Thursday, December 12, 2013

REVIEW: Monday Evening Concerts' Kondo and Feldman, 12/09

The 75th(!) season of Monday Evening Concerts kicked off this week with music by Jo Kondo and Morton Feldman, performed by alumni and students from UCSD and Calarts, Southern California's prime upper-level institutions of contemporary music performance. The first half was devoted to two pieces by Kondo, Sight Rhythmics and Under the Umbrella, while Feldman's Words and Music took up the second half.

The evening began with Kondo's Sight Rhythmics, featuring banjo, steel drum, electric piano, tuba, and violin. The instrumentation reminded me of a exchange between Feldman and Earle Brown: "'Earle Brown once remonstrated, 'But Morty, just because you've chosen the instruments, that doesn't mean the piece is finished,' Feldman replied, 'For me it is.'" The interaction of deliberately disparate timbres seemd to be the focus of the piece. With that goal in mind, I found myself questioning Kondo's pairing of steel drums and electric piano, however, as those sounds did blend on occasion. Kondo also wrote a piano version of Sight Rhythmics, which the relative timbral homogeneity transforms into an entirely different piece:


The existence of simple, yet highly detailed structures in Kondo's linear music brought Scelsi to mind, while the crippled stasis of the piece invoked Feldman. I found myself wondering why Kondo chose western instruments like the banjo, rather than a timbrally-similar traditional Japanese instrument like the shamisen, though I assume he has written about his orchestrational approach sometime in his long career. Not knowing too much about Kondo, these pieces piqued my curiosity about his music and I plan on finding out much more about his work.

Under the Umbrella, a piece for 25 cowbells played by 5 percussionists originally commissioned by Toru Takemitsu for Nexus, was performed next by UCSD's Red Fish Blue Fish. This piece was my favorite on the concert, drawing up a whole panoply of references. Watching the musicians, one can quickly discern that the cowbells are dispersed low-to-high among the musicians in the following manner: Player 1 has the lowest, Player 2 has the next lowest, Player 3 has the 3rd lowest, etc. The resulting hocketed playing style seemed to simultaneously draw influence from gamelan and handbell choirs, while the sounds chosen by Red Fish Blue Fish brought to mind Cage's constructions, Partch's cloud chamber bowls, Gagaku, and (of course) the Swiss alps.

It was particularly good timing for me to hear this piece. On the Saturday prior I was playing my music at the Krampus Ball with Timur and the Dime Museum, and G.T.E.V. D'Oberlander presented several fantastic cowbell ringers! Something in the air, I suppose... Anyhow, as I listened to both of Kondo's pieces, I also couldn't help but notice the prominence of the number 5 - five instruments in Sight Rhythmics; five musicians in  Under the Umbrella, each playing five cowbells, etc. This is another concept I'm guessing someone more familiar with Kondo's compositional style would know more about.

After an intermission came Words and Music, by Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman. This piece was originally a 1962 radio play that Beckett's cousin, John Beckett, had written music for. It was revived in 1987 with new music by Feldman. Beckett's meta-narrative portrays a forcibly collaborative relationship between Words/Joe and Music/Bob, facilitated by a surly character named Croak, who rapped with a bass drum mallet on what appeared to be a Mahler box.

For my own taste, the angst of Words and Music felt like a particularly dated Eurocentric/East coast platitude - particularly after the timeless and confidently austere Japanese beauty of Kondo's music. I am always grateful whenever I have the opportunity to hear Feldman's music live, though perhaps I prefer a greater ratio of Bob to Joe. I found it disconcerting to hear Feldman's music, which I am used to hearing stretched across vast expanses of time, compressed into bagatelle-like structures. The music isn't allowed to properly unravel, the way it does in pieces like For Samuel Beckett (also written in 1987) or Neither (a 1977 collaboration between Feldman and Beckett).


At any rate, the theatrical performances by Jonathan McMurty and Jamie Newcomb were fantastic, and the direction of Kim Rubenstein was perfectly effective. I have seen many of the musicians in the ensemble play Feldman on other occasions, and they made it clear why MEC asked them to be a part of this season premiere performance.

The next Monday Evening Concert is January 6, featuring music by Chris Newman and Ludwig van...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Daniel - very nice review. I interviewed Jo Kondo in 1978 when he came through Los Angeles and asked him about banjo vs shamisen in Sight Rhythmics. I remember his simple reply: "I hate shamisen". I didn't press him on the point but I suspect that unlike Takemitsu who wrote from a very intuitive stance and of course pioneered the combination of western and japanese instruments, in Kondo's process-oriented systematic music Japanese traditional instruments would have been too loaded with cultural signifiers. - Carl Stone