Scene4 Magazine-The Steiny Road  To Operadom
with Karren Alenier

The Compelling Kronos Quartet

Scene4 Magazine-inSight

November 2011

Because the Steiny Road Poet is collaborating with a composer whose music base is electronic, she is making special note of the September 16, 2011, concert she heard by Kronos Quartet at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. The first half of the program included four electronically nuanced compositions in this order—Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's "Oasis," which begins with water dripping; Laurie Anderson's "Flow," which is so short that it was over before the Poet had time to absorb it; Missy Mazzoli's "Harp and Altar," which had more musical variety than the first two selections; and Nicole Lizée's "Death to Kosmische," which seemed in this concert lineup to focus on electronic noise such as static. The second half of the program was Aleksandra Vrebalov's Babylon, Our Own, a compelling world premiere that featured the internationally known clarinetist David Krakauer.


As the Poet thought over what she had heard, she realized how some aspects of this Kronos program stirred her thoughts about How Many Midnights, the opera love story about Jane and Paul Bowles that she is working on with John Supko. As Supko's work on HMM has progressed—and Supko calls this creation a "habitat," the musical prologue includes an electronic simulation of wind in the desert. Therefore, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh's "Oasis" with its environmental sound of dripping water took on another dimension for the Poet and made her curious about Ali-Zadeh who has collaborated not only with Kronos but also Yo-Yo Ma's The Silk Road Project.


One aspect of Ali-Zadeh's musical passions is her study of the Azerbaijani virtuosic improvisatory style called Mugham that includes specialized throat singing. While the Kronos Quartet appeared to be playing "Oasis," a non-vocal composition, from a traditional music score, their performance, as shown in their body movements, had the quality of improvisation. Of course, lead violinist David Harrington and his musical partners are no strangers to improvisation and have worked with many musicians—especially international folk musicians—who typically play spontaneously without written music. This kind of music was something in which Paul Bowles, who was a composer himself, took great interest. Under a Library of Congress commission, Bowles recorded the folk music of Morocco and North Africa.

In How Many Midnights, John Supko, who, as a teenager, sent his music to Bowles for comment, creates computer-generated scoring to refresh each performance of the composition. Because thematically the music is similar every time, but not exactly the same, the Steiny Road Poet thinks of this ostinato-infused music as a simulated improvisation in which the spontaneous invention comes from the computer and not the musicians.


As the second composition in the Kronus program, Laurie Anderson's "Flow," which was nominated for a 2011 Grammy (Best Pop Instrumental Performance), got lost in the Kronos lineup. Had Anderson with her custom-made electronic violin been on stage with Kronos, the position of this very short (just over two minutes in duration), melancholic and slow tempo composition with its quirky falling run of notes would have stood out. However, because it was positioned after "Oasis," which was also slow in tempo, it seemed like "Flow" was just an undistinguishable part of Ali-Zadeh's composition. To the Steiny Road Poet's way of thinking, this could be a problem any composer faces in creating a body of compositions for an extended work like an opera. How does a composer, or a poet for that matter, thread his/her work but also create discrete compositions? The Poet thinks this is problem as well for a performing group in selecting what they play and in what order.


The Steiny Road Poet had been introduced to the multi-media operatic work of Missy Mazzoli at New York City Opera's VOX program in 2010. Just as Mazzoli's Song from the Uproar uses an electronic music underpinning combined with acoustic instruments, so does "Harp and Altar," the rich and varied selection Kronos played on their amplified acoustic strings. What was particularly noticeable about the electronic side of "Harp and Altar" was the recorded singing (baritone Gabriel Kahane) of fragments from "The Bridge," a long poem by Hart Crane, but this singing was looping back on itself making the words, which were hard to hear distinctly, less important than the overall effect. One of the ideas John Supko is working with is to use three singers for every character in HMM. The idea is to create a surround sound with the vocal line. Will this choral effect make the Poet's words more understandable to the audience? Will the producing opera company support the idea of hiring three singers for every character? These are issues that remain to be tested.

Mazzoli's title "Harp and Altar" is drawn from Crane's lines about the Brooklyn Bridge.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet's pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover's cry,--

Except for the program notes, one would not instantly know that Mazzoli's composition was about a bridge or, more specifically, the Brooklyn Bridge. Mazzoli lives in Brooklyn as did Hart Crane (1899-1932) who wrote about the Brooklyn Bridge in his poem "The Bridge," published in 1930. Paul Bowles (1910-1999) lived briefly in a house near the Brooklyn Bridge with other artists (e.g. poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten) in 1941. The geographic place is often an important element of artistic grounding. The Steiny Road Poet could not have written the libretto for HMM without having spent time in Morocco. The working title How Many Midnights, which is taken from a short story of the same name by Paul Bowles, like Mazzoli's title, is more evocative than grounding. Therefore, "Harp and Altar" might bring to mind some kind of spiritual setting—maybe a church service that includes music but not the Brooklyn Bridge. As a title, How Many Midnights might evoke people staying up late, doing something obsessively, but not particularly a story about Paul Bowles or the short story by Paul Bowles of the same title because his short story is not that well known. These are things artists have to consider in selecting their titles because the title is the first "face" in the world when a work is being presented.


In a way, Nicole Lizée's "Death to Kosmische," a piece based on a period of musical history—the Kosmische style of electronic music, scares the Poet. Why? Well, the Poet did not appreciate this composition very much and it is only in digging in more deeply that she is starting to understand what Lizée was working to accomplish and what implications there are for dealing with music tied to the past. Lizée works with unconventional instruments of sound. In the case of "Death to Kosmische," Lizée incorporated what she calls "two archaic pieces of music technology (the Stylophone and the Omnichord)" into this composition. Yes, in "Death to Kosmische," there is an emphasis on percussion and beat. The Poet assumed, and maybe incorrectly, from the title with its heavy first word "death" that the composer is casting negative commentary on this form of experimental German music from the 1970s that used the electronic synthesizer. Kosmische (meaning cosmic in German) is a subset of Krautrock and a precursor of noise rock. The Poet was shocked to realize the Krautrock (Kraut is a derogatory moniker for German), a name coined by the British press, was not meant to be complimentary.

Lizée also mentions in her program notes her "fascination with the notion of musical hauntology." The Poet had never heard the use of "hauntology" and discovered quickly on the Internet that this term was coined by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Hauntology threads the present through the past or presents a ghostly re-imagining of the past defining our existence. This side trip to discover how Derrida, the developer of deconstruction theory associated with postmodern philosophy, was connected to German avant-garde music in turn led the poet to a series of YouTube videos on Krautrock.

Young Germans growing up in the 1960s and '70s after the devastation of World War II needed to make their own music unfettered by their past in Hitler's Germany and by American and British youth music, such as that created by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Electronic music provided that opportunity. The Poet thinks that only now is she ready to hear "Death to Kosmische" and wonders if David Harrington or anyone else of the Kronos Quartet had had the opportunity to explore with Maryland students the background on Lizée's composition. Could it be that Kronos felt so secure with its audience that they believe no explanation of any kind was necessary, that the program notes were sufficient? The Poet is still not sure she would like "Death to Kosmische" any better on a second hearing, but now she has a more educated ear.

The Steiny Road Poet in her operatic work with Gertrude Stein and Jane Auer Bowles and Paul Bowles has been mining the past to arrive at a new truth for today. In his own way, though buried much deeper into the fabric of his statistically created music, John Supko references the past as he creates a music that is perpetually new. To hear those glimmers of the past in Supko's music, the listener's ear has to be trained for this subtle hauntology. The question arises as to whether the composer's application of various techniques, musical quotations, philosophic approaches matter in the face of what affect the music has on the listener who may or may not be trained to hear what the musical components are. The Poet thinks that experience, education, and exposure to a wide range of musical offerings makes a huge difference in being able to hear what a new musical composition offers. The Kronos Quartet, especially in its University of Maryland residency, sets itself up as a laboratory for new music.


The final piece of the concert, Aleksandra Vrebalov's Babylon, Our Own, was a one-movement work that drew together the first half of the program by its cross-cultural inflection (David Krakauer's Klezmer flourishes on his clarinet invoked the Middle East, if not biblical Babylon) and its subterranean cabinet of filtered and manipulated audio materials that according to the composer included: New York City street noise, Kronos Quartet and David Krakauer rehearsing Vrebalov's Babylon, the sounds of groups engaged in religious fervor, and Vrebalov's grandmother reciting poetry she had learned as a child in the 1930s. Here's another case of ghosts haunting the musical score where the listener could never be expected to identify how the composer achieved the sound mix.

For a one-movement composition, the composer packed in a lot of variety that went from slow to frenzy in the voice of Krakauer's clarinet. The piece had staying power and the Poet welcomes the opportunity to hear it again soon. This is what the creator or creators of any new artistic work would want—that audience walks out of the concert hall ready to hear it again because it pleases and hopefully, in spite of any comments by the creator or creators, there remains a certain mystery about why the work excites the audience's interest and imagination.

Photo - Jay Blakesberg.


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©2011 Karren LaLonde Alenier
©2011 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier
Karren LaLonde Alenier is the author of five collections of poetry and, recently, The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas
and she is a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
For Prior Columns In This Series Click Here
For her other commentary and articles, check the
Read her Blog


Scene4 Magazine - Arts and Media

November 2011

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