"Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic Chord": The Das Rheingold of Solo Cello Works

Just back from experiencing LaMonte Young’s “Just Charles and Cello in the Romantic Chord” at the Mela Foundation Dream House down Tribeca. This was the first event in the “Waking States” series of concerts at several NY venues in which the cellist Charles Curtis is performing important solo works he has been involved with in recent years. I’m attending each event (except for the repeated performances) as part of this visit to NY, part of my DePauw sabbatical.

I have a hunch that the creators of the work might not be thrilled that Wagner, especially Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas that comprise the Ring cycle, came to my mind a number of times (but I may be wrong). While there were no characters singing, no scenery changes, or extra-musical program, certain parallels are obvious. The performance occurred in a space dedicated to an encompassing, transformative work (Bayreuth). This piece is part of a larger whole and uses material found in other of the composer’s works (Young writes in the program notes that it “is possible to conceive of all my music as one vast composition”). The work is as much visual as aural; in addition to the music was a lighting installation and a video projection, Abstract #1 from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals (2003) in Imagic Light by Marian Zazeela, Young’s partner (wife?). The sense of smell was important as well; a lovely incense was present when we arrived. So Wagner’s concept of the Gesamptkunstwerk (total-concept art work) seems an obvious parallel.

The performance itself was a seamless, uninterrupted span of sound, at least 3 hours and 45 minutes without break. One could argue that it was actually four and half hours, perhaps longer. A recorded open d-string drone was playing as the audience silently entered the space, and the as the Curtis finished the d drone had returned and remained playing. The lighting and video we in place from before I arrived and continued after I left. So it is hard, perhaps impossible, to say when the performance started or ended. I found my seat about7:45 PM. Curtis began playing about 8:35, and finished around 12:20 AM. This sense of no beginning or end left me feeling the music was eternal and is always present.

The only work of similar uninterrupted length I’ve attended live is Wagner’s Das Rheingold, the first of the four music dramas that comprise the Ring cycle. In the opera house, one has a seat, but at the Mela Foundation in Tribeca, we sat on the floor (those of us who arrived on the early side were able to grad a cushion and a spot by wall and had back support, too). Rheingold is about an hour or so shorter, though.

The work explores pitch relationships over drones, inspired in this aspect by North Indiana classical music, especially as taught by Young’s guru Pandit Pran Nath. Curtis played solo acoustic cello over a series of drones he had prerecorded, and which he controlled with three footswitches interfaced with a computer program developed for this piece. (Charles explained to me after the concert that one switch moves the computer to the next drone, one moves it back to the previous drone, and the third fades the music in or out.) The drones ranged from a simple open d string to close dissonances and dense chords. This, of course, is a departure from the Indian music I have heard, in which an unchanging drone underlies the entire performance.

The work was not in equal temprement by any means. Although to my ears, used to equal temprement and the slight “expressive intonation” and other variations on it string players often employ, the music seemped to employ microtonally altered pitches, LaMonte Young uses his own, consistent tuning system. His program notes explain:

Along with new works for my Just Alap Raga Ensemble, Just Charles &
Cello in The Romantic Chord
is one of my most recent compositions.
Composed in Just Intonation, which I have defined as “the system of tuning
in which every frequency is related to every other frequency as the
numerator or denominator of some whole number fraction,” Just Charles
& Cello in The Romantic Chord
is set in the Dorian mode. . .

While the tunings of the Dorian scale in just intonation are factorable
by the primes 5, 4, and 2, my tunings are unique in that the tuning for Young’s Dorian Blues in G is factorable by the primes 7, 5, 3, and 2,
and the tuning for “The Romantic Chord” is factorable by 7, 3, and 2 only.
As the title suggests, Just Charles & Cello in The Romantic
Chord
is based on the tuning of “The Romantic Chord” from [Young’s] The Well-Tuned Piano. Also in G, the Dorian mode of “The Romantic
Chord” is based on the ascending Pythagorean series C, G, D, A, E, with
B-flat (the third degree) and F (the 7th degree) derived septimally. The C,
G, D, and A are all open strings on the cello, the Pythagorean E exists as a
natural harmonic on both the D and A strings, and the B-flat and F exist as
natural harmonics on the C and G strings respectively. This congruence of
pitches and strings deliniates an inextricably inherent relationship between
the tuning of the mode and instrument.

Much of the work is in the Indiana alap style, with a careful, quasi-improvised exploration of intervals over a drone. Unlike raga performances, no percussion enters after the alap to introduce a sense of rhythmic cycles and percussive energy. The various sections of the work did grow in intensity, complexity, and rhythmic energy.

Because of my work with Sufis, especially at the Abode of the Message in upstate NY, certain aspects felt right at home. We removed our shoes and sat on the floor. Some in the audience lied down for all or part of the event; a few spent part of the concert in an altered state of consciousness, including the one commonly referred to as sleep. With about 50 people in the space, the was a physical closeness and intimacy, and a touch of a slumber-party feel to it.

For me it was a stimulating, fascinating, thought-provoking, imagination-triggering, physically uncomfortable experience. So much of the musical laguage was new to me that I found myself often disconcerted or in analytical mode. I can’t say I was moved or was able to surrender myself to the music. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. As a matter of fact, I am considering revising my schedule to attend another performance. I’d need to absorb the language and aesthetic more fully to really “get” the piece more fully.

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