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Seen and Heard International Concert Review

Voigt, Birtwistle, Ligeti, Feldman: Either/Or, Tenri Cultural Institute, New York City, 1 April 2005 (BH)

Steve Voigt: Mercury Mirror (2005, world premiere)
Harrison Birtwistle: Ring a dumb carillon (1964)
György Ligeti: Three Pieces for two Pianos (1976)
Morton Feldman: Why Patterns? (1978)

Anthony Burr, clarinet
Richard Carrick, piano
Al Cerulo, percussion
Jennifer Cobb, soprano
Sandra Noreen, piano
Jane Rigler, flutes
David Shively, percussion


The world premiere of Steve Voigt’s blistering Mercury Mirror made a sensational opening for the latest concert by Either/Or, a New York group born in 2003 by Richard Carrick and David Shively, who are making a splash with superb programming etched by some the city’s best musicians. Voigt’s title comes from Cocteau’s film Orpheus, in which “a giant tub of mercury was used to create the mirror through which Orpheus passes into the underworld.” The work opens with a messily invigorating spray of beaten cymbals, but no instrument is left unscathed, whether bongos, wood blocks, bells or others – all are hammered within an inch of their lives. Standing on either side of the long line of percussion instruments, Al Cerulo and Mr. Shively all but battered them to a metallic pulp. It may not be a work for the aurally squeamish, but I found it thrilling.

Next up was an eye-opening Birtwistle piece, also new to me. The title, Ring a dumb carillon, is extracted from British poet Christopher Logue’s On a matter of prophecy, excerpted here:

One slow turn of the world. The cromlech
Whirled once nodding and the buttercups
Ring a dumb carillon of gold in his ear,
Chiming against the twist of the world
A wind-honed prophecy, wake him half
Up to see the moon’s white flotsam.

Birtwistle’s intriguing instrumentation uses bass clarinet and percussion to accompany an intensely difficult vocal line, which soprano Jennifer Cobb presented with searing accuracy. As I’ve said before, I am happy to indulge many interpretive choices, but have a narrow tolerance for fluctuation in intonation, and Ms. Cobb just nailed a part that is filled with tricky (and wide) intervals illuminating Logue’s knotty text. Anthony Burr was the superb clarinetist, from an all-but-silent opening to some of the more frenzied outbursts later, and Mr. Shively as the alert percussionist.

One of the great advantages of this venue, the white-walled, high-ceilinged Tenri Institute, is the joy of being able to observe musicians up close – in this case, close enough to notice that the score to Ligeti’s Three Pieces for Two Pianos seems to resemble pages from polygraph test results. Pianists Sandra Brown and Richard Carrick fairly blazed through these superbly introspective studies, which are typical of the composer’s trailblazing explorations of timbres and intervals. In the second (whose title invokes Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Chopin), the range of pitches is extremely limited, with a long passage using just five notes in close proximity, rapidly repeated between the two instruments, producing a buzzing snarl. Notable is the composer’s use of “ghost” notes, in which the pianist depresses a key with the left hand, while “playing” it and other notes on either side. (Ms. Brown confided afterward that it is actually a bit fatiguing on the fingertips to repeatedly “press” a key that doesn’t move.) The result of this technique is twofold: an almost inaudible tapping sound is added to the cloudy mix, as well as a faint sympathetic vibration from the inner “ghost” string, its hammer constantly touching it – supremely uncomplicated ideas producing highly complex results.

I feel lucky to have heard not one, but two performances of Morton Feldman’s Why Patterns? in the same season. Last November the New York New Music Ensemble paired it with Grisey’s wild Vortex Temporum, placing the Feldman first, but Either/Or used it to end its program, in tranquil contrast to the nonstop energy in the first half. With Jane Rigler’s soft pulsing on flute, Mr. Shively’s meticulously placed glockenspiel strokes and Mr. Carrick’s carefully modulated piano, the three conjured up Feldman’s trancelike state with a disarming delicacy.

Tenri is an excellent venue for small events, with a clear and intimate acoustic and the opportunity to sit just a few feet from the performers. My eye also wandered, pleasantly, to the current exhibition called Cursive, by artists D. Dominick Lombardi, Creighton Michael, David Rubin, Hilda Shen, and Rebecca Smith. Notes on the evening were included in a beautifully designed printed program – a narrow booklet enclosed in translucent green paper. Good design is not essential for a great musical experience, but in this case it seemed like a subtle hint that this is a hot new group to watch.

Bruce Hodges

For more information on Either/Or: http://www.richardcarrick.com/eitheror/



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)