Just Add Rain
May—which, unlike March, isn’t famous for going out like anything—went out in warm weather and raindrops, which provided a fitting atmosphere for pianist and impresaria Vicky Chow’s performance at the Stone. Chow, who recently curated an avant-garde series at the Gershwin Hotel, played a ranging, mostly minimalist set by ten mostly contemporary composers.
May 29, 2012
Introducing the evening’s pieces as “going well together,” Chow commenced with Nico Muhly’s A Hudson Cycle (2005), a fast-forward, pattery Pachelbel. David Lang’s wed (1992 – 97), a pensive tone poem from the Tempest, followed. John Adams’s China Gates (1977), serendipitously written to evoke rain, was a Reichian “process” piece that recalled recent learning research in infants, who apparently tune out both too-complex and too-simple stimuli, Gates emphatically representing the latter. Ditto Brooklyn-based Matt McBane’s Within (2012), with its tables-turned left-hand “melody.”
Evan Ziporyn’s Pondok (i Fragrant Forest) (2000) was a kind of outlier, even if it was pleasantly atmospheric. To an uninitiated listener, Pondok might have sounded like the unfortunate encounter of new-age elevator music with American folk; a deeper audit would reveal Ziporyn’s gamelan roots, the music’s rain-relevant wash of sound, and its sonic consistency with the evening’s other pieces. And Brooklynite Ryan Francis’s Etude No. 1 (“Digital Sustain”) (2007–8) was just that.
Is simpler better? By now, with their seemingly simple sounds so well established in the modern musical canon (must I mention Philip Glass?), these pieces seem almost too familiar—“easy listening” rote. Whether they have become so much so as to be soporific (and not in an entrancing way) begs further question. As the quest for the novel marches on, one expects emerging composers to take risks rather than release last-century reruns. Of course, the pieces performed undoubtedly reflect Chow’s taste, which is very fine—and refined—indeed. And Chow’s airing of newer work is to be highly praised. Nevertheless, it was the “ancient” Morton Feldman’s Piano Piece (to Philip Guston) (1963) and Gyorgy Ligeti’s unexpectedly mainstream Etude No. 4 Bk. 1 (“Fanfares”) (1985) that stood out. Feldman’s entirely likeable, utterly refreshing mood music revealed the composer to literally be a lover of the keyboard, his compositional mind caressing the keys in arrhythmic, “chaordic” new combinations so that it (the keyboard) and its human pianist couldn’t possibly become jaded or stuck in either a diatonic or atonal rut. Then of course there is the very distinct possibility that Chow’s interpretation of the intentionally indeterminate Feldman—her marshalling of tempos and fermatas, of sound-mass and chance—was what made this piece so different, so appealing. Practically, Chow delightfully spread the pages of Ligeti’s demanding, poly-everything score across the music rack on a poster-sized sheet of pink oak tag and proceeded to attack this vivacious set of fanfares with infectious enthusiasm.
After Ligeti, the present Chris Cerrone’s bluesy Hoyt-Schermerhorn (2010), about, he said, his move to Brooklyn, was an anticlimactic change-up, its staccato high notes suggesting palpitation, trepidation, or maybe excitement. Daniel Wohl’s Pixelated (2010), the closing piece, was an electronically modulated duet between Chow, on piano and toy piano, and glockenspieler Owen Weaver. The title of this piece was probably not meant to convey alcoholic intoxication, but rather its digital intentions; indeed, musical instruments have far advanced from the days of Robert Moog, Raymond Kurzweil, and Fripp and Eno, with knob-twiddling, trackpad-swiping, and iPad scores the new old hat. Weaver explained that Wohl was interested in interkey resonance, and that Pixelated, being a combination of musicians and instruments, was “a quartet, in a manner of speaking.” As the improvisational Pixelated proceeded, Chow, Weaver, and their partner instruments (and necessary oxygen) produced sounds evoking a combination of ringtones you’ll not soon hear and very pleasant, percussive harmonic feedback.
Whether one realized it or not, Chow’s performance also provided a musical education, presenting a cohesive, instructive body of work by diverse minimalists past and present. By presenting short pieces by so many composers, Chow provided an overview of the sorts of music she herself clearly enjoys, generously sharing her accumulated musical knowledge with the audience, and, even more generously, sharing her interpretations, inimitably bringing these subtle scores to life.
Overall, Chow made a set of frequently repeating bars fraught with the risk of tedium seem, as an attending composer approvingly noted, deceptively easy. The evening accomplished an experimental-music listener’s prime objective: to be taken somewhere different, to be caught off-balance, and to experience the perturbation of the molecular foundations of the solar system, disturbed by sound waves well beyond those of the conventional program. And Vicky (wink), the rain was a nice touch.