If there were any doubts that the LA new-music scene is in the midst of a surfeit of musical and aesthetic diversity, Synchromy and HOCKET’s evening of music, titled Crusoe, on November 5 should certainly quell them. The playing, centering on Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff of the piano duo HOCKET, and later adding a larger ensemble, was truly exceptional: precise, expressive, virtuosic where needed, yet playful, even comedic where possible.
The concert’s first half was comprised of four compositions for piano-four-hands by four local, living LA composers.
Alexander Elliott Miller’s Clock Smasher made for a striking and auspicious beginning. As its title might suggest, the opening motif, in four hands in ascent, burst open a vivid sonic palette that would traverse and transmogrify in interesting and musically satisfying ways.
In his program note Miller makes mention of the “… polyrhythms, many of which do have a sort of ‘tick-tock’ quality, like a room full of out-of-sync clocks.” This is most certainly accurate but it only begins to suggest the variety and vitality of harmonic and gestural realms it creates and explores. Clock Smasher teases us at first with a metronomic, pulsed music which evolves into something ominously hovering, then interrupted by syncopated rhythms infused with quasi-jazz harmonies. Even the mention of the “J Word” is sometimes frowned upon – personally, I don’t frown upon it – but regardless of what that might suggest to you, this is certainly not a jazz composition. But that isn’t to say that it doesn’t flirt with tonality, some very lovely melodies and, at times, even hints at something Bill Evans might have mused about at the keyboard. This music, as Miller’s notes suggest, does subvert its own idiomatic tendencies with those irregular rhythms, to my ear something of a this-is-definitely-NOT-jazz insistence, which then somehow, artfully evolves into a spacious, airy coda, punctuated by big, long and spacious chords. A poignant, striking work.
The next piece on the program was Marc Evans’ One Wandering Night. This piece was for a slightly varied configuration of HOCKET in that Ms. Gibson remained on the piano while Mr. Kotcheff moved to an electric keyboard and they were augmented by the addition of two melodicas (played by the composer and Nick Norton).
Fun fact: I went to a Joe Jackson concert when I was a kid, probably around 1980. He whipped out a melodica and declared it “The Instrument of the Future!” Perhaps he was right. I do hear a lot of melodica at new music concerts these days.
Evans’ piece was inspired by Bartok and that came through clearly enough. There is always the danger of being on the wrong side of the line separating homage from uninspired imitation. Fortunately, One Wandering Night falls decidedly on the right side of that line. While the melodicas played a sort of wheezing Eastern European Bartokian ostinato, definitely and pleasantly reminiscent of Bartok’s own take on modal folk melody, the piano and electric keyboard sputtered and interjected their own contrasting bits. I found this particularly satisfying as it reminded me, on a simple level, of Bartok’s own 2-handed piano trickery, where the two hands remain, stubbornly, in their own domain (key, mode, register) despite any discord that stubborn autonomy might produce. And on a more complex level, it reminded me of one of my very favorite pieces of music, Messiaen’s jardin du sommeil d’amour, a movement from his Turangalîla-Symphonie. While the melodic and harmonic technique is quite different in Messiaen’s masterpiece, a similar bifurcation and their disorienting affect is in play.
And playful it is. As the piece progresses, the tempo of the melodicas’ pumping melody increases and the interjections become more intense until, like a tired Hungarian hiker on the banks of the Danube, all four instruments slow down until they reach total repose. I must admit to being completely unfamiliary with Evans’ work but if this piece is at all representative of his musical sensibilities, then I definitely want to hear more.
Nick Norton told us from the stage that his Mirror Smasher was a number of things. He said it was “minimalisty” (and as such, “easy to write”), loud, and a work in progress. This piece was, again, for the four deft hands of HOCKET, and in fact even the pitch material itself was produced and ordered by them. The unordered (or, to quote the program, “played about a zillion different ways, as if looking at it in a broken mirror”) pitch set is:
H O C K E T = B G C D E F#
Yet again, HOCKET played beautifully. The piece begins with a clear tonal center, pulsing along as “minimalisty” pieces often do. But not long into the playing, a pre-recorded track of electronic sounds makes its presence known.
Norton’s choice of electronic sounds – both their timbre and idiomatic qualities – were a highlight for me. The combination of the smooth, hypnotic four-handed piano combined with the somewhat Kraftwerky buzzes, gently evolving into higher pitched electronic sounds reminiscent of some of the organ work in Einstein on the Beach really made for a powerful electro-acoustic marriage.
About halfway into Mirror Smasher the volume cranks up significantly. (The composer warned us of this before the performance. There will be no lawsuits.) If there was a hint of Einstein before the knob was turned, now the Einsteinian character felt married to something more like Heavy Metal, even Rock Opera. (Norton’s program note says that the title is a nod to Alex Miller’s Clock Smasher but I couldn’t help wonder if it might, even subconsciously, have any connection to The Who’s Do I Smash The Mirror, from Tommy. OK, probably not, but still…) OK, Rock Opera is misleading at best, demeaning at worst. But Mirror Smasher’s loud second half is formidable, powerful, and I could easily imagine it, as the composer suggested, being extended into a much longer Minimalist work. While different in pitched/melodic material, it reminded me, in a very good way, of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music in its powerful, gyrating and relentless sonic attack.
The program’s first half concluded with Jason Barabba’s The Distance of the Moon. The piece takes its title from a story in Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics of the same name. Calvino’s work is a collection of clever, fanciful tales, sometimes mischievous, sometimes romantic and nostalgic, often subverting our expectations if not the laws of nature as we’ve come to understand them. Calvino’s Distance of the Moon is a story about the moon, which, once upon a time, existed but a hop away from the Earth, but is now gradually moving farther and farther away. As the two spheres continue to distance themselves from each other, the inhabitants abandon the moon for the Earth. All but one of them, who decides to remain, forever, stranded alone on the moon.
Barabba’s musical interpretation of the story is itself a clever, fanciful tale. But unlike the rather light quality of the short story, it is a significant, weighty work. This is not to say that it isn’t imbued with moments of lightness – it is! – but it is not a mere bagatelle, but rather a significant musical and pianistic undertaking. Distance of the Moon was originally composed for a single pianist (presumably the two-handed kind) but as such it was almost impossible to play. I can all too easily believe this. Even in its two-person version, it is quite challenging.
Stylistically, it manages to explore a number of moods and idiomatic gestures yet still most definitely feel like a coherent, unified work. Moments of romantic, almost tonal passages intermingle deftly with strong, almost Schoenbergian dissonances. Lugubrious night music passages transition into stumbling, irregular rhythms with almost-BeBop melodic lines.
In the end, analogous to the story on which its based, Distance makes us feel the separation, the yearning, the tension hoping, however in vain, for a resolution. It ends, fragile and sparse, in a delicate and beautiful diad. Two notes at either end of the piano keyboard. A deep work, and one that I suspect would definitely reward repeat hearings and analysis.
Then came an intermission. If this had been a meal, I would have felt not full but satisfied. This was a chunk of concert that delivered four works of diverse character yet not, as a whole, illogically incongruent. But wait, there’s more…
The second half began with Mayke Nas’ DiGiT #2. (For the curious, I don’t think there’s a DiGiT #1.) For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Ms. Nas is a Dutch composer, born in 1972. I don’t know how her work wound up on this program but it was a perfect palette cleanser. DiGiT is, to my ear, entirely devoid of a single specified pitch for any of the four hands, or four forearms, or two foreheads that activate the piano keys. It is, to be clear, a humorous bit of performance, perhaps a commentary on what we consider to be “high art.” It also allows a piano duo to highlight a different take on virtuosity.
DiGiT centers itself around a variation of our childhood schoolyard hand jive or clapping game that involves an intricate collaborative clapping between two people (usually young girls), while simultaneously singing a rhyme. (Shimmy Shimmy Cocoa Pop! was the one the Black girls bussed into my Queens elementary school taught me). DiGiT, however, is inspired by another favorite, Oh Little Playmate. It is not only a charming work – one that HOCKET obviously enjoyed immensely – but even a virtuosic one, albeit in a very different way. Piano keys are only played in clusters, but other sounds arise from the intricate interplay of the two pianists’ strikes against the palms, arms, and thighs of themselves and each other. The rhythms are at times satisfyingly smooth, even evoking soft shoe dance moves in their elegance and grace. It’s very much a performance piece, and, if you like, you can see an older performance of it (not by HOCKET, but by eighth blackbird, here:
The concert itself was billed under the title of CRUSOE. The grand finale, so to speak, was Frederic Rzewski’s composition of that name. Rzewski, born in 1938, is seen as a somewhat enigmatic figure of the 20th century avant-garde, someone who studied with “Uptown” and Princeton figures (Babbitt, et al.) yet whose own musical output butterflied effortlessly among genres widely, from serialism to minimalism. His works are coherent and easy to describe in and of themselves. But to describe what a “Rzewski piece” might be is near impossible.
As for Crusoe, where to begin? First of all, it was a delight! Which is not to say that it was necessarily such a delight on the page, but Synchromy upped the dose for our viewing pleasure. The stage was adorned with a backdrop of a deserted island, inflatable palm trees and beach balls. A large ensemble adorned themselves a la Castaway, with everything from light headgear to a stuffed parrot on a shoulder to, in the case of one player (Mr. Norton, on guitar) a full-on shark suit! It was most definitely an aesthetic choice, not one dictated by the score, and I found it to be a wise one which bore much (tropical?) fruit.
Crusoe employs a performing force of unspecified instruments, requires its players to sing and chant various lines about Robinson Crusoe, play percussion instruments, and do other things that might make a Musicians Union bristle. The vocal sections are interspersed among bright, quite lovely pointillistic instrumental episodes. As such, Crusoe is reminiscent at times of some of Harry Partch’s better works, albeit without the microtonal schema.
After various chants, instrumental interludes, spilling of doubloons, breaking of branches, dusting off of hands, tinkling of toy pianos, swords whirred as they are raised in the air, heads patted, feet stomped, the Narrator (sung by Justine Aronson) comes forth to chant the last line. At which point she is pelted by the ensemble with beach balls. The End! (I won’t call the Union if you don’t.)
As I said, Rzewski is enigmatic. And Crusoe is no less an enigma. Did this performance, and this piece, provide any insight into the tale of Robinson Crusoe? No, not really. Did it give me a sense of what Rzewski’s compositional voice was? Well, kinda sorta, inasmuch as only one of his pieces might. But more importantly, it was a perfect end to Synchromy’s ambitious concert, a perfect counterweight to an already diverse and profound selection of our community’s musical wealth.