinda Wagner, Currier, and Tower as (quasi-)mainstream  voices that may be “slipping from the view of young musicians and audiences”. (I say “quasi-mainstream” because “mainstream” is a pretty vexed concept today. Also, check the composer links at right if you want to add more names to the list.) Part of the problem here is that these composers offer journalists or publicists little on which to hang a story – nothing about identity politics, technology or violent rebellion against mentors – merely excellent music.  (The exception on that list being Sebastian Currier, whose impressive use of multimedia has not yet received the recognition it deserves.) If these composers are “slipping from view”, it is because their pieces all too often “slip away” after the premiere – the problem of the 2nd performance that I wrote about earlier. This is not a “someday” problem, as Tommasini suggests; rather, it is a problem now. Shouldn’t there be a dozen flutists planning to play Melinda Wagner’s Flute Concerto? Shouldn’t there be young groups touring with the string quartets of Harbison or Currier? In a healthier musical climate, repeated performances would mean the merely excellent would remain squarely before us instead of slipping from view.