Musings the Day After Creo's Concert

      About fifteen years ago I bought a CD of Giacinto Scelsi's Canti del Capricorno (Wergo Wer 60127-50) with Ms. Hirayama as vocalist. I first heard her on a Wergo CD sampler of nineteen unusual pieces of music and thought "this is strange; I want to hear more." I know many others have the opposite reaction. What makes the difference?

      As a kid I grew up on pop, bluegrass, radio soap operas and hillbilly music and knew there was more and went to look for it. I recall when Schoenberg, Berg and Webern were bizarre to my ears. I also know that in time they became familiar and I could find beauty where once I felt aversion.

     Over the past several years I have gone back to listening to Scelsi as the extreme edge of vocal sound. I had tried to interest Steve but he found it extremely unpleasant to listen to. But that changed for him on Saturday at the masterclass. Having a personable, friendly singer share her enthusiasm for these difficult pieces caught his interest and we came home and listened to the Scelsi CD together for the first time.

     From the program notes: "Scelsi employs a wide variety of extended vocal techniques, developed together with Michiko Hirayama, resultant from diverse folk-music methods of producing sound. For instance, open voice, throated singing, non-vibrato, specific tremolo-like vibrato, coloring a pitch with the sound of exhaling, employing various types of overtones, nasal sound, quarter-tones, as well as extremely wide amplitude of dynamics. All these unique stylistic factors make Scelsi's works for voice the treasures of vocal repertoire."

      Why is so much art that moves people created by misfits, misanthropes and madmen? What moves certain people to move against the tide of popular culture? What do war, horror, pain and death have to do with what art gets created and in time cherished? Entertainment or soul-shaking experience? What is the function of art in a culture?

      An evening out to experience live music is a constant and important part of my life now. Why did I come home excited and energized last night from hearing contemporary music that, at best, was not pretty? The event was CREO's first concert this season of contemporary, cutting-edge serious composed music. Mostly students filled the hall. True, they must attend some live performances and we lost a third of the audience at intermission. One friend asked, "will this music be around in 100 years?" I don't know the answer but I do know that young people are listening to pop music that sounds foreign to our older ears.

      Part of the surprise is to have a program this challenging and professionally well-done in Hampton Roads. New York, San Francisco, Berlin, maybe, but in Norfolk! CREO director Andrey Kasparov is a man with a mission, a vast knowledge of music, both classical and contemporary, and an obsessive dedication to serving music and making ODU a top center for contemporary music. This was Ms. Pschenitschnikova's first trip to America. She has had other offers but Kasparov's was the first that caught her interest.

      Life for some of us is an adventure while others stick to comfortable patterns. There is no right or wrong way to be. I'm just delighted by the experience and pleased to have Andrey, Oksana, Natalia and others bringing me such intriguing, challenging experiences. Come and join us if you dare!

      Natalia Pschenitschnikova learned the major vocal pieces from the woman who brought the pieces to life working with the composer. She is proud to be chosen by the octogenarian Michiko Hirayama to carry on this demanding and difficult music.

      We'll see the Merry Widow and be delighted later this week but it will not go so deep within me as last night did. Of that I am sure.

Creo Gives Fall Concert, November 29, 2004, Chandler Recital Hall

     Three pieces on this interesting and eclectic program were North American premieres; two of these used extended vocal technique with visiting artist Natalia Pschenitschnikova as soloist. In the third piece, Foxfire Two by Helmut Oehring (b.1961), she was the flutist in her own arrangement for bass flute. This is part of a series of pieces inspired by a disturbing account of the first execution by lethal injection on January 6, 1989 in Missouri. The death of the inmate is brought about by a newly invented injection machine. The sound of the breath through the body of the insturment is evocative. I sense an intimacy between player and instrument that gives a sense of spontaneity. As the piece concludes, gurgling undertones build, then fade as the breath of life is snuffed out.

      Slap Shift for three percussionists opened the program. This piece, based on Afro-Cuban drumming, was composed by J.B.Smith (1957), who teaches music at Arizona State University where he is Coordinator of Percussion Studies. His interesting, coloristic music is available on Amazon.com. CD titles are Apparitions for Percussion, First Reflections and At the Desert's Edge.

      Two a cappella songs followed from Canti del Capricorno (1962-1984) by Giacinto Scelsi (1905 -1988). The Japanese vocal influence from the recorded piece is there in this singing but somehow it has a jazzy, happier mood. At times there is a kinship with scat singing.

      Mezzo-soprano Lisa Coston sang Tsippi Fleischer's (1946) Girl, Butterfly, Girl in Arabic with Bonnie Kim on alto flute and Oksana Lutsyshyn at the piano. With each hearing these songs become more impressive. With texts by Lebanese and Syrian poets, Piece of Earth has a French flavor, while Eyelids draws on Moroccan sonorities. The lyrical sadness of The Coffin with Its Lid Removed is moving as is its high note ending, representing the shrieking of blackbirds as they devour corpses in the desert. Girl, Butterfly, Girl feels like a love song at times but there is a mournful quality to this evocative, non-linear poetry.

      Maurice Ohana (1914-1992) was born in Casablanca and received his musical training in France. His Miroir de Celestine (1990) is very exotic music for percussion and harpsichord. With great freedom he has created an amazing range of colors in this work. The percussive harpsichord, played by Ms. Lutsyshyn, and a variety of other percussion instruments, played by David Walker, create wonderful, intriguing sonorities in music drawn from Ohana's opera La Celestine. The translated titles of the sections are The Garden of Delights, Mirror of Impossible Desire, Mirror of Fates, Night Garden, N'Gango and Mirror of Oblivion.

      The second half of the program was Khoom, Seven Episodes of an Unwritten Story, also by Scelsi. There is no story-line even though the work contains programmatic subtitles. The voice with instruments opens up myriad coloristic possibilities. It is an auditory canvas created with much possibility of emotional expression.

      Early in the piece there is an eerie vocal sound, enhanced by the violin. It is interesting how complex the human sound can be compared to the instrumental variations on the same pitch. Then voice and horn share the creation of sound. This auditory canvas provokes human emotion but the content of the experience is produced by the listener.

      Deep notes emerge from the voice and horn in duet in the third episode and contrast with those of the strings and voice together later. In the fourth section the exploration of the sound of strings, voice and horn together creates a depressive mood but it is soon dispelled when the excitement of percussion with strings is added with the rich vocal sounds. I become aware of the choreography of the conductor's arms flying about as his body weaves upward, then downward with the beat, holding the ensemble together. There is a wonderful climax as Ms. Pshenitschnikova closes the fifth episode.

      In the sixth the somber strings and voice together create a feeling of resigned agony. It is beyond the freshness of tears; it is a relentless ache. The soundtrack for Auschwitz or Darfur, in contemplation outside the actual experience because to survive there you must have hope. In this music the horn and voice blend into a relentless sadness, only the plucked strings, for a brief moment, offer a glimmer of hope. The intensity returns only to have the piece fade away.

      The roster of players for Khoom was: Natalia Pschenichnikova, soprano; Pavel Ilyashov, violin 1; Elizabeth Coulter, violin 2; Natalia Kuznetsova, viola; Charlotte Dettwiler-Carr, cello; Marlene Ford, horn; David Walker, percussion 1; Tony Reid, percussion 2; Andrey Kasparov, conductor. They deserve great praise for bringing to life this complex, challenging music.

      My description uses the notes I made as I listened to this profound and emotionally provocative piece but is in no way a substitute for the experience of being there.

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