Recent Music Theatre

by Barry Drogin

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Good season for music theatre here in NYC, so I'll write about two pieces I saw recently. Was invited by friends to see Steve Reich and Beryl Korot's "Hindenburg," which is the first part of a trilogy, "Three Tales," they're working on. At only 25 minutes, they padded the program with the hour-long "Music for 18 Musicians."

Musically, "Hindenburg" is for 5 voices, 4 percussionists, 2 pianist and a string quartet, with an integrated manipulated tape of voices (mainly commentators, talking heads). The level of collaboration between Reich and Korot in this piece is marvelous, and the performers were perfectly synchronized. Korot created a video of various images of the Hindenburg (and of Hindenburg himself), breaking the screen into various working spaces, cutting out images, casting them into silhouette, freezing and repeating in sync with Reich's score. The effort of both creators was palpable.

That said, I have to admit to a personal distaste for Reich's vocal experiments after "Tehillim," starting with "Different Trains" and continuing with several other works up to this piece. Reich got one of those computer keyboards that lets him sample any sound and slow it down, quicken it, change its pitch, repeat it, and so on. He's been writing several pieces where he takes the musical content of a sampled phrase (rhythm, pitch) and transfers it to live instruments. The problem I have is that the musical content is usually not that interesting, and the sound quality of the samples are usually coarse. Reich picks his samples based on word content, and I find this unfortunate. The old "It's Gonna Rain" worked all right, which was a southern preacher with a naturally musical lilt. The classic "John Somebody" (not by Reich) brought this idea to a perfect conclusion. Maybe Reich'll hit on a satisfying way to handle this material, or I'll grow to like it.

Strangely, "Music for 18 Musicians," which is really for 8 percussionists supported by 3 pianists, 4 voices, two clarinets, violin and cello, came off as more dramatic than "Hindenburg," with its flaming blimps and goosestepping Germans. The piece plays out in ritualistic fashion, with some of the percussionists entering and exiting, and a central percussionist synchronizing everybody with musical cues. The percussion I'm talking about is xylophone, vibraphone, marimba and maracas, and the driving pulse they create is wonderful to hear and amazing to watch. That it's notatable, and that performers have the stamina to perform it perfectly, is astonishing. I have the recording, but it does not compare to seeing it live.

The second piece I saw was called "Six Blind Men and the Moon," subtitled "a dreamscape for solo voice and electronics, modern dance, a cappella quartet and photo mosaics." The words, music, mosaics and sets were by Paul Gallagher, who was also the tenor solo voice. Alexandra Itacarambi, a recent Julliard grad, was the choreographer and director. The four dancers, led by Elizabeth Dement, were either current or former Julliard students, as was the soprano of the quartet; the other three singers had all sung with Gregg Smith at some point. This was an intimate piece done in a very small space, with only an audience of a couple dozen the first night (compare that to Reich at the BAM opera house), but the performances were strong all around --- I had expected the worst.

The structure first should be noted. The evening was split into 3 sections, with each third broken again into three. Each section started and ended with the a cappella quartet, dressed in black, with scores at the front of the stage. The middle of each section was for tenor and electronic tape and dancers, with the tenor as a singer/narrator/actor/dancer. The sections lasted about 30 minutes each, separated by intermissions, so that the evening lasted 2 hours.

This structure gave the feel of two pieces weaved into each other, which contrasted and highlighted each. Again, it was strangely the quartet which came off as the more dramatic of the two. The writing for quartet was strong and varied, resembling a contemporary version of a madrigal group, using singers well trained in that form of presentation (looking from their scores at the individuals in the audience). Modern dancers, on the other hand, hardly ever look at each other or at audience members --- it's a much more formal and abstract presentation. Gallagher, consequently, was caught between the two forms of presentation. The use of double casting (Anna I/Anna II in "Seven Deadly Sins"), would probably have felt warmer. Also, although the underlying electronic score was varied, the writing for tenor was not at all.

Of interest also are the "Notes on Just Intonation" inserted into the program, which I quote in full:

"Seduced by its exceptional beauty, clarity and cohesion, I have been working exclusively in just intonation since 1980. From the outset, it was clear to me that the quality and richness of these harmonies, drawn untempered from the overtone series, would demand their own language and syntax.
"I had heard pieces, for instance, where the pitches were based on Partch's system, yet every other element of the style resembled serial music. To me it simply sounded like Boulez being played out of tune. Yet the minimalist approach to just intonation - playing scale patterns over well tuned drones - tended to put me to sleep.
"I couldn't get excited about trying to graft a new harmonic language onto any existing stylistic model, so I began to develop a style that unfolds from the intervals themselves and the way they relate to each other. Rhythms, melodies, phrase structures, etc. were all derived from the same proportions as the harmonies.
"After several years of working this way, the 'feel' of these relationships has sunk in to the extent that the language has a life of its own, and I'm free to be completely poetic and intuitive within its framework.
"I typically work with 19 tones to the octave, although I occasionally venture as far as 32. My primary scale is the 8th through 16th partials of an overtone series with "C" as the fundamental. I also work with modal variations of the primary scale built on the 3rd, 5th, 7th and 9th partials of that series.
"Part of the appeal for me in working with just intonation is the opportunity to move on. The 20th Century is almost over. What we think of as New Music is in fact getting kind of old. Perhaps its time to do something else. Just intonation has provided me a relatively clean slate on which I hope to sketch out an aesthetic that looks to the new millennium."

The singers, and, of course, Mr. Gallagher himself, did not seem to have any difficulty with the tunings, and the novelty wore off as the evening progressed. In the quartet, Gallagher occasionally threw in licks that alluded to blues or gospel in their tuning, so he's gotten very free in his application.

The "libretto" for the evening was a kind of poetry, with allusions to dream settings and anxieties, sometimes vague (consider the titles, "Water Finds Its Way," "Walk It Off"). This worked better in the quartets (consider madrigals about spring coming in and other vagueries), but was somewhat incomprehensible in the solos. The director/choreographer compensated fittingly.

Oddly, Gallagher body-miked all the singers. I asked him about it after, and he said he did it to add resonance to the space, which I suspected, but I hope the piece can be done some day in an acoustically more appropriate space, so that the quartet does not have to be saddled with that alienation effect.

So, two interesting evenings.

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007