As Unexplainable As Life Itself

Much has happened in 400 years. Thursday night, some of Yale’s best New Music composers played for us what we’ve been missing as New Music New Haven gave its last concert of the year at Sprague Hall.

Classical music lovers are known to run screaming at the word “new” when used in a sentence with “music.”

“New Music? they gasp. You mean the kind with no melody?”

Much of New Music’s aim is to be intentionally unmelodic, and it has been turning off Western ears since around 1900. Ever since Arnold Schoenberg departed from tonal structure-as-we-knew-it, “new” or “contemporary” music has been frightening listeners away from concert halls. Musical structures of the 1500s are still adhered to today, and musical taste is still defined by what Bach innovated in the 1600s.

Directed by Martin Bresnick, the concert ended a semester-long showcase of the work of seven Yale student composers of New Music. The evening defied categorization of the merely “new.” Some of it was neo-classical, some of it orchestral-folk, some electronic; some, like the works of Sarah Snider, could be described as indeterminately elegiac, or just plain lovely.

Compared to typical classical concert-hall performances, Yale’s New Music concerts were refreshingly informal. Thursday night’s event had Martin Bresnick (in photo) himself, frizzy-haired and leather-jacketed, on stage for a brief introduction of the show. Before each performance, the composer took the stage to introduce his or her piece, explaining its meaning, history, or inspiration.  Trevor Gureckis and Jay Wadley, creators of the multimedia work “Flatlands” (pictured at the top of this review) took a moment to explain what the audience was about to experience: “music making shapes on the [projector] screen… simple objects and simple sounds creating something complex in the end.” With that, they sat down stage left at a Power Mac to present a jarring dreamscape of stark, repeating geometric shapes. The shapes, like alarming symbols of warning, flashed on screen in time with organ-like bursts and percussive tone clusters that were created by a software program called Jitter.

Sarah Snider’s “Shiner” conjured a different type of dream, one where marimbas, harp, violin and trumpet conjured a foggy, restless seascape. (This from a composer who studied psychology before turning to music.)

Trevor Gureckis’s “Nocturnes” was a love poem for piano and voice in which Penelope sings to her long-missed husband Odysseus, who is finally home beside her yet lost to her each night as he falls asleep.

“How Graceful Some Things Are, Falling Apart” was a collaboration between Sarah Snider and a young Yale College poet named Jonathan Breit. Mezzo-soprano Sylvia Rider solemnly carried the poem, a short and mournful meditation on the slow-motion beauty of destructive or negative force, which ends in a reference to the fall of the Twin Towers.

Jie Gong’s “Listen! The Sound of the Land” was composed from Chinese folk songs and sung by the composer (the same performer chosen to perform at president Hu Jintao’s visit last week) with a male chorus behind her. The chorus included some of the evening’s composers, who provided a rhythm of tongue-clicks and male responses to the Jie’s reed-sharp interpretation of Chinese girls singing love songs to boys of their choosing.

Among the most cohesive and approachable of the pieces was Zachary Wadsworth’s “String Quartet No. 2.” Admittedly partly classical in style, Wadsworth’s quartet wove familiar elements into 20th-century-style suspensions, canceling any foot-tapping urges the audience might have succumbed to. “When writing a string quartet,” he wrote in the concert program, “a modern composer is forced to reconcile his voice with the weight of the ensemble’s tradition… in [this] quartet, I attempt to reconcile my own, modern musical voice with the huge weight of tradition.” Beautifully reconciled, but without the nod to the tonic that marks classical music, Wadsworth’s piece seemed to draw in the audience and hold it in rapturous mid-air before it landed in applause.

Lack of resolution in “modern” or “new” music may deter some, but this abandonment is what most excites its fans. The genre dispenses with previously prescribed patterns and happy endings. In this way it is as unexplainable as life itself, while actually often happening along the lines of a higher pattern—one not so evident to the layman’s ear. Western ears have been trained to understand only a small set of note-patterns in music. When a composer strays from these constructs, we call it “strange” or “new.” But understanding it intellectually is not a prerequisite for appreciating it. For the general audience, perhaps New Music is meant to be simply felt rather than understood. Concerts like last night’s give us the opportunity (free of charge) to let such music lure us out of the Classical European boundaries we were weaned on, and just follow it where it leads, wherever that may be.

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