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Taking No Prisoners 

Wednesday, Feb 3 1999
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Photo by Diane AlancraigWithin a few days last week, a fearless listener could have taken in a wildly diverse and mostly wonderful panorama of new-music creativity and ended up the better for the effort. Just as a sample: At the County Museum’s Monday Evening Concert, the Parisii Quartet (from Paris, need I add) played music by the late Italian mystic and composer Giacinto Scelsi that centered entirely around the overtones generated by a single note. On Wednesday’s "Piano Spheres" concert at Pasadena’s Neighborhood Church, the treasurable Gloria Cheng-Cochran introduced a new work by Mark Applebaum that fairly seethed with notes notes notes, with accompanying program notes program notes program notes of comparable plenitude. At Tuesday’s "Green Umbrella" concert at the Japan America Theater, the extra ordinary percussionist Steven Schick played a work by Vinko Globokar that called for no instruments at all except the performer’s own body, banged upon, tapped and tickled in ways that, if described in detail, might resemble a page from the Kama Sutra. It was vastly different from the stageful of gadgetry that the nimble Evelyn Glennie had zoomed around to put over Roberto Sierra’s new percussion concerto, a far less interesting piece, at the Philharmonic the previous weekend. On Sunday, another visiting quartet, the Sine Nomine from Switzerland, made a name for itself at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall with Bartók’s Third Quartet, 71 years old and perennially new.

To hear the Parisii (whose previous appearance here I somehow missed), I had to forgo Peter Serkin’s Music Center piano recital, which also included some alluring new works. Such luxury (or agony) of choice speaks well for the level of musical activity in these parts, while also calling out for some kind of cultural traffic cop. How do I choose, this coming Friday, among the Philharmonic program (with Radu Lupu at the piano and new music by Stephen Hartke), the L.A. Chamber Orchestra (with Bartók’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion) and the Orlando Consort singing medieval music at one of the Da Camera Society’s "Historic Sites"?

The Parisii, who belong to that rarefied fellowship of take-no-prisoners new-music evangelists whose ranks also list the Kronos and Arditti, began with Alfred Schnittke’s Third Quartet, which locks its players into intricate argumentation about the past of music and its ongoing relevance. Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge is the matter of dispute, along with a passage that could be the cadence formula from a Renaissance motet and something else in rollicking triplets possibly out of one of Mendelssohn’s lower drawers. The Beethoven hurls out its bitter challenge, which must have terrified listeners in the 1820s and still can today; in Schnittke’s hands the fragment from the Grosse Fuge twists and turns, and gradually oozes into the contemporary (1983) harmonic language that Beethoven probably foresaw all along; the result is both funny and wise. The recorded Kronos performance, rough-edged and somewhat boisterous, tells us about the humor of the piece, but I also liked the wisdom in the smoother, more elegant Parisii version.

Their program included the seven brief, atmosphere-laden movements of Henri Dutilleux’s 1976 Ainsi la Nuit, music full of glinty moments, like a rock spangled with gold bits, but also rendered gray at times by the composer’s academicism — updated d’Indy — that some have found ways to admire and I never have. It ended with Witold Lutoslawski’s 1964 String Quartet (so called, but actually the first of two), music from the time of its composer’s experimentation with chance techniques. True, the work leaves certain choices open to the performers. Still, a given audience at a given time is confronted with the performance of that time; questions of fidelity to the score, or stylistic matchups with the music, go thus a-begging. The performance, in any case, was lively, intense and eminently winning. The evening’s magic, however, came in the aforementioned Scelsi’s 1984 Quartet No. 5, his final work, drawing immense expressive power from a throbbing single note restated over six minutes and subjected to infinitesimal microtonal deviations that generate a kind of overtonal haze, an aura amazingly rich.

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Under the "Green Umbrella," UC San Diego’s percussion ensemble red fish blue fish dispensed more of its by-now-familiar delights, a program consisting for the most part of remarkably quiet and charming percussive pieces: Iannis Xenakis’ Okho for three African djembes, rich-toned small-to-medium drums; Erik Griswold’s Strings Attached for snare drums tethered to a central pole, whose connecting ropes formed patterns reminiscent of the old "cat’s cradle" games; and Michael Gordon’s solo piece XY, virtuoso stuff involving the kind of, say, six-against-five rhythmic patterns that you find in Conlon Nancarrow’s pieces for player piano, but here performed live. At the end came Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1964 Mikrophonie, with players wielding heavily microphoned kitchenware items on either side of a huge suspended gong that kept them visually isolated: real noise, sometimes horrendous, John Cage without the smile.

Splendid variety, the glorious Cheng-Cochran concert the next night. Mark Applebaum, now on the faculty at Mississippi State, worked for a time at UC San Diego with Brian Ferneyhough, panjandrum of academic rigidity, so his new work’s title, Disciplines, could have told us what to expect. Fortunately, it didn’t; the work, though garrulous perhaps to a fault, and bearing such internal titles as "Cosmo Drama" and "Outergalactic Discipline," scampered delightfully. Known for her partiality to the music of Olivier Messiaen — with an excellent disc to back up her championing — Cheng-Cochran included nothing by that composer on her program. She did, however, begin with three works — tidbits by Dane Rudhyar and Peter Lieberson plus Scriabin’s "Black Mass" Sonata — that together seemed to constitute the parts of speech for Messiaen’s own musical language.

The concert’s high point came in Paul Hindemith’s 1922 Suite, music from an era when the composer’s icy, ironic, dry-point manner was given further thrust by his passing fascination with the newfangled American jazz then inundating European sensibilities. This whole edgy, athletic side of Hindemith — embodied also in his second and third quartets and in his Chamber Concerto — goes neglected while revivals of his dense, Brahms-infested Mathis der Maler pretend to celebrate his greatness. They don’t.

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