Exploring Boundaries

Last night Shirley and I attended the 18th annual Ussachevsky Festival Concert at Pomona College. For us it was only our 2nd annual Ussachevsky Festival Concert. Dedicated to electronic music, this event has a decidedly experimental character. “Electronic music” covers a multitude of sins from completely electronically generated music to live performance with some form of electronic accompaniment or effect.
Last night three pieces featured live performances accompanied by prerecorded material from the same instrument: cello with cello accompaniment, toy piano with toy piano accompaniment, shakuhachi with shakuhachi accompaniment. For those who might not know, I didn’t, a shakuhachi is a Japanese bamboo flute. There were two video presentations. For me, the most satisfying of the two was Maurice Wright’s, “GENUS” (2003). Here’s part of the description from the program, “The opening sounds are difference tones produced from several hundred sine waves in the 4000-Hertz range. Similar sounds are introduced at 2 Hz, 4 Hz, etc., and octave doubling repeats until a cluster of partials randomly detuned once again is concentrated near 4 KHz.” And they called that music. It truly was.
Before I proceed with further comments, let me confess something. Until a very few years ago both Shirley and I were rather firmly of the opinion that to qualify as a concert one of the evening’s works needed to be in four movements with the third movement a minuet and at least one of the other movements, preferably the first, in sonata-allegro form. Now that may slightly overstate the reality but not by much. We tended to judge all music by that standard and by that standard last night’s event was far from a concert. But over the last few years Tom Flaherty and Genevieve Feiwen Lee of Pomona College have convinced us by their own dedication to alternative music that we needed to broaden our horizons. Both Flaherty and Lee come to this new music with the skills of seasoned performers of classical music. We are not yet fully initiated but the more we hear (and understand) the more we enjoy an evening or afternoon of the more avant-garde. Of course, even using the expression avant-garde in the context of music may show how out of it we really are. When John Cage’s music is on the program, and it was, avant-garde seems a rather antique word.
Now back to last night’s concert, Professor Flaherty, who acted as master of ceremonies, played the cello in the opening piece, and composed one of the numbers, told us somewhat apologetically that the program was more “meditative” than usual. With two exceptions, it was. And of course, I enjoyed those two exceptions the most.
While having its own meditative moments, Professor Lee’s performance of Flaherty’s “Shepard’s Pi” (2010) for toy piano (and computer) was quite amazing as well as amusing. Even the title amused us. Lee seems to love the toy piano and plays it with the same precision, control, and flair that she brings to the concert grand. And given its limited range, she gets almost as much out of it. The interaction between the live performance and the pre-recorded toy piano accompaniment produced some wonderful effects and the whole thing tied together in a very satisfying way.
But the highlight of the evening was Theresa Diamond’s performance of Javier Alvarez’ “Temazcal.” Have you ever heard of a maracas solo performance? Well, we heard one last night. Rather wide ranging recorded music with a decidedly Latin American accent accompanied Diamond’s spirited maracas solo. Wonderful!
Returning to Flaherty’s comment about the program being unusually meditative: There were several times when I worried that some of the music actually explored the boundaries between meditative, ponderous, and tedious. That said, both Shirley and I were surprised how quickly the hour and forty-five minute program passed and how much we enjoyed it. I’m already looking forward to the 19th annual Ussachevsky Festival Concert. But before that there will be classical symphonies.