Not infrequently, I have the feeling that when I wasn’t looking, somebody took away the planet I was supposed to be living on and substituted a really sad satirical parody.
Tonight I thought I’d poke around and see what’s happening in electronic music in the SF Bay Area, which is where I happen to live. There’s plenty of dance music suitable for partying, which interests me not even a little tiny bit. There’s also a fair amount of avant-garde bullshit. I’ve given up trying to dial up a friendly euphemism; I’m going to stick with “bullshit.” This is the kind of music where nobody knows what’s going to happen next, least of all the performers; where painstaking rehearsal and proficiency on one’s instrument are anathema; where communicating a sense of beauty, symmetry, or emotional drama with an informed audience would be considered selling out.
I’m off in an odd corner of the music universe, you see: I happen to use synthesizers and software, along with drum sounds, bass lines, funky syncopations, tightly crafted melodies, unusual time signatures, and exotic microtonal tunings; yet my aesthetic is informed principally by Bach, Haydn, and Brahms. Plus maybe a little Scott Joplin. Whatever planet my people are hanging out on, it isn’t this one.
While looking around, I stumbled on this description of a recent concert at the Lab in San Francisco, which fortunately I missed. I quote:
“In a two-part concert, cellist Charles Curtis will present solo works created for and with him by Éliane Radigue, Alvin Lucier and Alison Knowles. Radigue’sNaldjorlak (2005) is a nearly hour-long, continuous exploration of the acoustical properties of the cello, centered around a tuning of the cello to its own intrinsic resonance. All of the strings are brought into alignment with the cello’s ‘wolf tone’; the entire corpus of the cello is engaged to elicit a complex, closely related spectrum of harmonics and resonances. Lucier’s Slices for Cello and Pre-recorded Orchestra (2011) sets the solo cello against a sustained chromatic tone cluster in 52 orchestral instruments, arrayed as a Supercollider patch. By outlining the cluster in various melodic orderings, the solo cello erases and re-inscribes the orchestral cluster in a slowly unfolding process. Alison Knowles’ Rice and Beans for Charles Curtis (2008) is a graphic score made of hand made rice paper, beans, lentils and bits of fabric and string. Curtis interprets this work of visual art in a performance analogous to the making of the score, working over the ‘score’ of the instrument in several passes, seeking out unsuspected resonances by tapping, rubbing and stroking the instrument with bare hands.”
Non-cellists may not know what the wolf tone is. It’s the natural vibratory resonance of the body of the instrument, and it’s an annoyance. It’s something you have to manage, something that you try to avoid. Since the wolf is usually near the F below Middle C, it’s a bit difficult to guess how all four strings could be “brought into alignment” with it. If you try to tune the low C string up a 4th, to the F an octave below the wolf, you’re going to break the string. Ditto for bringing the D string up a minor 3rd to the wolf — but if you tune the D string down a major 6th so it’s an octave below the wolf, it’s going to flop around like a loose piece of rope. Also, to be honest, if what you’re seeking is “a complex, closely related spectrum of harmonics and resonances,” the cello is not your best choice for a sound production device. Personally, I’d recommend a good computer. But what do I know? I only play both the cello and the computer.
What we have here, in short, is a concert in which listeners were treated to ugly resonances for an hour (bound to be boring), a sustained and slowly unfolding chromatic tone cluster (bound to be boring), and a graphic score made of lentils, which is performed not by bowing the cello but by hitting it (boring, unintentionally humorous, and insulting to the listener, all at the same time).
You may say, “But Jim, you didn’t hear the concert! It may have been grand!” Well, no, I take it back. I’m sure you’re not stupid enough to say that.
Apparently, Curtis teaches at UC San Diego. God help his students.