Dallas — One of the joys of going to concerts of music by living composers these days is that there is always something to love or to hate. This is because we are in a free-for-all of diverse musical languages currently in use.
You can hear anything from traditional or expanded tonality to fusion jazz and wild 1970’s atonal aleatoric excursions into extended techniques. On Saturday, when some stalwart souls braved the icy conditions to attend the Soundings concert at the Nasher Sculpture Center, we heard some experimental music and one of the 20th Century’s landmark masterpieces, all on the theme of "Madness and Betrayal." The series, curated by Seth Knopp of Yellow Barn, presents programs that are always thought provoking, even if the music played at any given moment isn’t always to your taste.
Saturday started with some modernist music by Brett Dean, a composer and virtuoso violist. He amply demonstrated both of these skills with an extended piece for viola alone, called Intimate Decisions. The piece harkened back to the avant-garde of the '70s and '80s and, as such, sounded more historic than new. The work started slowly, with a repeated two note rising interval. Soon, it reached nearly unintelligible flurries of notes, many played with the scratchy effects of using the bow over the bridge and lots of squeaky harmonics. When all this combined, the thin line between music and noise was irrelevant.
As the piece progressed, it became increasing hard to concentrate. A man, sitting in the front, appeared to have a medical emergency and was carried out while Dean was playing. Dean repeated the last page for the distracted audience and it was a good thing he did. The second time, with our ears oriented to his stringent musical language, the piece took on more shape. The fadeaway ending was particularly effective.
Dean’s second piece, And Once I Played Ophelia, is a meditation on Shakespeare’s doomed character in Hamlet. Scored for soprano and string quartet with lyrics by Matthew Jocelyn, it furnished us some of the subtextual motivation beneath the words she actually speaks. It was difficult to follow, even with the printed text in the program, but soprano Tiffany DuMouchelle was riveting. She did the best she could with the diction, but Dean’s wide leaps and explorations of the upper limits of the voice worked against clear diction.
Violinists Anthony Marwood and Magnus Johnston and cellist Fernando Arias joined Dean (composer/violist) to furnish the complex underpinning. Their parts were in line with Dean’s viola solo—transcendentally difficult, highly dissonant, and filled with unusual uses of the instrument and the bow. They were frequently too loud, which was probably unavoidable considering what they had to play.
The second half of the program presented a rare opportunity to hear one of the seminal pieces of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2. Schoenberg is best known as the inventor of the 12-tone system, for which he is praised and reviled in equal measure. This quartet is amazing in that it presents the quandary in which Schoenberg found himself and one possible solution.
The first movements are written in the late romantic language of some of his earlier works, such as Verklärte Nacht. However, when we arrive at the last two movements, Schoenberg (and music itself) is in tonal free-fall. Adding a soprano with some abstract poems by the German symbolist poet Stefan George expanded the form as well as the harmonic structure.
The quartet, joined by DuMouchelle, gave this work a sensitive performance that captured all of its moods and harmonic twists and turns. More talked about than played, this was the first time that many in the audience heard the quartet in a live performance. It was revelatory to hear the musical sausage of the 20th century being made.
Moment of Geek: The late Romantic era saw the tonal system, that served composers from the very beginnings of Western music itself, pushed to the breaking point. While there were many other ways of composing in the air, the chromatists were the mainstream. Composers like Wagner, then Mahler and later Richard Strauss wrote music that was so harmonically complex that by the time Schoenberg came along, there was no room to grow. Music was painted into a corner. Schoenberg’s solution was to blow the whole system to smithereens and construct a new “atonal” system with the leftover shards.
This quartet starts out using the overripe ultra romantic harmonies and, as the piece goes on, you hear its language straining at tonality’s already stretched boundaries. The last two movements actually break through that age-old barrier and Schoenberg found himself itself in a new, unexplored harmonic universe.
He would later go on to write new rules as a road map. These held supreme, de rigueur, by composers from then on until recently. Eventually, composers found Schoenberg’s rules even more restricting than the old tonal system and, for the most part, 12-tone composing has retreated from nearly universal use to just another tool in the composer’s arsenal.