Saturday, September 4, 2010

Concert Review: Composers’ Salon 9-3-2010, Chapel Performance Space at Good Shepherd Center, Seattle

“The Seattle Composers’ Salon fosters the development, performance and appreciation of new music by regional composers and performers. At bi-monthly, informal presentations, the Salon features finished works, previews, and works in progress. Composers, performers, and audience members gather in a casual setting that allows for experimentation and discussion. Everyone is welcome!” – From the Composers Salon Website,

Tom Baker, the organizer and MC of the Salons, had been on the program for the previous Salon (in July), but that piece had been for a deconstructed piano (a project he’d worked on with some other musicians) and the instrument itself had proved problematic in moving to the chapel. His piece had, therefore, not been played (he didn’t play at all). When I saw his name on the list for composers at this Salon, I expected that a solution had been found and they were going to play it this time. I was wrong. Tom told me that it would be some months before they’ll be able to perform that piece at the Salon. Instead, he (Tom, on electric guitar) and Jesse Canterbury (clarinet) played an untitled piece that “explored the boundaries between composition and improvisation”.

Exploring the boundaries between composition and improvisation has, of course, been a major part of jazz since its beginnings (indeed, Jesse and Tom warmed up before the salon by playing a 30-second jazz improvisation) but this piece took it in a different direction. In a lengthy discussion of the procedure (after playing), Tom mentioned that there were sections where the pitches were given but not the duration or any ornamentation, resulting in a kind of heterophony. (An audience member asked if there was a part in the score where it says, for example, “Do something weird with trills”? The answer was no.) The piece began with an introduction made with circular breathing of overtones on the clarinet (there was also a long discussion afterwards about how to do this technique). Then there were two sections of roughly equal duration. In the first, modal melodic fragments came and went over a drone/loop (created with a guitar effects box); the second was sparser and contained longer developments of the melodic material, now augmented and/or diminished in turn to sound slightly atonal – played in the heterophonic style I mentioned above. This second section reminded me a lot of the guitar music of Takemitsu, with its nods to jazz and “popular” music within a quite different framework. Altogether very beautiful, peaceful, and a little nostalgic – a good piece to begin a concert in the evening of the fading days of summer.

Doug Palmer’s “Domestic Disturbance”, for violin and piano, was the second piece on the concert. Doug explained that it told the story of a “young girl who’s had a life-threatening experience – her boyfriend hasn’t texted her in over 15 minutes…!” She and her father argue, and in the end she “just drifts off into a reverie”. A humorous program, and the piece was light-hearted to match. Doug didn’t specify that the teenaged girl was represented by the violin (and the father by the piano) but it seemed that this was the case. The violin part were capricious, flighty, “talkative”, but capable of serious thought anyway; the piano part seemed capable of nothing but serious thought. The violin played two longer, slower, cadenzas – the last was microtonal and “drifted off into a reverie”. The sections where the two instruments “argued” contained much of the harmonic language of Aaron Copland, and I realized that this was certainly an argument that took place in the United States. Marjorie Kransberg-Talvi ( played the violin and David Mesler played the piano, both beautifully.

Two longer piano pieces, played by their composers, rounded out the concert.

David Mesler, already at the piano, first played his memorial piece for the late George Shangrow. The piece did not try to sound elegiac or funereal, nor did it attempt to describe Shangrow’s “ebullient personality”, according to David. Rather it was one of a long series of pieces that take names, change their letters to numbers, put them through mathematical permutations according to Pythagorean numerology, and change the resulting numbers into notes – which David then uses as the basis for a composition. This sort of alternate serialism resulted in, in this case, a 13-minute piano allegro-fantasy with hints of Chopin and Debussy. The multiple layers of quick notes (of which nearly the whole piece consisted) were, in themselves, cheery, and they did describe an ebullient personality. Even more interestingly, when these arabesques and filigrees of notes collided, they often resulted in minor tonalities (traditionally elegiac), which David let ring before beginning the next group. The piece ended with an extended coda on an open-fifth against a minor sixth (think of the characteristic “orange note” – opposite of a blue note – in the Mahler 7th), and in the end was resolutely minor, so it also sounded, despite its quick pace, like a memorial piece as well. David’s considerable piano virtuosity added to both the technique and the expressiveness of the piece. (George Shangrow, a well-known Seattle musician and music director, was killed in a car accident on July 31st.)

Lastly, Keith Eisenbrey played his “Sonata Liebeslied”. I’ve reviewed this piece before on this blog, so I won’t talk about it at length here (see my posting for July 12, 2010). It was, however, interesting to hear this piece again, because Keith played it differently. He emphasized the dissonance and the clatter of the piano’s extreme range and dynamics, de-emphasized the long delay and ringing that a piano can be made to do, and somehow reformatted it so that the climax was in the middle and the second half was a gradual release from the tension (in the previous performance, all the tension had built up to a climax near the end). Was it, then, the same piece? I’m certain that it was; the notes were the same, the harmonies were the same, the overall development was the same. (I can’t be certain if it was, in fact, note-for-note identical, though I’m certain it was very close, since the whole piece is written in conventional notation.) It was merely Keith’s playing that made it different. The work does not involve improvisation in any normal sense, but maybe it did in this case because Keith was relying on the context of the piece (different from when he’d played it previously) to decide how to play. Thus, the question that began the Salon is left open: what is the boundary between composition and improvisation?

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