On Tuesday, June 14, 2016 the Dog Star volume 12 concert series convened at Art Share LA to present Math is Nature, an evening of experimental pieces by Tom Johnson, John Eagle and James Tenney. The Koan Quartet, from the Southland Ensemble, and the Isaura String Quartet were on hand to play and a good sized audience turned out to fill the space. Curated by John Eagle and Cassia Streb, all of the music in this concert involved mathematics in the composition and performance realization.
The first work was Formulas (1994), by Tom Johnson. The Koan Quartet took the stage and the piece began with a moving melody line, repeated in different permutations by each of the instruments. Just as the active and optimistic feel of this seemed to be established, all fell quiet. After a few moments of silence, two tones in the violins were heard, followed by the viola. The sequential sounding of each instrument gave some movement to the otherwise slow and deliberate feel. The sense of mystery and suspense built up – and then there was another period of silence.
Formulas continued in this fashion – short sections with various combinations and permutations of instrument entrances, rhythms, dynamics and pitch directions. A nice minimalist groove broke out in one sequence while others featured lush harmonies or florid counterpoint. The parts were all cleanly played by the Koan Quartet with good ensemble throughout. Although originally conceived as a more strictly algorithmic piece, Tom Johnson confessed in the program notes: “I too have to rely on taste and instincts, and I can never prove that this version is better than the others, and finally this piece is not so much Formulas as simply music.” Formulas is an engaging and varied work that is an elegant balance of pure mathematics and inspired music.
A short intermission allowed the Koan Quartet to withdraw and the Isaura String Quartet took the stage for rhythm color #3 (2014), by John Eagle. The program notes sketched an overview of the methods employed in this composition: “The piece is made up of 24 individual pages (arranged in any order) which present three players with a sequence of notes and their numerical doubles (to be counted). These numbers are determined by the ratio of the given note to a fundamental which is either played or implied by a fourth part which drones throughout. While the score is presented like a grid, individual cells are left out in performance (not to be played) or are optional (left to the player to decide to play or not).” rhythm color #3 has an indeterminate structure and can be realized in many different ways depending on the decisions made by the performers at the time.
An extended period of silence began the piece followed by a low sustained tone from the cello, soon answered by the violins and viola. As each player entered, a verbal counting or a recitation of numbers was heard. The tones, all long and continuous, formed some interesting harmonies. As there was no perceived beat in the playing, the verbalization of the numbers added a kind of structural skeleton to the texture of tones as they sounded in various combinations and sequences. Various emotions emerged as the piece unfolded: tension, anxiety or fright – especially when the violins were at extremely high pitches – or a more spiritual feeling as when the cello played warm, reassuring tones. With all the players had to do to navigate the score, the ensemble and intonation were exemplary and there was never any sense of confusion or uncertainty over the many entrances.
rhythm color #3 operates at the cutting edge of an important experimental idea in music – that a piece can be performed in many different possible ways, and that the process of realization can include self-direction by the performers. The success of this performance demonstrates the far-reaching possibilities of this idea.
After a short break the Koan Quartet returned to perform Arbor Vitae (2006) by James Tenney, the final work of the composer. The program notes stated that Arbor Vitae is “… a series of related tonalities modulating through a richly populated, extended just intonation pitch space.” All of this began with a low, almost inaudible tone from the cello that was soon joined by the other strings at a similarly quiet dynamic. The combined sound seemed barely above a whisper and had some competition from a cooling fan. The long, subtle tones continued, only gradually increasing in volume and pitch. The intonation was exceptionally well-controlled by the Koan Quartet who were also equipped with tuner pickups on their instruments to realize the extended JI pitches called for in the score.
The quiet sounds invited careful listening and the interplay of the higher pitches was particularly interesting. Long, sustained tones came from each instrument but the entrances were offset and this gave the surface a sense of graceful and deliberate movement. The tones moved lower into the middle registers, creating some lovely harmonies. True to its title, a biotic feel predominated and the piece seemed to uncoil like a living organism. Arbor Vitae is a subtle, yet expressive depiction of the organic as realized through alternate tuning and precise playing.
The annual Dog Star concerts continue to provide a unique and generous contribution to the experimental music scene in Los Angeles, and beyond.
The Koan Quartet is Eric KM Clark and Orin Hildestad, violins, Cassia Streb, viola, and Jennifer Bewerse, cello. The Isaura String Quartet is Emily Call and Madeline Falcone, violins, Melinda Rice, viola, and Betsy Rettig, cello.