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My Ears Need Sanctuary

The world premiere of Sanctuary, a new work for amplified, computer-modified percussion ensemble by Roger Reynolds (b. 1934), took place at the National Gallery of Art on Sunday evening. It was an event, the sort of concert that gets noticed by Alex Ross: alas, the element that would have sealed its place in history, an angry riot by perturbed listeners, did not happen. The mistake that caused the failure to obtain a true succès de scandale was in allowing the audience to hear the concert for free. Only paying listeners can really get outraged enough to hate challenging music. True, a number of listeners left before the full 80 minutes of the work had played itself out, often walking right past the performers toward the doors, but the only thing lost was part of their Sunday night, not $50.

An encouragingly large and interested audience filled the East Building's auditorium to hear the composer try to explain what the piece is all about and how it came to be. He credited his granddaughter with the initial idea, when during a game involving impersonation of scary monsters, she proclaimed a room to be a sanctuary where "monsters can't come in." The idea is to transform the magnificent space of the East Building atrium with sound, initiated by the musicians striking traditional percussion instruments as well as all kinds of junk, impulses which are then processed by a computer and amplified through speakers placed around the space. There is a half-baked, quasi-mystical side to the work, in which the players pose questions to a waterphone made from parts of an old clothes dryer, called with self-belittling irony The Oracle. It has all been explained in Stephen Brookes's preview article for the Post and in the program notes (.PDF file). Hearing the performance adds surprisingly little to one's basic appreciation of what Reynolds was trying to do. The theory is more interesting than the practice.

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Jules Verne, Paris in the 20th Century (Paris au XXème siècle, trans. Richard Howard)
Did Jules Verne really predict the future in his "lost novel" Paris au XXème siècle? The book, written in 1863 but not published until 1994, presents a dystopian view of the future, specifically Paris in 1960. The protagonist, Michel Dufrénoy, confronts a world that no longer cares about art and music, unless they are in some way connected to science. In his discussions about modern music with the composer Quinsonnas, we hear about pieces inspired by science, depicting chemical reactions and so on. He even attends a concert of electronic music (my translation):
Far away he still saw something like an immense light; he heard a powerful noise that could not be compared to anything. Still, he went on; finally he arrived in the middle of a terrifying, deafening sound, in an immense room that could easily hold ten thousand people, and on the pediment could be read the words, in letters of flame: "Electric Concert." Yes, electric concert! and what instruments! Following a Hungarian procedure, two hundred pianos put in communication with one another, through the medium of electric current, were playing together guided by a single artist's hand! A piano with the strength of two hundred pianos.
This came to mind because Reynolds received a degree in engineering, a background evident in the way he notates his scores (as seen in a video shown during his presentation), with a straight edge to rule every stem, beam, and bar line, as well as his use of blueprint-like flow charts. In the first movement of Sanctuary, percussionist Steven Schick struck a range of objects with sensor-bearing coins taped to his fingers. Wires running through his clothes connected the sensors to the computerized sound system. In the second and third movements, the four percussionists of red fish blue fish, the resident percussion ensemble of the University of California at San Diego, traded places at four percussion stations (and eventually at peripheral stations, too). Basically, guys hit stuff with sticks, and the computer echoed and reconfigured the sounds they made.

Image courtesy of the Sanctuary Project, University of California at San Diego

Other Articles:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Steven Schick and red fish blue fish (Washington Post, November 20)

Stephen Brookes, Beating a Path Forward In New Music's Realm (Washington Post, November 18)

Andrew Lindemann Malone, Q&A: Contemporary Music Forum's Steve Antosca (Express, November 15)
To be sure, the performers of red fish blue fish are skilled musicians, and they gave an intense reading of this overlong, inscrutable work. The predominant sonic quality of the piece is quite literally "rhythm atomized," as John Adams described this compositional trend in modern music. With all the focus on tremolos and fluid pace, a regular pulse never appeared (which is where most of the fun of an all-percussion piece comes from, as in Music for Pieces of Wood), and a glance at Reynolds's score, left on the stand afterward and littered with irregular and ever-changing time signatures, confirmed that perception. Are we really to think this kind of music has a future? Reynolds, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, is clearly a major voice, but this work goes in the same category as the last time we reviewed a Reynolds piece. Of interest, but more on paper than in sound.

The next two concerts on the free Sunday series at the National Gallery, both recommended, will feature the ArcoVoce Ensemble in music of Leonarda, Pergolesi, A. Scarlatti, and D. Scarlatti (November 25, 6:30 pm) and a performance of John Musto's new opera, Later the Same Evening (December 2, 6:30 pm).

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