A Lab for Contemporary Classical Music

Concerts that feature a singing bowl, a wired cactus, strings played with the wooden back of the bow, and more

An image from promotional materials from the event

A percussionist gracefully draws a violin bow vertically along the edge of a Himalayan singing bowl, producing a sound echoing that made by flicking a fine crystal goblet. He sets the bow aside and turns the bowl down, then up, swiveling it back and forth as the vibrations dissipate. Mark André’s 2005 composition “…zu Staub…” (“to dust”) uses a number of uncommon instruments and objects, including this singing bowl and a cactus wired to speakers. The cactus is struck at the end of the piece; its vibrations taper out into a whisper closer to silence than a normal instrument could reach. The singing bowl is part of a suite of other haunting sounds, including a rubbed timpani, strings played col legno (with the wooden back of a bow), and an alto flute.

“Mark André uses very advanced sonic means, and his piece is somewhere between audible and inaudible. He uses very fragile and refined sounds,” explains Chaya Czernowin, Rosen professor of music and curator of this year’s Fromm Concerts. Since 1993, the concert series has brought performances of contemporary classical music to Harvard, transforming Paine Hall from a shrine to the past into a lab for contemporary innovations in sound—and also, as this year’s title for the concerts, “Interior Gardens,” suggests, a space for contemplation and discovery. “I was thinking about wild, small gardens behind a wall,” says Czernowin. “You feel that their existence is not so sure, and that they’re much more improvised, they’re not so organized….I believe in the small garden much more than I do the aristocratic manor house.”

The fragility and intimacy of such a garden inspired the aesthetic guiding two concerts on April 1 and 2. Rather than a large orchestra, Czernowin selected two smaller ensembles to perform: the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME), composed of Oberlin Conservatory students and directed by Tim Weiss; and Ensemble SurPlus, directed by Sven Thomas Kiebler and based in Freiburg, Germany. Czernowin has worked with SurPlus for 10 years, collaborating on workshops and classes. The Oberlin ensemble caught her attention for their energy and intrepidness. “Their playing is so fresh—they are so excited by the music they’re discovering,” she says. “You feel their enthusiasm, and it’s really infectious.”

Czernowin selected smaller pieces to suit these small groups, remarking, “All the pieces in this concert are very personal.” The smallest used only two performers; the largest, involving the entire CME, used 14. Much of the music took advantage of the deep quiet of the concert hall to experiment with sounds on the edge of silence. The opening piece of Friday’s concert, Salvatore Sciarrino’s 1985 chamber work Lo spazio inverso (“Inverse Space”), deploys both flute and clarinet in a quintet alongside violin, cello, and celesta. The wind instruments of SurPlus underblow—an extended technique in which the performers blow less air than needed to produce a note—in the background throughout the composition, creating a quiet, raspy shimmer of an accompaniment, while the strings slide up and down their respective registers and the celesta punctuates the texture with stormy, shivering chirps. One of Saturday’s performances, Alvin Lucier’s 1987 Fideliotrio (also performed by SurPlus), used a conventional trio of piano, violin, and cello to expose and explore the space between notes. All three instruments begin with a resolute A440, the note that forms the stable center for most ensembles; during the course of the work, the violin and cello imperceptibly glissando between G-sharp and B-flat, each moving in a direction opposing the other, before returning to the A which the piano has been sounding the entire time. 

But not all the works delved so completely into silence. Jonathan Harvey’s 1997 Wheel of Emptiness, performed by the CME, swirls furiously in a terrifying and macabre exploration of extremity and intensity. The ensemble swells to enormous dynamics, punctuated with anguished moans and fierce attacks, quibbling strings and clanging piano. Harvey’s work was followed by the sharply contrasting The Immeasurable Space of Tones, a 2001 piece by John Luther Adams, currently the Fromm Foundation visiting lecturer on music at Harvard. Floating, gleaming blocks of sound both enfold and unfold, surrounding the audience at the same time as the music emerges before them. A quick treble flashes and trills across a deep, slow-moving bass, welding regal dignity together with joyous sincerity. “The ear is never sure whether it’s hearing a chord or a composite sonority; it’s right on the cusp of harmony and timbre,” Adams explains. “I think of it as one of my pieces exploring color….It’s an extroverted contemplation,” inspired by Mark Rothko’s 1950 painting Number 5. Adams wrote in the program notes that what he had envisioned as an escape from lines into “monolithic music” instead became “a polyphony of harmonic clouds. Maybe the lines never disappear completely.” The CME played these lines with creativity and care, never failing to craft complex, fresh tone colors that also clicked sensibly into their context.

Other compositions featured in the concerts included two late pieces by Luigi Nono—one, “…sofferte onde serene…,” for piano and sound engineer, and another, “‘Hay que caminar’ soñando,” a violin duet—both performed by SurPlus. The ensemble also performed Morton Feldman’s contemporary classic The Viola in My Life, with a brilliant solo from Jessica Rona; and a very recent composition by Dániel Péter Biró, Hadavar (“Word”), a piece for countertenor recorded, magnified, and reoriented across space by a sound engineer that transforms a text from Jeremiah into music by deriving notes through gematria, the association of Hebrew letters with numerical values. The CME performed Josh Levine’s Clear Sky, a subtle theme with variations; Rebecca Saunders’s clamorous Disclosure, filled with sharp crescendi that burst pyrotechnically at their apex; and Harrison Birtwistle’s Silbury Air, which, like Feldman’s Viola, is vying for a spot in the standard repertory.

Tradition gazes sternly down from the frieze high on the walls of Paine Hall, emblazoned with the names of canonical composers, from Palestrina to Franck, in imposing golden capitals. The most intimidating name of all—Beethoven—looms territorially over the center of the stage. Yet audience member Aaron Silberstein, a fourth-year graduate student in mathematics, found the space ideal for a contemporary music concert: “It’s cozy, it’s informal. You get all the little details.” Janet Littell, a former employee and Extension School student, loved the sense of contemplative exploration: “I want to hear things I’ve never heard before. You never know what’s coming next,” she mused. “It’s like being in a parallel universe if you’re interested in classical music.” Familiar instruments make novel sounds; familiar sounds reconfigure themselves into new compositions. And even tradition itself can remodel itself to make sense of the new music. By the end of Saturday evening’s concert, the large capital “BEETHOVEN” seemed less intimidating than welcoming toward the many young performers and composers featured in the concerts.


Read more articles by: Spencer Lee Lenfield

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