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!)