Cellist Charles Curtis, a longtime New York fixture and La Monte Young associate now based in San Diego, is back in town this month in a big, big way, presenting a series of concerts under the collective rubric "Waking States." So far, the residency has included a performance of Young's Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord at the Mela Foundation Dream House last week (with two more performances to come on December 10 and 17), the world premiere of Éliane Radigue's Naldjorlak last Monday night at the Tenri Cultural Institute, and tonight's all-Alvin Lucier bill at the Diapason Gallery for Sound. The remaining events in the series are a concert at Tonic featuring the Piece for Cello and Saxophone by forgotten minimalist pioneer Terry Jennings on Sunday, December 11, and a performance of Morton Feldman's enigmatic Patterns in a Chromatic Field with pianist Aleck Karis at the Double Knot Rug Gallery on Wednesday, December 14. (Details regarding all of the concerts can be found here.)
I became aware of Curtis embarassingly late, via the absorbing CD of the aforementioned Feldman composition that he and Karis released on John Zorn's Tzadik label last year. More recently, Curtis and clarinetist Anthony Burr issued an utterly engrossing 2-CD set of Lucier's music on the outstanding Brooklyn-based electroacoustic music label Antiopic. That set followed hot on the heels of another rich lode of Lucier, by the Barton Workshop on New World Records -- which I have to thank Molly Sheridan of NewMusicBox for bringing to my attention, and for reviewing so admirably in TONY.
Alvin Lucier's music offers an intriguing paradox: Based on all manner of daunting scientific theorems and mathematical schemata, his pieces rightly sound like processes of nature. It's as if Wagner had scrapped the entire Ring cycle in order to more fully explore the acoustical implications inherent in the opening chord: An enveloping world of sound and event is revealed in the simplest and subtlest of gestures.
The New World set does an outstanding job of presenting Lucier's music, but the Antiopic release goes a step further, extending the gestalt to include the packaging in which the sounds are presented -- yet without stinting on first-rate annotation. (See for yourself -- the CD booklet and notes are here.) This is a first-rate model of presentation -- and how unsurprising it is that this should have come from a label at the periphery of out-rock, as opposed to avant-classical.
Perhaps ironically, Curtis didn't even touch his cello in my favorite of tonight's pieces. Instead, in the original version of Lucier's 1974 piece Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas, he triggered sine waves from his laptop, in the process eliciting sympathetic vibrations from three snare drums positioned at varying distances in the room. The ebb and flow of the computer's simple song set the snares rustling like cicadas on a summer evening; as the wave forms slowly changed, the drums seemed to offer first a chorus, then ghostly pre-echoes, and finally scrabbly little rhythm patterns in response.
Charles Curtis, a Lucier piece dedicated to the cellist, created a complex interdependency between Curtis's instrument and the computer's slowly sweeping tones: sine waves rang; the cellist played a short figure; repeat. Across the work's duration, however, the soloist's position with regard to his accompaniment/antagonist constantly shifted. Many times, it seemed as if cello and computer were generating identical sounds, but when Curtis cut short his present aphorism, the machine was revealed to have moved somewhere else entirely. Mysterious and magical.
The final piece, Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases, revealed that the wiry parabolas draped behind Curtis throughout the evening were actually electrical cords, on which dangled microphones plunged into a collection of large ceramic vases. The basic premise of the piece was an exploration of the resonances created when Curtis bowed his instrument in the proximity of these vessels. If only the vases had been turned up in the mix... much of this piece came off as a soliloquy, at least from my patch of floor. (Granted, New York City is a hard place in which to play subtle music; the players contended all night long with sirens and garbage trucks on the street below.) On the occasions that a genuine balance was achieved, the results were utterly mesmerizing.
Felix Mendelssohn - A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture; Lobgesang - Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)
Hesperion XXI - Altre Follie 1500-1750 (Alia Vox)
Elliott Carter - Dialogues (Nicolas Hodges, London Sinfonietta/Oliver Knussen); Boston Concerto (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen); Cello Concerto (Fred Sherry, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Knussen); ASKO Concerto (ASKO Ensemble/Knussen) (Bridge)
Tom Flaherty - Vorarlberg Resonance (Karl and Margaret Kohn); Timesflies (Peter Yates, Tom Flaherty); Trio for Cello and Digital Processor (Flaherty); Quartet for Viola, Cello and Digital Processor (Cynthia Fogg, Flaherty); Time to Travel (Karl and Margaret Kohn) (Bridge)
Ulver - Blood Inside (The End)
Nine Horses - Snow Borne Sorrow (Samadhi Sound)
Éliane Radigue - Adnos II and III (Table of the Elements)