Fort Worth — The audience of about 60, gathered Saturday afternoon for a concert on the Sounds Modern series at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, ranged from a small boy wielding a balloon sword to an aging veteran of more “new music” concerts than he could possibly count. (That would be me.)
The event, titled “Brazenly Self-Effacing,” provided a fresh look backward at the trend, particularly flourishing during the 1950s through 1980s, for the composers of new music to aggressively relinquish control over the content of a piece of music. The creative act of composing became, for adherents of this concept, the invention of instructions, rather than specific sounds. The most famous — and to some, notorious — example of the movement is John Cage’s 4’33” of 1952, in which performers were instructed not to play their instruments during the performance, but to allow the music to be made up of whatever noises happened during the period of four minutes and 33 seconds.
That iconic work by Cage was not on the program, but his influence was evident in much of the music performed. In the opening work, German composer Christina Kubisch’s “Private Piece” from Emergency Solos of 1975, Sounds Modern director Elizabeth McNutt (a member of the faculty of the College of Music of the University of North Texas) came onstage and held a small flute to her ear and to the back of her head, bringing a visual element to Cage’s concept of silence-as-music Cage. The most impressive element here was, admittedly, McNutt’s ability to keep a straight face for the duration, though the point was clear.
Japanese composer Meiko Shiomi’s Wind Music No. 2 (“Fluxversion”) of 1966 followed, in which four performers held small electric fans up to a group of four wind chimes, creating a pleasant aural sensation and bringing home the idea that music is not necessarily organized in traditional patterns.
These works of Shiomi and Kubisch formed the “Invocation” section for a concert organized as a sort of three-act drama, including a Prologue, Entr’Actes, and an Epilogue. This proved an admirable and successful strategy for bringing a sense of structure to a repertoire which inherently defies organization.
The concert included two other movements from Kubisch’s Emergency Solos, both involving flute, and neither involving actually playing the flute. In “It’s So Touchy,” McNutt placed thimbles on all 10 fingers and clicked them resolutely above and around a flute she held in standard playing position; in “Break,” McNutt donned a pair of boxing gloves for a similar procedure, all the while continuing to hold an unwaveringly, and, given the circumstances, admirably serious facial expression.
In “First Principal of Aerodynamics” from 1978 by American composer Arthur Jarvinen, the series’ assistant director Andrew May, a violinist and associate professor of composition at UNT, performed a lean, unaccompanied melody evocative of J.S. Bach’s music for solo violin, then walked off stage while a recording of that performance played on an old-fashioned tape recorder. American artist Alison Knowles’ “Newspaper Event” of 1965 featured six performers, led by a conductor, simultaneously reading from newspapers, paperback books, and a printed sheet; one could discern English, French, and German in the general noise, and possibly other languages, but all was deliberately unintelligible; still, half a century after the initial conception of the work, “Newspaper Event” stands as eerily prophetic of the jumble of information in the digital age. In another uncanny evocation of cultural revolution and information overload, American poet and composer Jackson Mac Low’s “Thanks: a simultaneity for the people” from 1961 featured performers ranged around the auditorium improvising mostly spoken words growing out of an initial “Thanks.”
American composer Seth Shafer (a UNT graduate, currently on the faculty of the University of Nebraska at Omaha) provided the newest work on the program, Polytera II, completed earlier this year. This work integrated traditional flute and piano (performed by flutist McNutt and pianist Shannon Wettstein, a member of the faculty at St. Cloud University in Minnesota) with computer manipulation, forming a bridge from the aleatoric and “chance” music invoked on the rest of the program into the color-focused emphasis of twenty-first-century classical music, as did Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Cendres of 1998, for flute, piano, and cello, performed by flutist McNutt, pianist Wettstein, and cellist Kourtney Newton.
American poet and visual artist Emmett Williams’ “Ten Arrangements for Five Performers” from 1963 featured five performers walking and moving in odd, sometimes comically bizarre fashion across the stage and up the aisles; the effect was reminiscent of a mixture of the children’s game of “freeze” and, in this performance at least, the Monty Python “Ministry of Silly Walks” skits.
Cage’s Music for Eleven of 1984 provided a fine example of the hero of the movement in his late period; the composer created 17 separate parts to played by any number of instruments (up to seventeen) without specific coordination of the separate parts. Here, obviously, the number was 11, including flute, two violins in this case, and Dallas-based vocalist Sarah Ruth Alexander; the result was ten minutes of sonic complexity and perplexity. Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music of 1973, presented as an “Afterward” in the lobby, featured four microphones suspended as pendulums swinging at different speeds over four speakers on the floor, creating four layers of feedback; this in turn produced an impressive overlapping counterpoint of tempos.
Members of the ensemble performed with unfailing dedication and expertise; the Sounds Modern series is clearly a worthwhile extension of the mission of the Museum of Modern Art as a well as significant element in the cultural life of the region.
Intentionally or not, this particular program raised an interesting point concerning the nature and even the definition of “contemporary” or “modern” music: with the exception of two pieces, one from 1998 and another from 2019, the concert was made up entirely of works dating from half a century ago, give or take a few years. Indeed, the oldest work on the program, from 1960, was as chronologically distant from our own time as Rossini’s last major work was from Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat. The musical avant garde of the 1960s and 1970s represented in this concert persists, but largely only in textbooks, in very subtle cultural influence, and in highly specialized concerts of this sort.