Friday, May 15, 2009

Chanticleer / Composers | Our Age

I'm finally getting around to writing about this Chanticleer concert March 20, 2009 at the San Francisco Conservatory. I have been quite busy composing Halloween in the Castro and other projects, so I'm going to rely on notes sketched in my program.

This concert featured new work from young emerging composers. All chose mature, literary selections of text for their work.

Tarik O'Regan didn't attend the concert. My notes on his "No Matter" indicate it made use of pyramids, which I think is interesting for vocal music. My notes also indicate "sustained high male falsetto will lead to much throat clearing." Chanticleer are a truly virtuoso group, and if you can force too much throat clearing from them, the problem is with you, pal, not the singers. Don't get carried away with groups who can "do anything." It's not an abusive proving ground for poor ideas. Now that my harsh critique is out of the way, my notes also say there was a moment of Ligeti Bagatelle like artifical overtones. That sounds very cool. Ligeti did that with woodwinds. I didn't expect to hear it in voices. The effect is when two high pitched tones rub or beat against each other, a third artifical overtone can be created, with the right combination. Way cool.

Shawn Crouch spoke a bit about his "The Garden of Paradise." This commission was made possible by a Chorus America Award through the Dale Warland Singers Fund; Dale was in the audience himself. Thanks Dale. Shawn said the text, a mash up of poems by Brian Turner and 13th century Persian Rumi, was inspired by his brother Kyle, who served as a Marine in Iraq, and the dilemma of "how to go before God knowing you've killed on the battlefield." There was a memorable chirping bit on the words "I am the bird from the Garden of Paradise." Of course, many composers have imitated bird sounds in their choral pieces. My notes on the program also indicate an "active refrain" on the words "It should make you shake and sweat."

Mason Bates, pictured above at the concert, discussed his piece "Sirens" and his interest in "electronica." I use quotes around "electronica" because I have my suspicions the word may grow dated, and may in fact trivialize the type of music it so succinctly describes. Moreover, "electronica" seems to both apply to a very narrow slice of electronic music and to be used as an overbroad brush stroke to pigeonhole a large body of music. At any rate, Mason said there were two aspects of "electronica" that he is particularly drawn to and which inform his classical work as well. First, there is a rhythmic aspect. Second, there is strong use of sonorities and textures.

Mason said that the movements of "Sirens" are "indebted to language" for their music; the movements are in Greek, German, Italian, Quechua, and English. I found the movements to be related but severable. Movement II, Die Lorelei, my notes describe as "grandiose, jazzy, tonal, chorale." Movement III featured a "twinkly Maj7." Movement IV, in Quechua, had spoken, rhythmic, whispering which reminded me of Mylène Farmer's "Alice"; it also had shakers and a catchy little rock refrain which I notated above. Movement V, my notes call "stunning. real music." Movement VI, my notes indicate "ends Sailor Moon." That is, if I heard it correctly. That's a mM7 chord used to end a piece, this is also used a lot in James Bond soundtracks. Mason's piece went really well, and shows he can write very strong choral as well as instrumental music.

I conclude this post by stating the obvious, how wonderful it is that a group as talented and respected as Chanticleer would have the enthusiasm, courage, and vision to program new works by emerging composers. I expect them to continue to do so. I hope they will program lots of new music into regular concerts as well. That's the best way for new work to penetrate public consciousness.

Los Angeles: Pastrami, Tacos, and Chili Dogs

Would you eat a pastrami sandwich from a place that also serves tacos and chili dogs and burritos?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Lost World with Dengue Fever at SF International Film Festival

I am a big advocate of live music to film. I've curated and performed such shows myself. I think it's a great way to experience the art of music and theatre and film and performance all together in an exciting vibrant spectacle.

It's great that film festivals more and more are programming these kinds of events. At San Francisco International Film Festival this year, Dengue Fever performed a live sountrack to the silent stop-motion classic The Lost World (1925).

I'll acknowledge that I'd not heard of Dengue Fever, which people uniformly pronounced "Dengay Fever." The conductor-less group struck me as first and foremost a band. Which is to say, they are quite interesting and cross-cultural and great musicians, but they appear to traffic primarily in a pop idiom and are mostly comfortable working in song structures.

Apparently they are quite popular, and given their strengths, The Lost World was an excellent choice for them as a vehicle for performing a live, original score.

The Lost World features extensive stop-motion dinosaur action by animator Willis O'Brien, who later did King Kong. Especially remarkable were scenes including the heaving breaths of a fallen dino and closeups of snarling dinos. On the big screen at the Castro, with the live music, this was better than Jurassic Park. Dengue Fever's music, with contemporary beats, live trumpet and trombone, and effective keyboards, gave the film a great energy, and made it feel quite contemporary.

Today at a screening of Kimjongilia at the Kabuki, I was engaged in conversation with some other festival filmgoers who had also attended the Lost World program. Although the Lost World audience was terrifically enthusiastic (despite the guy next to me texting during the movie... what is it with some people?), not everyone, it turns out, was convinced.

While I was a little surprised these festivalgoers could be critical, I was able to pin-point what was at issue for them, having some expertise in these matters.

While Dengue Fever did play throughout the entire film, the music was structured primarily as a string of songs, not as actual underscore. So the main difference between their performance and the music you might ordinarily expect to accompany a motion picture was a difference of form. In cinema, the moving image typically creates or dictates the form of the music, which will fluidly accompany, support, and react to the film. Dengue Fever, as a band, is clearly more at home with song form. This was particularly in evidence when the band would stop at some points, and the audience would applaud, as it were the end of a song. Clearly for many in the audience, this was a Dengue Fever concert with film, which is okay too. I was told that some people in the audience had come wearing Dengue Fever t-shirts; if this is a popular band that brings in a new audience to experience live music with film, great. I can certainly forgive them their issues with form, which all musicians go through.

Another interesting facet of The Lost World relates to race in film. While the film is ostensibly set in London and the Amazon, there is included in the cast an obligatory blackface comic character who speaks (in intertitles) in the requisite jargon. He's paired with a cockney-accented British fellow, and they are both, as you might expect, servants or helpers or whatever you want to call it.

The film has been restored, but still appears washed out, with low contrast, and the color is inconsistent. It was suggested to me this was intentional tinting in the original, but I don't know about that. It was also suggested to me that this restoration was done on a very low budget and privately finanaced; this page seems to support that idea.