Robert Ashley’s music offends me, insults my intelligence, wearies my posterior. Twice in my career as ear-for-hire I have been moved to issue a resonant “boo” at a public event. Once was at a Bang on a Can marathon concert in New York three years ago, 55 minutes into an interminable improvised reminiscence by Ashley, with musical punctuation, on the subject of his mother’s tomato-soup recipe; the other was last Tuesday at the Japan America Theater, after the 35-or-so minutes of a new Ashley work called Superior Seven. In neither case did my verbal reaction attract kindred souls; mine was the sole voice in the wilderness.
For “wilderness” read “trackless waste.” Superior Seven — its title and basic pulse drawn from the word rhythms in some real estate ads Ashley happened upon — slogs through an aimless melodic unwinding with no discernible direction or goal. Solo flute and piano play in unison most of the time; the supporting chamber ensemble doubles their phrases. We are supposed to think about gamelans, or south Indian musical texture, or perhaps the ethereal minimalism of Górecki; the abject poverty of the ideas, and the unconscionable lengths to which they are stretched, make such legitimate associations impossible.
The concert was the yearly contribution of the CalArts music department to the Philharmonic’s “Green Umbrella” series; Ashley has been a guest artist at the school this year. He is 68 and apparently well-regarded. His own New York–based record label — Lovely Music, one of the world’s great misnomers — is well-stocked with his works. Young and hopeful composers can, I suppose, benefit from occasional access to their elders in the field, and Ashley’s affected macho-hip demeanor, with music to match, might bridge the age gap. You have to wonder, though, how a novice composer in search of such basic matters as the right way to bring a work to a logical ending might profit from the presence of an elder spirit who either doesn’t know or doesn’t care to know such things himself.
Neither the Ashley nor two similarly inconsequential works by Alvin Lucier and the late Salvatore Martirano furnished much in the way of festivity to this CalArts Spring Music Festival. As a matter of fact, the paltry material at the last two or three CalArts “Umbrella” events, by other composers who have had residencies at the school, should be cause for concern. Years ago these festivals were stimulating gatherings of illustrious creators from all points of the compass. Now they have become . . . Swell, Robert Ashley.
Two works by the marvelous Chen Yi, also a recent CalArts resident, made the evening worth the venturing, however: marvelous, resourceful interminglings of cultural outlooks a world apart, the Duo Ye for small orchestra (recorded on New Albion) and the haunting Song in Winter for a mix of Chinese and Western instruments. China has sent out (or kicked out) dozens of important composers in the last few years, all of them understandably obsessed with effecting some kind of ocean-spanning mix between their identities and ours. Chen — smiling, tiny, looking for all the world like your favorite aunt bearing a fresh batch of cookies — has been one of the most successful. Song in Winter, with its important part for the zheng (a plucked instrument resembling the Japanese koto), is an enchanting piece about flickering. Strands of melody twist in and out of Asian and Western harmonies, the wisps of color pass from the stately Chinese instrument to the more demonstrative piano and percussion; the flute, that most “international” of all instruments, serves as a binding force.
If the music didn’t always speak well of CalArts, at least the level of performances did, with David Rosenboom leading the latest incarnation of the school’s New Century Players. The Ashley enlisted the services of flutist Rachel Rudich and pianist Bryan Pezzone; cellist Erika Duke-Kirpatrick, ubiquitous heroine of the new-music cause, formed the firm foundation for the first Chen Yi piece; the sounds of Weishan Liu playing her zheng were like cooling breezes.
These have been busy, rewarding weeks, and I don’t have nearly the space to do them justice. Britain’s Emma Kirkby sang baroque songs and arias at the County Museum; our own Dawn Upshaw sang Rachmaninoff, Strauss and the achingly beautiful “Mirabai” songs of John Harbison at the Music Center; if you listened carefully, you surely heard the flutter of angel wings above both events. The Penderecki String Quartet — Polish by name, Canadian by residence — gave a spectacular program of tough, mostly new works at the museum, including György Kurtág’s coiled-spring, intensely beautiful Memorial Mass for Andreae Szervanszky and the String Quartet No. 2 by the group’s namesake, its quotient of violence a poignant reminder of Penderecki’s greatness before he went easy-listening. Leonard Stein’s “Piano Spheres” concert at the Pasadena Neighborhood Church ended with music of surprising eloquence: Stein’s own piano transcription of Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative, which never had much to tell me in its original scoring for organ, now brought to life.
At the museum, too, the staunch California EAR Unit sails ever upward, bloodied, unbowed, through music now abject and now invigorating, through the dismal spectacle of a 600-seat theater less than 10 percent full. The remarkable Alison Knowles was on hand for the March 11 concert, a composer/visual artist/ soundscape creator and remarkable in whatever she does. Frijoles Canyon Live, which had its world premiere that night, is a somewhat gorgeous conflation of the range of sounds that might (just might) define the trajectory of a voyage from Santa Fe’s Frijoles Canyon to northern Ontario: animal songs, the percussive impacts of city life, the unmeasurable expanse of empty space. Years ago, lesser spirits — Roy Harris, say, or Howard Hanson — played with the idea of translating American vastness into “pure” music: long-held cello tones for the Kansas night sky, or newly contrived yippee-ay-yay tunes for the Texas part. Knowles’ piece comes closer, not because she draws upon authentic noises for some of her effects, but because a superior sense of form and motion makes her audible landscape into something recognizable and powerful.
Her music was followed by Kamran Ince’s 1996 Turquoise, another work of extraordinary, pulsating beauty. It was my first encounter with Ince — born in Montana of Turkish and American parents — and not, I hope, my last. He knows how to make music move — a talent you don’t find on every tree.