Thursday, November 8, 2007

Review: eighth blackbird

Nov. 7, University of Richmond

It’s not uncommon for composers to create imaginary worlds in sound, but not many go as far as Stephen Hartke in detailing the scenery and inhabitants.

In eighth blackbird’s sampling of three Hartke compositions, listeners were guided through a set of four surrealistic and/or cartoonish episodes in "The Horse with the Lavendar Eye," scenes from Asian musical theater in "Meanwhile," and artifacts of Italy long before the caesars in "Tituli."

"Meanwhile: Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays," written for eighth blackbird and given its premiere in this concert, imagines a "court orchestra of my own unspecified non-Western tradition, of which I am the master and know all the rules," as the composer puts it. The set of six pieces evokes Indonesian gamelan and comparable ensembles of strings, winds and resonant percussion played in Japan, Vietnam, Burma and Turkey.

For this piece, Hartke invented at least one instrument – a "flexatone gamelan" approximating the sound and tone-bending quality of Javanese gongs – and adapted several others, placing soft mutes on piano strings to mimick the Vietnamese hammered dulcimer, and tuning a viola a half-step flat so that it, in combination with cello and muted piano, produces a mist of low-frequency harmonics. His score employs more than two dozen percussion instruments, from wood blocks and cymbals to water gong and bongos.

"Meanwhile" may be consciously multicultural, but unlike many such undertakings it doesn’t sound self-consciously exotic. Like Debussy in the late-19th century, Hartke translates his fascination with the timbres and sound textures of Asian orchestras into a colorful, intricately nuanced idiom of his own making.

In a post-concert discussion, the ’birds said they hadn’t yet fully settled into Hartke’s imagined Orient – they’d gotten 40 percent here, 70 percent there in producing sounds and tonal combinations, they reckoned; but this first performance never sounded tentative or awkward.

"The Horse with the Lavendar Eye" (1997), scored for violin, clarinet and piano, is a set of instrumental exchanges, manic to maniacal in energy level and spirit, growing out of Hartke’s fascination with "non-sequiturs and the way that sense can suddenly appear out of nonsense." The four pieces are rooted in rhythmic figures and snatches of melody that might sound like asides in a more conventional composition.

In the opening movement, "Music of the Left," inspired by the Imperial court music of ancient China and Japan, the three musicians play with left hands only, with the pianist producing thick bass chords and the violinist plucking on the bridge. In "The Servant of Two Masters," piano frenetically aims to please violin and clarinet like a short-order cook with meal orders piling up. "Waltzing at the Abyss," suggested by a scene in a novel by the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, is deceptively sanguine; while "Cancel My Rhumba Lesson," evoking a frame from one of R. Crumb’s comic books, is a high-stepping chase scene going nowhere in particular. The listener comes out of the piece as if awakening from a night of fascinating but exhausting dreams.

"Tituli" (1999), written for the Hilliard Ensemble, is Hartke’s effort to "create a musical ruin." The piece sets seven texts in Etruscan, Old Latin and Greek found inscribed on various artifacts from archaeological digs in Italy. A violinist and two percussionists accompany five male voices. The more ancient the language, the more austere the music becomes. (Hartke is a onetime singer of early music, and it shows.)

Nicholas Photinos, eighth blackbird’s cellist, conducted violinist Matt Albert, percussionists Matthew Duvall and Kris Keeton and the vocal ensemble of countertenor Jeffrey Riehl, tenors Geoffrey Williams, Olinda Marseglia and Mike Kotrady and baritone Jim Weaver along this tightrope of tonalities and voicings.