Monday, April 13, 2015

By ones, twos, and threes, Butler musicians 'embrace the outsider' in an afternoon ArtsFest concert

Pieces that have in common only that they seem to come from outside the mainstream don't lend themselves easily to generalization.

As "Embracing the Outsider: Chamber Music" unfolded Sunday afternoon at the Schrott Center for the Arts, the program's aptness for the theme of this year's Butler ArtsFest, "Outlaws & Outsiders," was evident. The works belonged together mainly because they showed how vast a terrain "outside" can be. A fresh "inside" was thus created only by their presence in the same concert.

Pianist Anna Briscoe
The oldest work, Henry Cowell's "Homage to Iran," was part of the American composer's gradually influential attention to non-European music. Using two Western instruments (violin and piano) plus a hand drum, Cowell laid out his alternately lyrical and perpetual-motion tribute in exotic terms. The piano, with repeated notes inflected by hand-stopped strings, is frequently the drum's percussive partner, as the violin states a melody that is otherwise unsupported.

It was a pleasure to hear this novelty played collegially by Larry Shapiro, violin; Anna Briscoe, piano, and Brandon Lee, percussion.

Briscoe took a solo role in two pieces by Tania Leon, a fashionable contemporary composer who draws on her Afro-Cuban roots characteristically in her compositions. With musicological commentary by her husband, Butler professor James Briscoe, the pianist played two pieces from the '80s, "Momentum" and "Ritual."

The commentary indicated the assimilated ethnic elements in Leon's music makes it more "Earthian" than anything else. "Momentum," which the composer reported "came in a flash" to her in the course of an afternoon, indeed sounded somewhat offhand, less considered and cohesive than "Ritual."

The open, freely expressive feeling was attractive, but the work's climax seemed too reminiscent of the concluding pages of Stravinsky's "Sacrificial Dance," the final episode of "The Rite of Spring." A repeated four-note blues phrase that rides atop a frenzied rhythmic mix has analogues in four- to six-note phrases (without anything bluesy about them, to be sure) that pound along toward "Rite"'s final upward sweep.

"Ritual," a slightly shorter piece, struck me as less derivative, less episodic, more surprising, more unsettling (in a good way), and more capable of representing a composer who exemplifies, in James Briscoe's phrase, "the Western mind merging with an African body-consciousness."

Piano music of different aims and procedures came just before intermission, when Kate Boyd and John Glennon sat down at two different pianos, one of them tuned a quarter-tone flat, for John Corigliano's "Chiaroscuro." Radiant, majestic music at the outset, from Boyd's "normal" piano, was answered by slightly sour echoes and paraphrases from Glennon's. Eventually, the tuning discrepancy was made especially piquant by alternation of the "same" single notes.

Kate Boyd, with John Glennon, gave a cabaret feel to altered tuning.
In the work's final portion, Boyd launched into "Old Hundredth," which the composer surely chose not for any religious reasons but because its stately progression of chords supporting the familiar melody includes no passing tones. With everything serving harmonic propriety as generally understood, the quarter-tone-flat contributions quickly become disconcerting. Wincing, Boyd motioned Glennon over to her piano; as a result, "Old Hundredth" gets treated to different tonalities, but less soured by discordant piano tunings.

Feeling his oats, Glennon slowly moves Boyd off the bench, leading her to take up a position at his mistuned piano, and the two ride off into the off-kilter sunset together. The difficulty of hearing anything "right" when normal tuning is dispensed with makes creating a comic scenario like this one a sensible course, which Corigliano commendably follows — and which Boyd and Glennon deftly carried out.

The concert opened with a tribute to a jazz diva who was always an outsider. Billie Holiday made more of that status than the truth could bear, as her sensational autobiography suggests. But undoubtedly she had a troubled life, marred by abuse both self-inflicted and lavishly supplied by men close to her.

A Dutch composer named Jacob ter Veldhuis, or Jacob TV, composed "Billie" for a recorded, electronically manipulated track, using Billie Holiday's spoken words, blended with  a live alto saxophonist. Heidi Radtkee Siberz was Sunday's capable performer, smoothly synchronizing her instrument's gently impelled phrases with the recording.

This live/taped sort of thing had a brief vogue in the 1960s, chiefly through the "Synchronisms" series of Mario Davidovsky. Another American composer, the eventually more eminent Steve Reich, lies in the background of "Billie." Jacob TV uses the implied pitch contours of Holiday's speech to generate melodic motifs and rhythmic energy, the way Reich did in "It's Gonna Rain."

"Billie," in both its pathos and its surprisingly appealing intricacy, goes beyond these influences. It's a buoyant work of underlying sadness. When we can make out Billie's taped recollection of getting to sing "as I wanted to sing — so I sang and everybody loved me," we have a touchstone of the spoken-sung continuum in her art and the blend of glory and vulnerability she experienced in her short life.

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