Thursday, May 30, 2013

The X Factor at BMOP

Composer Mason Bates
Ok, it's time to play catch up.  A vacation and a bad cold have meant little posting of late - my thanks to all those who have been showing up at the site anyway, hoping I might have something to say!

Of course I did have something to say, particularly about the Boston Modern Orchestra Project concert of a week and a half ago, dubbed "Gen OrchXtrated," which focused on three leading Gen X composers: the photogenic Mason Bates (yes, that's a composer, not a pop star, at left) as well as Huang Ruo and Andrew Norman (see below), two other rising stars who maybe won't make the pages of GQ, but deserve to be heard in the concert hall just the same.

"Gen X" is of course a famously loose term - and it may be worth noting that as this trio were all born at the tail end of the 70's, they're perhaps closer to "Gen Y" than "Gen X" in sensibility.  Certainly Bates and Norman - both winners of multiple academic prizes (Rome, Berlin, et al.) seem absorbed in the technological culture of the millennium; Ruo seems to harken back to older (indeed ancient) forms.

That none of these three - at least judging from the pieces on offer at BMOP - really has a distinctive musical voice is, I admit, somewhat troubling (especially given the accolades that have come their way).  But of course new voices are few and far between these days.  And to be fair, you can feel these young composers attempting to make new conceptual statements out of old musical parts (in a way their works feel more like criticism than art).  Bates and Norman seem absorbed in refurbishing minimalism with an ironic technical gloss, while Ruo, in his Path of Echoes: Chamber Symphony No. 1, has attempted to conjure a new form of aural landscape.

Composer Huang Ruo
For the title "Path of Echoes" admits to a double meaning - it could refer to either a path full of echoes, or the intersecting paths taken by those echoes themselves. Indeed, Ruo is probably more concerned with the second interpretation - his cascades of glissandi seem to move past and through each other (as his time signature subtly shifts to create the impression of slight sonic delays) to generate the impression of a sonic "map" matching the mountain landscape in which the composer first found inspiration for the piece (which ends with a cacophonous landslide).  There were hints here of Asian folk motifs, randomized through a filter of John Cage and other modernists - which gradually built a web of complexity that seemed indebted to minimalism; but nothing, alas, felt emphatically new.  Still, the piece was often haunting, although perhaps the BMOP performance wasn't quite subtle enough to draw out the detailed sense of "space" that I think Ruo had in mind.

The orchestra did better by Norman and Bates, whose work depended more on energy and drive.  Both seem to want to link a kind of charging minimalist churn to the rising role of technology in our lives; in much of Bates' Sea-Blue Circuitry, for instance, the orchestra - careening through a  series of musical quotes from composers ranging from Stravinsky to Copland - was accompanied (or driven) by a kind of techno click-track (generated, I think, acoustically), so the piece sounded a bit like symphonic "house" music. And tellingly, when that track died, so did the work's drive, as it drifted into a doomily serene movement Bates has dubbed "Marine Snow," which is the poetic term for the detritus that drifts from the ocean's surface to its floor (sometimes it takes it days to hit bottom). So it seemed that in Bates' vision, if the culture wasn't dancing as fast as it could to the beat, it was in danger of becoming a dead shark.  (Although don't worry, the power returned in the third movement, and the piece leapt to techno-life again for a racing finale dubbed "Gigawatt Greyhound.")

Norman's vision was, if anything, even darker. The premiere of his Play (the result of a residency at BMOP) relied, like Sea-Blue Circuitry, on a pumping minimalist energy, and a welter of musical quotations - only Norman pushed his technical metaphors even further than Bates: Play was divided not into movements, but "Levels," as video games are, and its phrases were often interrupted by sudden percussive thwacks, like the gunfire in Grand Theft Auto and its ilk.  Indeed, the orchestra itself was converted into a concrete metaphor for group gaming - "Level 2" began with isolated, awkward phrases from individual instruments, with the strings all but miming the bowing of their instruments.  This pushed the orchestra a little closer to performance art than I really want it to go - but the resulting scene did feel like an eerie metaphor for those vast armies of World of Warcraft fans, out in cyber space itching to engage with their game but unable to do so without other, well, players; it was an amusing nod to the basically collective nature of an activity whose devotees tend to think of themselves as rebels and loners.

And like Sea-Blue Circuitry, Play tended to collapse into lonely nihilism on a dime; even in its early, frenzied stages, one could make out a lost little phrase (not quite a theme) that returned in the final "level" (after some characteristically fortissimo blasts) to close out the piece on a bleakly mournful note.  After the game was over, there was apparently nothing left.  Which may be why truly new music is so hard to come by these days.

Composer Andrew Norman

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