Thursday, February 28, 2013

Let's get weird.


So first of all, I'm extremely sorry for not posting more frequently. I'd been out auditioning for several conservatories for almost ten days, and when I came home, I had lost nearly five pounds. Extreme? I know. Before that, all my time was whirled away in rigorous practicing and preparation.

Anyways, the important thing is that I'm here now, and I'm going to share one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had in my life.

Yesterday, one of my friends, a piano student at UNLV, announced to everyone that he was going to perform works based on math - namely Pascal's triangle, the multiplication table, and Mersenne numbers. Since I'm very interested in such compositions constructed on mathematical ideas and theorems, I decided to go to the concert, and bring my former piano teacher, Roger Bushell, with me (who also used to teach my friend).

For the sake of clarity in my explanation, here's the program:

Tango (1984) - performed and composed by Tom Johnson, piano (b. 1939)

Lecture with Repetition (1975) - spoken and written by Tom Johnson

Music for Eighty-eight (1988) - composed by Tom Johnson, performed by my friend.
i. Mersenne Numbers
ii. Pascal's Triangle
iii. Multiplication Tables

Twenty for solo flute (1988) - composed by Greg Burr

Music for Burying Things (2012) - composed by Bryan Kostors
For bass clarinet, piano, electric guitar, percussion and double bass

Clarinet Trio (12, 3, 2) - composed by Tom Johnson

Unfortunately - scratch that - fortunately (I'll explain in a bit), we were about five minutes late to the concert due to traffic on the way, and missed the Tango, but were just in time to hear the "avant-garde" Lecture. During this, Mr. Johnson read out lines over and over, hoping to display the musical qualities in speech.

It was a very bold venture, and at first I was deeply intrigued. He began to read, "There is music to be heard when we speak, there is music to be heard when we speak, there is music...". I was actively trying to discern the musical message. The air was calm, and soon his words lapsed into some sort of mantra - not music, though. 

But then things started to go south. The audience, mostly comprised of UNLV music majors, was getting impatient. They started a mantra of their own to mock the 74-year-old composer, shouting out the word 'more' fervently after each strain of repetition, and 'enough' when the sentence had been repeated to satisfaction.

It went something like this: 

"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition." Mr. Johnson started. 
"More." said a man in the audience. 
"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition."
"Sometimes, the content of this lecture is lost in the repetition!"
"ENOUGH!" said another man in the audience. 

This continued for quite a while. I understood his intent, as I've always known that words were, in fact, notes, and many a time have tried to employ my perfect pitch to analyze the keys that people were speaking in. However, his little experiment, in my opinion, fell flat on its face - maybe due to the inunciations of his speech, the quality of his voice, or the frequent and uncalled-for pauses he kept taking that hammered the final nail in this bizarre coffin. I was able to recognize the notes he spoke, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not make out the 'music' in his repetitions. And as all musicians know, there is a stark difference between plain notes and music. 

Then things started to get strange as hell. Mr. Johnson started saying the sentence, "I'm aware of the rhythm of the repetition" in a slow and steady crescendo, all with the insensitive audience reciprocating with "mores" and "enoughs" in a similar fashion. After a certain number of repetitions, he began to shriek! It went somewhat like this:

"I think this repetition turns to music."
I think this repetition turns to music!"

What happened next was not the slightest bit short of surreal. There was an old composer on stage screaming like a madman, a snarky audience yelling "MORE!" and "ENOUGH!" at the top of their lungs, and Mr. Bushell's face had contorted to a priceless image of total bemusement. He then turned to me furiously and hissed, "You're the one who got me into this!" 

And there I was, not knowing what I got myself into. A little voice in my head replayed the chant of that guy from the show Workaholics, "Let's get weird! LET'S GET WEIRD!!". I could hardly contain my laughter, as couldn't the audience, and folded a program over my lips to conceal my derisive expressions. 

Finally, it was over, and none but smirks lingered in the air. 

The next piece was what I had been anticipating in the concert - also by the same composer - Music for Eighty-eight. My friend gave a brief introduction for the pieces he was going to play, and the motive behind them. 

The pieces did mathematically make sense, I've got to admit. Mersenne Numbers was harmonically the most interesting. Multiplication Tables did lack variety, but was a nice play on the hemiola - an illusion of two different time signatures, without a polyrhythm. There was a constant base: Eb Bb Bb, seemingly in triplets, and the right hand consistently played a descending chromatic scale, each in different groups - 4, 5, 6 up to 11 - while being synchronized with the left hand, and each sequence ended with the same note (Eb). Therefore each group was 3 x 3, 3 x 4, 3 x 5, etc., hence the multiplication. 

Sorry for going all music nerd on everyone, I really can't help it sometimes. If you really want to find out about the jargon in the past few sentences (or get mindfucked, if you're not a musician), type 'hemiola' into Wikipedia. 

After the eleventh strain of repetition of the hemiola, my friend paused, and suddenly said, "And so forth. You get the idea." in a fervent tone, completely betraying his understandable frustration and loss of patience. The audience warily clapped. 

If my memory serves me right, one of the three parts of Multiplication Tables is based on square numbers (y = x^2)). It started with the 81st key of the piano, then the 64th, 49th, and so on. This whole piece, though musically tedious and insipid, conveyed a very good sense of math translated into music. 

I don't remember much of Pascal's Triangle. It was similar to Multiplication Tables, but generated even more ennui.

At this point, I must impart a brief discourse on my views on math in music. I believe that math exists in all music, and that nothing is a pure accident. Even when music may seem to be composed on the premises of what 'sounds good', the result is always based on fundamental mathematical rules which govern us all. That being said, when music is actually based on math by the composer's intent, like Ligeti's etudes and his obsession with fractals and other aspects of calculus, the composer has an added responsibility to make the music compelling for an audience. After all, it is music, not a boring treatise, and therefore should be as exciting and edgy as music is in its raw form without predetermining. 

But not everyone can compose like Ligeti. 

The flute piece was okay. Quite unremarkable. Onward...

Music for Burying Things conveyed just the mood of its title. I was finally entranced. All the instruments came together perfectly. The depth of the bass clarinet and the finesse of the percussion - along with the beautiful G minor progressions made it wonderfully enrapturing. It sort of reminded me of the soundtrack to the indie black comedy The Last Word. The piece was darkly quirky, and quite disturbing, in a good way. Personally, I like being disturbed and disturbing people with music. I view it as my duty as a performer. 

What amazed me was it was composed this year, and this fact somewhat restored my faith in humanity. I've always believed that even though performance quality has gone up in recent years, composition quality has gone down. Kudos, Bryan - your piece changed my least for now. how do I begin about the last piece? I'll do my best to illustrate the sheer force of bizarro at the end of this freak show of a concert.

So Mr. Johnson walked up on stage with three clarinetists (also students at UNLV). He announced his motives behind his trio - the mathematical rhythms behind the pieces, yada yada - and that the USA premier of this work was last week in LA, and the UK premier was in two weeks in Leipzig (or was it Paris?).

He quickly added that the piece is twenty minutes long before hastening off to his seat. Seeing what came next, I think he thought it appropriate to warn the audience.

The clarinetists closed their eyes and gathered their thoughts, seemingly preparing for the arduous ordeal up ahead for them, and began to play. The piece was structured like this: the first strain was four intervals in tritones. I remember them as C-F#, D-Ab, B-F, C-F#. Then, based on the same notes, the rhythms got a little more complex - if 'complex' means the letter Z to a child who has only learned the alphabets up to D, that is. After each strain, there was a short pause of about 10-15 seconds. I think this is by far the most tedious work I've ever heard in my life. The rhythms were not interesting and the intervals were dissonant and harrowing to the ear. Mr. Bushell remarked under his breath, "This composer wouldn't make ten cents with this so-called music, and neither would the performers if this is what they perform all the time!"

I couldn't agree more. I found myself inadvertently looking at my iPad under my program to see the time. The piece started at 8:35, and was due to finish at 8:55. The poor clarinetists seemed to turn page after page of empty notes masquerading as music. Finally, after twenty-five minutes (NOT twenty minutes! LIAR! LIAR! PANTS ON FIRE!!!) , they withdrew their clarinets from their lips.

The applause that ensued was not of elation or approval, but rather of pure relief. 

This whole crazy experience reminded me of the funny and meaningful movie Untitled. What qualifies as art? There does need to be thought put into it, and certainly a great deal of acumen to execute what is in thought. Not everyone can be an artist. There are concrete reasons why some of us are geniuses. No one should abuse the meaning of the word, and pass lack of talent as avant-garde material.

Phew! That was a lot to write about. Gotta go back to practicing now. More later.