Technically, this is supposed to be a report on all the UBC contemporary music concerts that have happened this term, but it just so happens that all of these concerts happened in November, so here’s the 2018 November concert report. Me being lazy, I didn’t actually write up the post until now, so my memories of the earlier concerts are pretty hazy. Taking notes helps a little, but I can’t see what I’m writing in the dark, so it usually ends up being gibberish.

UBC Contemporary Players Ensemble, 2018 November 9

13 Studies for Instruments

Frederic Rzewski; for unspecified instrumentation

All four of the studies played (3, 5, 8, 10) were pretty boring, but the Contemporary Players equally spaced themselves around the concert hall, so you could hear different timbres from different directions all playing the same boring gestures. Only the piano was on the stage; going clockwise, we had the violin, flute/piccolo, euphonium, trumpet, and viola.

I found a recording with eight cellos, which is the exact opposite of what Rzewski intended, “to maintain the distinct color of each instrument as much as possible”. I don’t know whose numbering is wrong but I’m pretty sure the first three studies in both the concert and that video are the same, and the Study 5 in concert was much more interesting, with each trill in a different colour and register, spanning a range of seven octaves instead of four. Study 10 (“Bousculade”) started off more lively, with more movement and more dynamics, almost like a stampede, and I loved it. But then, they moved the main melody to the next instrument and repeated it. Then, they repeated it with the next instrument, and again, and again, and again. Although the main instrument changed, the background timbres basically remained the same, so there really wasn’t much variation, and basically it became boring.

The Blue Pages

Michael Torke; for flute, bass clarinet, violin, cello, and piano

I love Torke. He’s one of my favourite contemporary composers because all his works are so accessible to uneducated tonedeaf amateurs like myself, and Telephone Book is one of my favourites, so I have nothing to say, except I couldn’t hear the cello over the bass clarinet.

The Contemporary Players decided to make their own transitions between each of the pieces, so that the entire concert would be a continuous flow of music with neither pause nor applause. All but one of these transitions were simply a single line in the next piece (trombone, soprano, and clarinet/cello respectively) rudely interrupting the conclusion of the previous piece, which is hardly a transition at all. The only real transition was into The Blue Pages, with the piano randomly playing its accompanying figures as the violin was finishing up the sixth repetition (ugh) of Study 10. Everyone kinda slipped into the dressing room or slid onto the stage under that piano accompaniment, which lasted for more than a minute. It kinda ruined the pace of the piece, and was generally a bizarre decision, but I guess that’s contemporary music for ya.

The Little Fix

György Kurtág; for piccolo, trombone, and guitar

I didn’t think the first movement was in the manner of Mussorgsky, and I didn’t think the second movement was in the manner of Stravinsky, but since Kurtág says so, I’ll believe it. The instrumentation is kinda weird, because the guitar is really too soft to accompany a piccolo and trombone. About the music, I particularly enjoyed the last movement because of the slow flow of information per unit time and the cool extended trombone techniques, which sounded like bombers overhead. Unlike Rzewski’s studies, each movement had an obvious sense of direction, and by feeding us this development so slowly in the last movement, Kurtág could keep our attention focussed on these miniscule changes without running out of music.

Kuyas

Harry Somers; for soprano voice, flute, and percussion

For some reason, the soprano started under the stage and slowly walked up as the piece progressed, and I don’t know how that affected me. The beginning was a vocal solo, and the first drum beat beat my heart into my throat. The recording of this performance just can’t pick up just how much that beat me up, and the last few “kuyas” in the voice also felt much more emotionally powerful live. I thought the musical language was distinctly native American, so it didn’t surprise me that Somers included Kuyas in his opera Louis Riel, written for the Canadian centennial in 1967.

Neon

Alexina Louie; for clarinet, cello, and piano

Almost everything I wrote down was about what happened in the music, but you can just listen to it yourself, although the concert only had movements 1 and 4. I listened expecting something about faded neon lights over grimy alleys in the downtown eastside, but the slowly converging unisons and gentle yet imposing chords are so hauntingly beautiful that it can’t just be “neon”.

What a great way to end the concert, with two of the foremost Canadian composers! After an eternity of silence (like 10 seconds), the pent-up applause repeated like five times, so it became boring and my hands hurt.

UBC Composers Concert, 2018 November 19

snow eternally falling

Robert Humber; for soprano voice, two percussionists, and two pianos

You might expect from the snow and decapitalization a serene, wistful piece, with soft strikes of the xylophone like snowflakes punctuating an undulating soprano over whispering pianos, and that’s exactly what we got at the beginning. Humber used up literally every instrument in the drum kit to continue that snowflake effect as the piece progressed, so that even the page flips felt like they were in the score, especially given how soft and still the music was.

But even as the intensity picked up, the piece just kept on progressing, rising in tempo and intensity and eventually leading to a section with just the percussionists going absolutely nuts on the drums. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was taken straight from a rock concert. The piano parts sounded just as contemporary, flooding the room with random notes and chords like the percussion instrument it’s supposedly classified to be. I was a bit confused by the brief out-of-place tonal melody at the beginning, repeated at the end but never heard anywhere else, so I wonder if this was part of a larger work.

Deconstructions on Life

Michael Kirchmayer; for solo piano

I don’t know why they didn’t put Kirchmayer’s birthday in the program, because I somehow thought that he was some famous 20th century composer literally until I started this post and realized, oh, he’s just Michael. I doubly should have known, given that this was the UBC composers concert! Anyway, I didn’t understand the piece at all and chalked it up at the time to famous 20th century composers playing 5D chess while I was playing checkers.

The first movement, Ritual, was dreary, with indistinct clusters of white keys in the same texture and rhythm throughout, so it was a ritual like waking up every day and going to work, not a religious or magic ritual. Trauma was basically the same, but with a bit more movement. You might write an interesting story behind this, about how first-world traumas are tiny little changes (compared to war or famine), or conversely about how tiny little changes can cause actual trauma and pain. Both movements were tightly controlled, emotionally and musically, but for some reason Cognitive Behavioural Therapy brought out light-hearted grace notes, and Post-Mortem was some half-minute cheerful after-credits scene, all with the same clusters of white keys. Maybe that’s how therapy works? I really wish he gave program notes.

Growing Pains

Greg Andersen; for solo piano

This also sounded like some famous 20th century composer, not of contemporary classical music, but of jazzy film music. I’d listen to this on repeat, though artistically there wasn’t much to discuss, especially compared to Deconstructions on Life (which I don’t understand at all). Last year, Dr. Chatman told us he noticed how well someone used ostinato in her piano piece, and then realized that ostinato was the focus of the assignment she composed the piece for! And so it was with me: I wrote “nice and simple ostinato” in my notes, and just now realized that Andersen must have written this for his MUSC 107 piano/ostinato assignment. The piece ended just as I expected it to launch into a contrasting B section, which was a bit of a shame.

Poor Girl

Roan Shankaruk; for soprano voice and piano

“Poorly nourished, overtaxed from having to go to work at an early age, tired out, worn down, and not even twenty-eight. Poor girl!”

The text is from the Austrian novel The Post Office Girl (thanks, Google), and this piece wouldn’t feel out of place in a movie or musical adaptation, owing mostly to Shankaruk’s absolutely gorgeous melodies and harmonization. Even as I type this a month later, I can almost hear the soaring strings accompanying the melody in this hypothetical musical.

Unfortunately, the pianist was replaced at the last minute, and the replacement might have been sight-reading the entire thing, which made the piano gestures less convincing. The opening texture was very effective, with the piano twinkling in the highest register, but there were times in the middle where the purpose of the piano accompaniment was unclear, and it might have been better with a straight homophonic texture rather than inventing so many random gestures. I’d love to hear what this would sound like for full string orchestra, where for example the trills would sound much more idiomatic.

Clearance 7ft. 11in.

Jon Bogert; for solo trumpet

As you expect from the title, this piece was bizarre. I can best describe it as “a series of notes”, like in the first MUSC 100 assignments on focal pitches before we learned about tonality. Later on, the trumpeter put in a mute and continued the series of notes, but then the trumpeter put in a Harmon mute and started “wah-wah”ing for more than a minute and I heard people laughing around me and what was the point? Was it supposed to be funny? Then why was the rest of the piece so academic? Was picking up and putting down the mutes so cautiously part of some visual performance too? I was confused for the rest of the piece and even more confused when the piece just suddenly ended. But rather than merely not understanding something, which happens all the time in my mech courses, it’s refreshing to just be utterly flummoxed once in a while.

Misplaced Dream

Iván Salazar González; for solo flute

The first movement, Blurred Memory, was like the previous trumpet piece but for flute, and with fluttertongue instead of “wah-wah”s. I think the key premise is the main motive gets distorted throughout the piece like a blurred memory, but it didn’t impact me emotionally and I barely remember it. The second movement, Ritmico, was completely different and all over the place, with heavy syncopation, large leaps (like octaves), and tempo changes, so it was much more exciting but I also don’t remember it. Basically I have no opinions.

Redemption, Zest, Frost, Twilight

Isaac Zee, for soprano voice and string quartet

The original piece was Zee’s Avdiutt, but the original soprano couldn’t make it, so Roan Shankaruk stepped in to sing his other work, which means that she was the only singer in the entire concert, singing for almost half the pieces! Poor girl. She literally squeaked alongside the violin (played by Zee himself) for almost the whole piece, creating an absolutely fascinating texture with their synchronized slides and glissandos and harmonics wailing like sirens. There’s no way they could have sight-read this.

Unfortunately my notes suddenly cut off and I don’t remember the rest, so basically I have no opinions. This is why I’m going to start writing these posts immediately after the concerts next time…

UBC Contemporary Players Concert

Undercurrents

Jordan Nobles; for two flutes, bass clarinet, violin, viola, and vibraphone

I don’t have many opinions or many words or much time left, so the rest of these will be short. This concert didn’t have any weird transitions.

I thought the opening, with each performer walking onto the stage individually, was pointless and distracting, especially the sound of high heels. There was an overwhelming feeling of something missing, which might have been the lower registers, which were only filled by the bass clarinet and the viola for a brief passage. For something titled Undercurrents, the undercurrents were noticeably not emphasized. The cadences, in parallel octaves, felt hollow and ethereal, like the music was just floating in the air with no clear direction or purpose. The timbral mix and interplay between different colours were silky smooth, and clearly Nobles has mastered the art of orchestration, but I ended up feeling hollow by the end too, so I didn’t really like it.

Wildcat

Stephen Chatman; for solo flute

This was an interesting virtuosic piece jam-packed with fluttertongue by a UBC composition professor himself, and the nice contrast between the rhythmic and chaotic outer sections with the peaceful bends in the inner section gave it solid structure. The flautist was incredibly skilled, tounging each articulation with elegance and precision. But it’s hard to make a flute sound like a wildcat and I got bored right at the large descending and ascending scales. But then the piece ended, so I guess I wasn’t bored after all.

Prelude no. 2

Peter Krejcar; for solo piano

Krejcar is a pianist in the Contemporary Players, so his composition here was the only one by a current student. It was basically a Chopin prelude with a random tremolo stuck near middle C that incessantly trembled for the entirety of the piece. I didn’t have any opinion about the tremolo: it was kinda just there, neither adding anything substantial nor detracting anything from the piece. I think having the tremolo made it harder to coordinate more interesting rhythms, so the rhythm was basically plain quarter notes throughout. I would have loved to hear a contrasting section in the middle to shine the tremolo in a different light, but that never happened, and instead it just suddenly ended with no preparation or climax. It was OK, I guess.

Étude no. 8, “Fém”, from Études pour piano, Book 2

György Ligeti; for solo piano

I love this piece, just listen to it and you immediately know it’s Ligeti. Krejcar played skillfully, although the page turner missed a turn.

Trio Suite

Keith Bissell; for trumpet, horn, and trombone

I have no real opinions here. Dr. Chatman randomly said “orchestration” out loud right before the piece started, maybe because it’s hard to make three brass instruments sound good alone, without any string or woodwind accompaniment.

Immutable Dreams

Kati Agócs; for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and piano

I’m really out of words, but thankfully I have no opinions either. I can’t believe I’m procrastinating on writing blogs.