This program was the epitome of newness. Nothing old enough to be enrolled in first grade and three world premieres, Synchromy and The Argus Quartet‘s February 27 concert achieved a rare level of innovation, with the presenter and ensemble working together to build an effective, feasible, and enjoyable program to showcase all their talents. Like a sonata, it built up, developed, had some themes come back, and ended on a sort of cadenza with a new theme -that of the voice. We had heard the voice before; the narrator, Chelsea Fryer, had also been introducing the pieces. One could say this non-performance voice became integrated into the program. Or perhaps it had been part of the performance all along, that as soon as the doors closed and the lights when down everything that happened on or near the stage was performative.
The concert opens with a sunrise in Andrew Norman’s Sabina, from the Companion Guide to Rome, for solo violin. It begins with a whisper, not even a note. When the sound finally starts, it sounds far away, almost like an echo in a canyon. It creaks into existence, broken by bird calls and wind. The violin finally begins a kind of fiddling over a drone and splitting high notes so pure. The sun is finally high enough to be seen through the window of the church that inspired Andrew Norman, and the violin plays a single, pure melody. No birds, no wind, nothing but a sweet melody.
Following the sky theme, the sunrise is clouded over by Kaija Saariaho’s “Cloud Trio,” which adds a viola and cello to the violin soloist but is still not the full quartet yet. This work depicts four types of clouds, and the audience is invited to imagine which clouds they are. Like many, I can identify cumulus as the fluffy ones and that’s it. Regardless of lacking the vocabulary to name the clouds, the types were clearly depicted in the music. Each has its own identity, utilizing thick harmonies or sparse counterpoint or the rhythmic shush shush of col legno.
Staying within the theme of Rome, one of the most popular archaeological sites in the world, Zaq Kenefick’s funeral song of the people of the ruined cities, speaks to the beauty and brokenness of the ruins. The violin plays a trembling solo and the viola strums chords dissonant with the cello. The video of folding black cloth was surely a beautiful artistic choice, though I must admit I and many other audience members I talked to afterwards were uncertain what to make of the visuals. The piece was over almost as soon as it began, the length itself a reflection of the lost ruins.
Immediately before intermission, the concert changed gears and addressed the modern: Skronk. A word thrown around in various musical genres and circles, it is a thick onomatopoeia. The introduction defines it in many ones, and generally as “not a thing you are, but a thing you do.” The piece features strong pizzicati and a syncopated rock rhythm and melody, some fiddling tossed between the different instruments, and overall frankly smoother string playing than I would have expected from a word that can mean the skronk of an electric guitar. This one was a fast crowd pleaser and kept everyone on their toes. Ending as though someone suddenly turned up the volume and then plucking away into nothingness like the fade-outs of rock songs of the ‘90s, John Frantzen captured the many facets skronk may and can represent.
Post-intermission, we were given something of a variation on a theme. The music kicked off with three excerpts from Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome for string trio, featuring swirling harmonies, birdlike whistles, crackling glitches, whispering on the bows, and plucked pizzicato like rocks skipping on a pond. This was followed by Nick Norton’s String Quartet No 1., in which chords slid like skates on ice and the melody bounced between the four instruments in a playful game of keep-away. The second section was frantic, reminding me of a car race – the way the upper strings chomped rhythmically at the notes and the cello made engine revs pealing past the stage, going so far as to imitate the Doppler effect, it seemed. The third ethereal movement felt like flying in a dream. The dramatic violin swelled alongside the pastoral lower strings, all slowing until they ran out of steam. The perfect end to the day that Norman’s first piece began. But a false ending gave way to screeching and tapping. The spell was broken. Composers have great power over the audience, and with great power comes great responsibility. Norton made the daring choice to shatter the beauty he built.
After Norton came the second Kenefick piece, harvesting tunes of the people of the rope-tree towers, this one featuring the viola practically crunching itself in half to sound like white noise on an old CRTV, a dark melody in the violin with dissonance in its twin, and the cello rumbling beneath it all. This video panned the length of a red cloth rope. Again, I will not pretend to have understood or fully appreciated the visuals provided, but the piece was an intriguing exercise in tension and release, and well placed in the middle of the second half of the program. It is experimental enough that I might experiment with it on a Spotify playlist someday, just to see how it goes.
Gabriela Frank’s excerpts from Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout gave a breath of fresh air from the concert hall by taking the audience on a pastoral journey through the Andes via “Tarqueada,” a piece imitating the split tone flute played in quartal and quintal harmony, “Himno de Zampoñas,” or panpipes, and “Chasqui,” the messenger runner who relies on small instruments light enough to carry on journeys, particularly small guitars. Each section was magnificently portrayed by the quartet, making the flutes and panpipes sing and drums thwack and guitars strum, all on bowed strings. For brief moments I was transported to the Smithsonian Folkways Festival of 2013 when a Quechua band played on the instruments the strings were portraying. The effect was astounding and beautiful, and I felt nostalgia for a place I’ve never been, only heard.
The concert ended with Eve Beglarian’s Testy Pony, which featured the cellist, a video and prerecorded sounds, and the narrator. A charming story of a girl who gets a pony and learns a life lesson, the pleasant tale is backed by a constantly rolling cello playing in time with the prerecorded sounds. If you don’t think this is technically challenging, try cooking while watching a chef on TV, and you’ll get some idea of the balancing act at play. This work seemed to finally end the “day” we started, as we watched the back of a horse gallop out of sight and out of mind.
The brief descriptions and interpretations of the pieces reveal a variety of ways in which music can be “new” and concerts can showcase facets of interest. Composition can show off new techniques, new subject matter (or old, in the case of the ruins, but in a new way), or use new orchestration. Synchromy is a collective of composers showing off recent works, and the Argus Quartet specializes in modern techniques. The New Classic LA facebook page has a rule that only ‘new’ music may be posted. 15th century madrigals are not new, but perhaps the way in which they are performed is new. Film music is not a new genre anymore, but a fresh composition is new. ‘New’ is such a tiny word packed with so much to interpret and interpolate. Regardless of how you take any of it to heart or choose to think about music, last Friday’s concert was a fair epitome of newness.