Category Archives: Frances-Marie Uitti

Davidovsky and the ICE at Miller Theatre

Mario Davidovsky, whose work was the subject of last night’s Composer Portrait at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, was a leader in the development of electronic and electro-acoustic music. That genre consists of carefully worked-out sound collages, music which shocked and alienated many early audiences, which many traditional classical musicians (and musicians) still detest, and which I happen to really enjoy.

So why do I like it when so many years later so few others do?  It may well have to do with my mother, who, when I was a child, had me lie down, close my eyes, and listen to a recording of Vares’s Ionisation. Let your imagination go, she told me.  Tell me what you see.  She may have had me draw pictures.  Varese called his music “organized sound” and that early immersion in that one piece made me open to so much.  (It’s funny.  I don’t remember her having any other interest in avant-garde music.)

I’ll admit it, I had never heard of Davidovsky before I read about this concert. I’m not a new-music maniac like my friend, former student, and admired colleague Jon Silpayamanant, who could probably do an hour or two on Davidovsky off the top of his head. And I knew nothing about him and his work before I sat down and started reading the excellent program notes [pdf] by Paul Griffiths.  I loved the concert, including the on-stage conversation between him and Melissa Smey, the Miller Theatre’s director.  Here’s Davidovsky in another interview:


So why did I go? To hear the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).  Who cares what they’re playing? I knew it would be good. Besides the group’s incredible reputation, the flutist Eric Lamb, who attended DePauw for a while, is one of the members, and I really have been wanting to hear him perform.  I’d missed their concert which opened the Tully Scope series, in order to hear Meridith Monk speak at Symphony Space, and when I read about this concert, I made it my top priority.

I’m going to all these concerts and writing them, giving myself a new education, as I prepare a course or courses for DePauw music majors on career issues in the developing classical/post-classical music world.  Look at the schedules of the ICE and Eric.  They are great models for what can be done separate from the slowly dying win-a-competition, win-an-orchestra-job traditional world.  The ICE has a tremendously strong, visionary leader in Claire Chase, and uses musicians of extraordinary accomplishment, like Eric and the trumpeter Gareth Flowers (whom I met when he performed as half of The Batteries Duo at the Chamber Music America conference).

A lesson here is that if you develop extraordinary ability in a niche about which you’re passionate and develop a great reputation, people will come to whatever you do.  You’ll build your own audience.  It’s a point Frances-Marie Uitti made to me after I heard her play at LPR.  She has a huge career performing all over the world with a repertoire of avant-garde cello music that not even many cellists don’t know or care about it.  It’s devoting yourself to something you’re passionate about she told me.  You can knock yourself out for a while seeing who can play the Brahms F Major Sonata better, but that’s not what the world needs or wants.

OK, back to the Davidovsky concert.  Terrific, fascinating, extraordinary music, performed incredibly well.  Davidovsky the first or one of the first to combine recorded, electronically-generated sounds with live performers.  The program began and end with two such works, Synchronisms No. 9 (1988) with violinist David Bowlin, and Synchronisms No. 12 (2007) with clarinetist Joshua Rubin.  The rest of the program consisted of purely acoustic works which the motivic interplay was fascinating. (You can read the details in the program notes linked to above.) One of the musicians told me Davidovsky’s music (with which he was not previously familiar, either), reminded him of Webern’s, with the short motives and the hocketing.  “A lot like Webern,” I replied, “but longer.”  We had a laugh.

Here’s a different performance of the Synchronisms No. 9:

Walking home the 23 blocks to my apartment (I was seduced by the Ben and Jerry’s shop, don’t tell my trainer, but as long as I gave in to temptation I decided to really enjoy it), I was thinking about this sort of well-attended concert, dedicated to the work of a single, obscure-to-the-general-public composer, could only happen in a few places.  A performing arts series at a great university, in a large city, in a neighborhood with a lot of urban intellectuals, also accessed easily by public transportation.  The Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait series is really quite something.  It’s the kind of thing that can happen at a university which can afford to present events that aren’t part of the new populist trends in classical music.  While I have nothing to do with Columbia, I did feel proud to be part of what we call “the academy”–the community of colleges and universities.

(By the way, I forgot to add the “SJ” for “Sabbatical Journal” number in a recent posts, and so I’m not going to number them anymore.  Unless someone demands it!)



Filed under Claire Chase, CMA 2011 Conference, Composers, Ensembles, Eric Lamb (flute), Frances-Marie Uitti, future of college/university music education, Gareth Flowers (trumpet), International Contemporary Ensemble, Le Poisson Rouge, Mario Davidovsky, sabbatical journal, The Batteries Duo, The Batteries Duo, Young Performers

In Which Lisa Bielawa and Frances-Marie Uitti Turn Me Into a Tounge-Tied Fan (SJ VIII)

The individual and combined performances of vocalist Lisa Bielawa (best known as a composer) and cellist Frances-Marie Uitti at [le] poisson rouge on Sunday February 13 were extraordinary.  Billed as “In Translation: A Bold New Collaboration,” the program included Bielawa’s performance of the Berio Squenza III for solo voice, Uitti playing the Xenakis Kottos 1977 for solo cello, and then an approximately 30-minute improvisation in which Christian Hawkey read original poems to which Bielawa and Uitti improvised.

The Berio began with Bielawa off-stage, using a hand-held microphone.  Where was she?  Eventually she materialized on stage, and made an impressively seamless transition to a mic on a stand.  This was the second amazing performance of a Berio Sequenza I’ve experienced since I arrived in New York 5 weeks ago.  The pieces are so rich, complex, full of mood changes and nonsense syllables that they have to be “owned,” quite obviously, to be performed at all.  As I’ve heard them, anyway, they are profoundly theatrical.  It takes an enormous commitment to learn one, so they are the sort of thing that gets done brilliantly or not at all.  (I certainly wouldn’t want to hear a careful, tentative performance!)

The Xenakis cello piece is full of special effects, including lots of two-handed (at least in this performance) bow-crunching.  To say that Uitti owns this piece would be an understatement.  (I feel like I’ve been living under a rock in Greencastle for the last 20+ years.  Not only am I not familiar with the Xenakis, which is a major 20th-century cello piece, but I’d never heard of Uitti, who is one of the most important new-music cellists of recent decades.)  Uitti used a very tall seat (something on a piano bench, perhaps, all covered with a black drape), and keeps an assortment of four or five bows at the ready.  For the Xenakis (or most of it, my memory has faded a bit), she used what at first I thought (with disbelief) was a Baroque bow.  I couldn’t imagine using one for something this demanding on the bow.  As I watched more closely (I was at a back table) I realized this was some sort of contemporary bow, lacking the Tourte-model arching.  Turns out it is a bow of her own invention.

After an intermission, Brooklyn-based poet Christian Hawkey joined them on stage for a collaborative performance of sonnets he had written.  Uitti is fond of what we musicians call scordatura, or alternative tunings.  Bielawa told the audience, “It’s never the same,” (or words to that effect) as the cellist experimented, finally finding what I would call “the pitches the strings wanted to be tuned to.”

That’s the thing about improvisation, to which this portion of the evening was dedicated.  It’s not your left brain figuring things out, it’s focusing on the music and discerning what wants to be played.  It’s paradoxical; we create original music, which is probably the most profound manifestation of who we are as human beings, by getting (what we experience as) ourselves out of the way.  (I heard Meridith Monk talk about this point on Tuesday, which I’ll get around to writing about soon.)

Everybody can improvise.  We do it talking all the time, of course.  We can do it musically (or with dancing, moving, painting) as well; most of us just haven’t given ourselves permission.

To speak well, you have to have something so say.  And you need a vocabulary with which to say it.  The larger the better, especially if your vocabulary is put in service of what you have to say, and you’re not saying something in order to show off your vocabulary.  Even with a small vocabulary, you can be profoundly eloquent if you deeply feel what you are communicating.

Great musical improvisers have something to say, a wide and deep musical vocabulary, discipline and skill in their craft, and openess to and trust in their own ideas, the ideas of their musical partner(s), and the process itself. That was the case with this performance.

It looked like this:  Hawkey on the audience-left side of the stage with a sheaf of poems, Bielawa in the center, Uitti and her assortment of bows on the right.  Hawkey started reading; Uitti soon added some harmonics, and Bielawa some long vocal tones.  Then Hawkey finished the sonnet and handed it to Biewala, who sang fragments from it.  The music was continually varied, with Uitti often using two bows (one on each side of the strings).  The process of a poem read, then handed to Biewala who sang from it and dropped the paper to the floor as she and Uitti improvised, continued throughout the set.

I wish I could describe for you the entire performance, because it was not just stunning but entrancing and enlivening and emotionally deep and varied.  It was the most amazing improvisation I’ve ever witnessed (and I’ve witnessed a lot), both in the range of the individual performances and the connection between the two musicians.

I was awestruck.  When I spoke to the performers after the show, I was tongue-tied.  My own English vocabulary seemed to have deserted me;  I had become a fan at a loss for words.

Turned out this was Biewala’s first improvised performance, and she and Uitti had experimented just once before.  It would be hard to believe, except I’ve been around so many first-time improvisers that I know miracles can and do happen.

How was it able to happen?  Biewala’s a gifted performer and as an important young composer knows a huge amount of music, is comfortable (or comes alive) on stage, and is in touch with her creative voice.  Uitti, similarly, is not just experienced as an improviser but knows the contemporary/avant-garde cello literature as well or better than anyone else on the planet. And these two really connect.  That’s something that happens or it doesn’t.  When it does, it usually is immediate and powerful;  you feel it from the first time you make music with the other person.

Hawkey’s poems gave them starting points, a focus for their creativity.  They each have rich imaginations.  And they each have huge musical vocabularies.  That’s what reduced me to fan-status for the evening;  I realized how much larger their musical vocabularies are than my own.

And my mind is still, well, boggled.

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Filed under Frances-Marie Uitti, improvisation, Le Poisson Rouge, Lisa Bielawa