Ian Moss (of Capital M) graciously invited me to crash last night's American Music Center annual meeting/award ceremony/gala concert at the Cutting Room and write it up for the blog. The centerpiece of the evening was the annual presentation of the AMC's Letters of Distinction and Founders Award, followed by a benefit concert featuring Matthew Shipp, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, and Pamela Z. What follows is an interloper's report on the evening's festivities.
To begin, the preliminary booze-n-schmooze was a welcome opportunity to meet many of the S21 mafia face-to-face, including Jeff Harrington and Seth Gordon, as well as their comrade-in-crime Barry Drogin. I also got to introduce myself to Derek Bermel, who has a worthy (if sporadically updated) blog. After some preliminary cat-herding, MC Oteri introduced the Meridian Arts Ensemble, a brass quintet who kicked things off with Fanfare for All, a short and, perhaps surprisingly, actually quite fanfare-ish piece by the evening's chief honoree, Milton Babbitt. Following the requisite housekeeping (mercifully brief reports by the chair, treasurer, and executive director), the AMC presented this year's Letters of Distinction, intended to "recognize those who have made a significant contribution to the field of contemporary American music."
The first honoree, Alex Ross, opened with a line borrowed from Admiral Stockdale (Ross Perot's running mate -- yeah, I had to Google him, too), who opened the '92 VP debates with "Who am I? Why am I here?" Alex was just being politely modest, but Bill Frisell seemed genuinely bewildered and flustered at his inclusion, saying he had no idea how he got here, but promising us he'd "keep on trying." (Apparently, nobody has yet informed Frisell that he is the composer of one of the greatest musical portraits of America ever, and probably deserved the Pulitzer for it.) Chanticleer's music director Joseph Jennings accepted on behalf of the "orchestra of voices," stressing the diversity of their repertoire and their commitment to commissioning new music. The person presenting the award to Billy Taylor could hardly avoid mentioning the number of awards Dr. Taylor has already had bestowed on him, but hey, who could possibly begrudge him another? Stephen Sondheim was actually awarded his LoD two years previous, but this was the first time he was able to show up to claim it. Sondheim was also there to present his former composition teacher, Milton Babbitt, with the AMC's Founders Award (a lifetime achievement prize). Sondheim gave a heartfelt introduction, stressing Babbitt's sense of humor and his deep knowledge of jazz and popular song -- he even mentioned Fabulous Voyage, Babbs' 1946 Broadway-style adaptation of the Odyssey. (No, really.)
And as for Unca Milt, the nonagenarian, arch-modernist bogeyman himself? I gotta hand it to him, his acceptance speech was charming, gracious, and sincere. He lamented the often "fractionated" and "factionalized" state of today's musical landscape, and praised the breadth and diversity of of this year's AMC honorees. This, from the guy who infamously wrote "Who Cares If You Listen"? (Yes, yes, I know -- it's not his title, yadda yadda... ) And while it's not like Babbitt's mantle needs another trophy either -- he's already got a Pulitzer, a MacArthur, and a Guggenheim -- the High Priest of Total Serialism did seem genuinely honored by this latest award.
Meridan closed with a movement from David Sanford's Corpus for brass quintet and drum kit. (I wondered if this was the same David Sanford I remembered from my time at NEC -- turns out it was.) Meridian did two more movements from Corpus later on in the evening, so I'll save my impressions of the work for now.
After venturing forth to grab a slice with Seth G. and his friend Mo, we returned to the Cutting Room for the concert proper, which began with a single, continuous solo piano set from Matthew Shipp. I have to admit, Shipp's playing has never really grabbed me... on recordings, that is, which is the only way I'd heard him until last night. That's no dig -- there are many artists whose music I intensely love, but whose recordings I rarely turn to. My attention span is usually just too, well, fractionated to focus on that kind of sustained, thorny abstraction for any length of time at home. But in concert, it's another story entirely, and so I was very much looking forward to my first time hearing Shipp play live.
He began with dark but delicate left-hand sonorities contrasted with fleet, symmetrical right-hand runs in the middle register, eventually introducing a call-and-response figure and morphing into a triplet-y interlude. He drew me into his sound world right away, and his set was full of sharp contrasts -- swinging eighths and savage clusters, flittering high-register runs and sforzando pedal catches. He wove angular, occasionally pointillistic takes on "Green Dolphin Street" and "Summertime" effortlessly into his terrifically varied set, which sometimes slowed into moments of quiet balladry and plucked strings, before erupting into the furious intensity of rapidly moving left-hand fifths. He closed the set with a vertiginous repeating descending figure straight out of Bernard Herrmann (perhaps via Ran Blake), a moment that I wish had gone on for much longer. I also found myself wanting to hear more continuity at times -- all those sudden extremes can be exhausting. But Shipp's incredible virtuosity and austere lyricism ultimately made a convert of me, and I'll be revisiting his recordings in a new light.
I wish I could say the same for Milton Babbitt's music. Look, I tried, I really did... before the gig, I dug out my score and recording of Philomel and reviewed all my grad-school notes, to try to put myself in the right frame of mind, but I'm afraid all I really succeeded in doing was putting my teeth on edge all over again. Despite my reservations, I resolved to approach the Babbitt compositions that night with an open mind... and, you know what? After Fanfare for All, with its recognizable pulse and actual momentum, I started to become more sympathetic, and what with Sondheim's infectious affection for his former teacher, I got to thinking that maybe I'd had Babbs pegged all wrong.
If only. Counterparts (a commission from Meridian) was textbook Babbitt -- dense, flat, directionless and affectless. There were a couple of scattered interesting moments, often where the muted trumpets and trombone were pitted against the open horn and tuba -- but without any kind of audibly discernible structure to guide me, ultimately I felt adrift on the tides of uncompromising high modernism. And yes, of course I'm sure the work's structural development was plotted to the nines, but look -- absent some kind of actual cues for the listener (instead of just the theoretician), Counterparts basically just goes until it stops. In fact, the ending was so abrupt and so inexplicable, it seemed to take everyone in the room (including the players) by surprise.
[BTW, this is not in any way intended as a dis of Meridian, who played Babbitt's thankless, fiendishly difficult music with heroic precision. I think their sense of surprise came more from the fact that they actually made it through the damn thing relatively unscathed -- as opposed to my surprise, which was more of the "That's it? That's how it ends?" variety.]
Now obviously, plenty of people I respect and admire believe Babbitt to be a genius of the highest rank -- including, I assume, most of those in attendance. And me? I'm just some schlub with a big band. All I can say is, Babbit's stuff is not for me. It runs counter to everything I love about music.
Meridian capped their set with two more movements from David Sanford's Corpus, "De Profundis" and "Sermon," with John Ferrari again on drum kit. I wasn't wild about the earlier movement ("Shot") -- the rockish beats felt awkwardly superimposed over the dense linear passagework -- but these two movements -- the final two of the piece -- were much more satisfying. "De Profundis" had stately, Gabrielli-through-a-glass-darkly cadences, with a florid, discursive trumpet line on top, and "Sermon" began with skittish stop-time figures and a conversational trombone passage that was later folded into an intense gutbucket climax. It's nice to hear a former classmate turning out such mature, effective, personal work.
Before tonight, I knew next to nothing about Pamela Z's music, and, based on what little I'd read about her, I fully expected to hate it. For instance, this line from her bio -- "solo works that combine operatic bel canto and experimental extended vocal techniques with found percussion objects, spoken word, and sampled concrète sounds" -- sets off multiple aesthetic alarm bells. Thing is, though, she delivered hands-down the best performance of the night. Her charm, good humor, grace, unforced theatricality, and total commitment won me over from almost the very beginning. Her music is constructed of additive loops, live signal processing via a MAX-equipped PowerBook, and, most impressively, MIDI controllers attached to her forearms, shoulders and legs that react to the electrical voltage of muscle twitches, allowing her to conjure music and sampled effects seemingly out of thin air. This could so easily be cringingly terrible -- instead, it was absolutely mesmerizing, a testament to Z's engaging delivery and serious compositional chops. Her set was loaded with blissfully memorable moments -- the rush of quick syllables pushing against digital delay, surreal octave-displaced vocals mirroring her natural singing voice, hypnotic phasing textures constructed before our eyes... and she wasn't afraid to be funny, either -- as in "Metrodemonium," a very entertaining piece dedicated to San Fransisco's MUNI system.
The audience response to Z's set was effusive -- I saw Henry Threadgill give her a huge hug afterwards, and everyone in the room was buzzing about Z's tremendous performance. You could not have wished for a more welcome tonic to Babbitt's dour monochromatic vision.
[xposted at Pulse]