The emperor’s new tune?
Composition divides Joseph, prompts him to quote Yogi Berra
“One simply can not judge Wagner’s ‘Lohengrin’ after a first hearing. Pity I don’t intend hearing it a second time.”
— Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
Writing about the arts is a ticklish endeavor: you want to be fair and open minded and, at the same time, you don’t want to abandon all vestige of intelligence and discrimination for fear of recrimination, in the event that one’s expressed thoughts are in conflict with those of a given reader or performer.
There is a lot to consider: the all-too-easily ruptured fabric of a tight-knit community or region, should offense be taken; the necessity to be able to walk the streets without encountering the disgruntled visages of former friends and colleagues whose noses have suddenly contrived to be remarkably out of joint by some remark or other; indeed, the simple expedient of having to earn one’s living and live one’s life amidst the people one is writing about.
Very early on I decided to adopt the general policy of only previewing — rather than reviewing — events and performances so as to remove the necessity of casting even the faintest suspicion of an opinion — especially a less than favorable one — on something on which several or many people had labored long and hard. Why rub salt in an already inflamed wound? And I still feel that it was the best way to go forward.
But, sometimes, there’s just no avoiding a controversial issue.
Which brings me, in a funny kind of way, to this week’s featured event, a return visit to Amherst College by visiting professor of music Harold Meltzer, class of 1988, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize nominee in composition, for a performance of his big-league contender “Brion,” April 21 at 3 p.m. in Buckley Recital Hall in Amherst College’s Arms Music Center on College Street. The concert is free and open to the public.
Now, it’s not every day you have Pulitzer Prize-nominated composer bringing his band to your backyard, so this deserves some attention.
“Brion” was commissioned for the Cygnus Ensemble by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition at Brigham Young University, a piece which Meltzer describes as “inspired by the sculptured concrete walls, reflecting pools and unexpected traces of bright primary colors in the Brion-Vega Cemetery in San Vito d’Altivole, not far from Venice.”
Also on the program is Meltzer’s “Sinbad,” which is based on Donald Barthelme’s post-modern fairy tale of the same name, for which the composer “selected 10 of the 12 sections of the short story for recitation and then framed eight of those 10 with music. Both will be performed by the Cygnus Ensemble and Alissa Leiser, piano, and will be conducted by Victoria Bond.
Going to http://www.cygnusensemble.com/program-notes/cygnus-presents-harold-meltzers-brion/ will allow anyone interested to hear performance of “Brion” by the very same Cygnus Ensemble that will be offering the work the evening of the concert; albeit the website plays a watered-down MP3 version.
But first, let’s define a few terms so we don’t get caught up in technicalities just when the going gets good:
■ A phrase is a brief musical utterance — the sonic equivalent of once upon a time (a mid-length example) or “if only” (a shortie) or “whether to his nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” (a whopper);
■ Motif is a tune-fragment, or, for the higher-of-brow, a brief pitch series.
■ Variation is just that, a slight or radical alteration on a still recognizable original.
■ Sequence: the same musical figure following at a higher or lower level.
■ Phasing: the same material overlapping itself, rather like resounding echoes.
At this point in the seminar, in an admirable effort to sustain impartiality, the writer will polarize his warring selves into two distinct personalities: Dr. Joseph & Mr. Hyde, whose agendas will become quite clear as their dialogue proceeds:
Dr. J: All right then, listen up: a delicate, two-note-descending-flute motif — the second note reverberating like a bouncing ball — backlit by slender woodwind murmurs, is sequenced lower, then returns to its original pitch, echoes upon itself, each phrase microscopically different than its predecessor (i.e., in the number of “bounces” it takes). All this repeats but not literally for, again, micro-variants are in play. The higher phrase now repeats twice in a row with expected many variants. Therefore, we can, technically speaking, confirm that we have never heard the same phrase twice.
Mr. M: OK, but for the old-fashioned among us who are still, perhaps, overly attached to melody and harmony, there may be some lingering doubt or even distrust as to just what kind of an evening we are in for because now 15 seconds have gone by in which we have heard only two notes with a little backup from the band. And, a further 18 attempts at this asthmatic little motif follow, each happy with its ever-so-slightly unique ball-bounce pattern, before something narratively new and different occurs.
Dr. J: There is a genre for this type of process called “minimalism,” the art of making big things out the tiny and, if you were paying such deep attention, you would on have noticed that each of those 18 attempts were uniquely, if subtly, distinct from its brethren; the composer’s needle is clearly not stuck in a deep groove but is, instead, on its way somewhere!
Mr. M: (Yawning) Well, then, why doesn’t he just go there? Why does he keep beating around the boring bush so god-awfully long?
Dr. J: No doubt he’s attempting to facilitate the exercise of your higher listening faculties, that is, if you possess any ...
Mr. M: Well, alright, it does have a certain hypnotic charm, by virtue of the sheer repetition but, as a highly respected meditation guru once intoned, “You could chant ‘Coca Cola’ with passion and intensity for a few hours and it would achieve the same transcendent state as “Om shanti.’” But, for me, this kind of stuff can sound like little more than a bad record skipping exasperatingly upon itself, or, as Yogi Berra so sumptuously put it, “Deja vu all over again.”
Dr. J: It’s quite revealing, actually, that you seem to prize the wisdom of Yogi Berra so highly ... but go on.
Mr. M: And then he suddenly whips to a manic classical guitar-spewing notes, machine-gun style, all over the place.
Dr. J: Yes. That’s a “parataxis,” an abrupt juxtaposition of two starkly different textures.
Mr. M: (doubtfully) ... Aha ... it sounds more like the record jumped the groove to a wildly invasive, completely inappropriate piece of music. Where’s the connection? The thing is — it has the effect of taking the listener or watcher out of the experience rather than into it, and sets their frontal cortexes — instead of their emotions — in gear, i.e.: “Hmm — what could he be up to? Where on earth is that flute going to go next — the same intolerable note?? Does the numbing repetitiousness bespeak a level of profundity which I am congenitally incapable of comprehending?” etc., etc.
Dr. J: Who said all music had to be emotion-based? Doesn’t everybody love a good mystery? And besides, the piece, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, no less.
Mr. M: Then, clearly, I have some exponential aesthetic evolution to undergo before I’m capable of perceiving the obvious underlying brilliance of “Brion”?
Dr. J: That was clear before we began!
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at