No Charles Villiers, please, we’re modernists: two Stanford CDs reviewed

541, volume 4

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Innova’s fourth annual survey of graduate composition at Stanford showcases music by Alexander Sigman, Sebastian Semper, Juan Cristóbal Cerrillo, Mauricio Rodríguez, Patricia Elizabeth Martínez and Kristian Ireland. Yes, these are essentially student pieces, and yes the recording quality isn’t absolutely professional standard – but these are some sharp compositional minds, and the performers include the legendary Ensemble SurPlus, so attention is demanded. The best pieces (and hence names to keep an eye on) are probably Sigman’s reflets/réflexions/implosions, a fragmentary, prickly stream of consciousness for alto sax, and Cerrillo’s siempre otra cosa (estación violenta), which has an unusually episodic/dramatic shape that is both surprising and rewarding. Ireland’s string quartet, clearing (I), is also pretty intense.

Mark Applebaum: The Metaphysics of Notation

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While we’re on the subject of Stanford, innova have also released a fantastic DVD documenting Mark Applebaum’s  monster graphic score/installation The Metaphysics of Notation.

Metaphysics comprises a hand-drawn graphic score, drawn across twelve 6-foot paper panels, and two hanging mobiles. It was displayed for a year at the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford, and during that time received 45 performances from ensembles and individual musicians (including So Percussion, Graeme Jennings, Ken Ueno, Beta Collide and Applebaum’s Stanford colleague Brian Ferneyhough).

Sensibly, innova and Applebaum have opted not to preserve one or two complete performances on this disc, but have instead gone for the more creative solution of a ‘Metaphysics Mix’, comprised of 1-minute excerpts from each of the 45 performances, each of which is accompanied by appropriate photos. It’s not a complete performance of the score, but it is a pretty decent condensation of the year-long installation (which seems to me closer to the spirit of the thing than any one performance could be). In addition, the DVD includes two scrolling animations of the score (one slow, one fast). This is hypnotically beautiful and in these animations you really do sense the possibility of a visual music.

The whole, excellent package is rounded off with a 20-minute documentary on Applebaum and the piece that includes perceptive and provocative input from several prominent musicians and musicologists. A highly recommendable record of a major project in graphic notation.

5 thoughts on “No Charles Villiers, please, we’re modernists: two Stanford CDs reviewed

  1. I haven’t heard the Applebaum CD, but just noticed the 20-minute film about the Metaphysics of Notation on yt here:

    Is it just me or does almost everything about this seem to leave something to be desired? The graphic images themselves seem a bit hackneyed, the actual sound of the music is (as much as one can hear it) is not particularly interesting. The doc, too, is poor. I find it impossible to understand why there was no discussion at all of the history of graphic notation–one might assume Applebaum is totally unique in his noble quest to question the received assumptions of all the rest of us. Many of the statements made by seemingly illustrious interviewees were thoroughly mediocre.

    If they have enough time for Applebaum to indulgently whisk through his own oeuvre, I would expect the courtesy of even a brief mention of one of the countless graphic scores that have been created plenty of lovely people in the past (Andriessen, Bayle, Berberian, Cacioppo, Cardew, De Leeuw, Donatoni… etc., the list goes on).

    Anyway, sorry for the rant.

    Incidentally, also on youtube is a 2-part vid documenting Keith Rowe and an venerable group of improvisers interpreting Treatise. I think they only do two or three pages in a 40 minute set, sounds good too.

    Interesting contradiction in Rowe’s discussion of the performance of the piece–he explicitly states there are no general rules (and that in this sense nothing need be said), but that despite this the player *must* establish his/her own rules a la Wittgenstein’s logical description of the world. Though I suppose he might have been working under the assumption that the players might in the end ignore his recommendations. I also find it interesting that Rowe talks about ‘working on’ the piece rather than ‘realising’ it. It’s as if the visual appreciation and understanding of the notation is one and the same with its performance. In this sense the performed ‘realisation’ is more of a ‘description’, in sound, of the visual impression, much like a verbal description or discussion. Rowe himself has ‘worked on’ Treatise for something like forty years. This seems to me to reverse the point of emphasis; ‘realisation’ implying that the performance is the end-point of the process, rather than the score itself, or (better) that the process exists merely as a actualised process with no pre-determined or post-rationalised point of arrival or departure.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Laurence. That doc is the same one that’s on the DVD.

      I agree that it’s a bit strange to have all this talk about a graphical score and its status as a work without any context to the previous work of so many others, but I find MA’s music interesting from the point of view of already knowing that context. It’s a sort of postmodern, even nostalgic take on the graphical avant garde. Ish. Which even if you don’t like it you have to admit that is an unusual position to take. And (at his best – he doesn’t always hit his marks) I think he does it with enough craft and flair for the work to justify itself. Is it an indulgence. Possibly. It’s probably something MA always had in him. And as a year-long installation, with a score at its heart, it’s an interesting enough project to have documented in this way.

      The excerpts on the 45-minute mix are a better showcase for the performances themselves than what you get on this documentary; hearing such a range of possible interpretations is the key.

      Thanks for the link to the Keith Rowe stuff too. ‘working on’ vs ‘realisation’ is an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that.

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