Stockhausen, Spiropoulos, Steiger @ Yerba Buena (San Francisco)

How many cities on a Monday night can come close to selling out a chamber concert that’s built around a tape-music work dating from the Kennedy administration? Count San Francisco among them.

The performance earlier this week, on March 17, at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players included three works: Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s Kontakte (1958-1960), Georgia Spiropoulos‘s Oria (2003), Greek for “threshold,” and Rand Steiger‘s Dreamscape (2004). All featured, to varied ends, a mix of acoustic instrumentation, alternate performance techniques, and electronic processing. Steiger, Chair of the Music Department at the University of San Diego, and Spiropoulos, born in Greece but a resident of Paris, were on hand for a pre-concert discussion. The image below shows them speaking with, at center, David Milnes, the SFCMP Music Director and a member of the music faculty at nearby UC Berkeley.

Two gongs set the scene for the Stockhausen. Light projections cast circular shadows against a back curtain that made them appear like twin suns caught in mid-eclipse. If the setting fit the composer’s interest in myth, the music emphasized his interest in controlled chaos, the origin point for most mythologies. The work was, in effect, a trio: Julie Steinberg on piano and occasional percussion; William Winant on his standard battery of bangable objects; and a pre-recorded synthesized sound bed, managed by Bryan Wolf, who sat at the mixing board throughout the 35-minute piece. Steinberg and Winant moved amid their extensive tools, which were gathered like new-music workstations on either side of the gongs. The pair’s intricate playing involved them aping many of the prerecorded elements, playing against synthesized backdrops, and working in tandem throughout. Steinberg and Winant brought a winning ease and humor to the piece, which like all the music heard during the evening really needed to be seen to be fully appreciated.

Like the Stockhausen, Steiger’s Dreamscape is a mix of acoustic and electric sounds. The piece is scored for flute (Tod Brody), percussion (Daniel Kennedy), piano (Vicki Ray), cello (Stephen Harrison), and electronics (Steiger himself). The composer explained during the pre-concert discussion that he uses software patches he’s developed in the program Max/MSP to affect the sounds produced by the musicians. Thus the mallets of Kennedy’s marimba were capable of emitting glissandi, a neat effect, even if it became less interesting with successive occurrences. Likewise, Brody’s flute occasionally sounded like it was being played in a cavern, and could be heard to have additional notes added in: full chords, courtesy of the software. And while Ray’s piano itself didn’t move, various notes and riffs circled around the room, thanks to six speakers that allowed for spatial operations. Steiger noted that the Max software was initially developed by one of his San Diego colleagues, Miller Puckette, with whom he has collaborated in the past. The image below shows Steiger, along with the Apple laptop running Max/MSP and the printed score.

The playing in Dreamscape required a high level of evident virtuosity — lots of tough lines and percussive counterpoint. Steiger mentioned before the performance that the musicians had been instructed to ignore the additional electronic processing — that their role is to play the score in front of them, and his is to manipulate it, allowing for about a 30- or 40-millisecond delay. The result at times suggested the green-screen drama of one of George Lucas’s later Star Wars movies, in which actors move down a stage set with the knowledge that, to the audience, they’re walking among towering marble edifices or impossible waterfalls. Perhaps Steiger was overstating the extent to which the performers are inured to his digital maneuvers, but there did seem to be something of a disconnect, a disconnect that couldn’t be attributed entirely to those milliseconds. It may have been a missed opportunity. Given his substantial background as a conductor, his performance at the laptop could serve to direct the musicians, to prod them, rather than to just enhance their efforts. He mentioned a commission he’s working on for the American Composers Orchestra, due for a debut next February, which may be more interactive.

The evening’s presentation of Dreamscape was marred on at least three occasions when unintentional feedback appeared: rough static could be heard at the very opening and close, and a long drone appeared toward the end of the piano solo. No one in the audience seemed to mind. While a flubbed note from an instrumentalist can cause dismay, a bit of feedback helps remind everyone that even the technology is being “played.” (Dreamscape will be performed by the quartet Mosaic at the Cleveland Institute of Music this coming April 14.)

If Steiger’s work emphasized the differences between the instruments, through both the demanding composition and the varied electronic effects he applied, Spiropoulos’s Oria emphasized commonality. Scored for an amplified ensemble of bass flute (Brody again), clarinet (William Wohlmacher, alternating with bass clarinet), cello (Leighton Fong), double bass (Richard Worn), piano (Ray again) and percussion (Christopher Froh), the work required all the players to, at times, vocalize small, breathy noises. Those noises were purposefully similar to the scratchboard sounds that the musicians were called upon to produce with their instruments. While there were moments of choreographed interplay, much of the virtuosity required in Oria involved the musicians’s dedication and patience: the ability to eke out a sandpaper rhythm with a piece of Styrofoam on a drum kit, or to pluck muted notes on a cello. The electronic element was limited but effective; the amplification brought to the fore textural aspects of the instrument that are often lost amid playing.

In the pre-concert discussion, Spiropoulos explained that her work was informed by a Japanese performance style that requires instrumentalists to double their playing with singing. Milnes, the SFCMP Music Director, moderating the opening talk, joked that Keith Jarrett, the pianist famous for half-humming through his playing, could be said to do the same thing. At one point in conversation with Spiropoulos, Milnes noted that her score required many untraditional performance techniques. Spiropoulous countered that these “strange sounds,” as he put it, weren’t all that strange, that the plucking of piano strings and the breathy embouchure she required from the woodwinds were “traditional 20th-century techniques.”

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