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Living Room for the Performers

Liminal Space Contemporary Music Ensemble is a recently-formed, Houston-based new music group I’ve decided to follow. Regrettably, I missed their first concert last year, devoted to John Cage’s work. Liminal’s second performance in December at the Station Museum was a stunning event focused on Frederick Rzewski (covered  elsewhere on this blog).

The ensemble’s founders and main performers Luke Hubley and George Heathco seem to share my own musical tastes, since their third concert on Sunday at 14 Pews in Houston was devoted to yet another of my musical heroes: David Lang. When I become interested in a composer, I want to know everything he or she has written, so right off I’d like to say that I’m very attracted to Liminal’s “composer-a-night” approach. The concert featured guest performers Mark Buller (piano), Jeremy Nuncio (keyboard), Daniel Saenz (cello), and Chapman Welch (electric guitar).

Today I welcome guest blogger Sydney Boyd, a music critic and graduate student who studies intersections of opera and literature in the English PhD program at Rice University. Her reviews have appeared in  Arts and Culture Magazine Houston. While Sydney and I often run into each other at the opera, on Sunday night we sat together at a new music performance. I’d like to convey to readers (especially those outside of Houston and outside of Texas) the rich discussion we Houstonians enjoy when we’re at concerts, operas, and dance performances. We were struck by two things: Lang’s ability to leave room in his score for the performer(s), and the comfortable atmosphere of the venue, giving way to the pun in the headline for this blog. What follows are excerpts of our conversation.

George Heathco (left) and Luke Hubley (right) at 14 Pews

George Heathco (left) and Luke Hubley (right) at 14 Pews

Tedd: It strikes me that musicians come together to play music, but writers work in isolation. Of course, I’ve been in a number of writing workshops, but always it’s been a matter or presenting your work and then receiving feedback. We don’t write the same piece together the way musicians participate in an ensemble. So, I thought this column might serve as an attempt to capture a conversation, for us to write collaboratively, as it were. And we are both musicians, so we fully understand what we’re missing when we shift to writing.

Sydney: As I think about a writing collaboration without losing my identity as a writer, a concert devoted to David Lang’s music becomes more and more appropriate. While listening, I felt that Lang was still the composer, but he opened a space for the performers to also assume that title—more so than any generic passing of music from the hand of a composer to his or her performers. The music’s origins are both his and theirs. Without dynamics or accents marked in a score, for example, Lang leaves a lot to the creative imagination of his performers while still maintaining his identity as composer. It’s a unique trust, I think.

David Lang’s music seems to be working at the level of non-functional diatonic harmony. Meaning, as I understand it, that there are consonances, chords and clouds of counterpoint that could suggest a tonic but don’t necessarily obsess over it. Sometimes a leading tone, or possibly a “blue note” embedded in an otherwise traditional scale, becomes the most-played, or should I say most-often repeated, sonority. The listener feels some sense that the phrase won’t resolve. The shape and character of a particular phrase, as well, is often revealed through its repetition, with the accent shifting from one pitch to another. It seemed to me in Warmth (2006), the guitar solo played simultaneously by Heathco and Chapman Welch, that a dissonance, repeated for long enough, slowly transforms into a consonance.

I felt like Warmth pressed on an irony of playing in unison for me. It seemed like the most honest version of my Suzuki-haunted past of playing the same violin line with six others in concert. We were fooling ourselves to think we actually acted as one instrument, in unison. On Sunday it felt at first like the two guitars were struggling to find each other, but then I sank into the struggle, maybe in the same way the dissonance became a consonance for you.

Another thing I notice in Lang’s music, and part of what I thought the Liminal Space players brought about so well, is that constant use of polyrhythm. You could see it in the way the two guitarists kind of shifted weight and danced a bit as they were playing. There’s just something about a guy standing and playing a guitar that is powerful and appealing. I could find an eighth-note pulse in Warmth, but I would be hard pressed to guess at any constant meter. Rhythmically, it is very surprising music, and I think the players made this idea quite prominent at last night’s performance.

Yes! The polyrhythm really struck me as well in How to Pray (2002), when cellist Daniel Saenz was so isolated from the four other performers, rhythmically, and yet the overall product was so impressively unified. Again, the idea that the parts can also become a whole—maintaining a singular identity while also participating in a community—seems to be an integral part of Lang’s style.

Lang, like Michael Gordon and other composers of his generation, identifies and uses the impact of an electric guitar. As a child, I had a hard time reconciling the dominating power of an electric guitar with my limited experience of classical music.  In terms of spectacle and force, the electric guitar always prevailed in my mind. Of course, those two paths came together first, for me, in the massive guitar symphonies of Glenn Branca, whom I first heard in 1984. In a way, that music seemed like the logical outcome of Richard Strauss. Something appealing about Heathco and Welch’s performance was how they faced each other when they played. It created a certain intimacy between them. They didn’t play it out to the audience, the way a rock guitarist might have done. There wasn’t quite that sense of ego in their realization of the score.

The way Heathco and Welch faced each other made the formality of performance disappear to an extent. I was no longer an audience member in the traditional sense—they weren’t playing to or at me. I was in a position to just accept and enjoy the aural environment, including the woman smacking her lips behind me, the man breathing heavily across the aisle from me, and my own hand sliding across the paper I was writing on.

As Hubley played it, the marimba solo String of Pearls (2006) was both painfully delicate and wildly assertive. He’s a composer of sorts here, in that Lang allows him to choose the dynamics, accents, crescendos, etc. Those opening phrases in the high register, punctuated by such vivid “silent” pauses conveyed such a stunning and crystalline beauty. When you watch such an accomplished player holding four mallets and moving through an intricate piece like that, it gives you hope that humans are doing something remarkable in the world!

String of Pearls was the highlight of the performance for me. I became engrossed by Lang’s use of octaves, particularly, in this piece. I could see the actual distance between the notes on the marimba much better than I could on a guitar. Eight blocks of wood—I started wondering about the relationship between notes that are eight spaces apart, moving a half step on both ends: a parallel relationship slightly skewed. The music, overall, seemed to raise peaceful questions without answers, such as, “Are you getting where you want to go?”

The thing that strikes me about Houston is that a venue like 14 Pews can exist in this city, with its extremely relaxed zoning laws, and that such a place appears to be sustainable, to boot. There are many other U.S. cities that wouldn’t make room it.  I have a friend who tells me that 14 Pews is  a great place to see movies. The rustic wood interior and the relaxed comfortable seating (on, as the name says, 14 wooden pews) is extremely inviting. That new artwork is displayed on the walls, and that a small beverage bar stands to the left of the stage, makes it very homey. The attitude, “have a beer and listen to contemporary music” strikes me as very Houston.

That space was critical to this performance. Lang’s music needs a place to give and take freely, passing from composer to performer, from performer to audience, without any ego.

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