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Satoh, Xenakis, Kotik: Gregory Pernhagen, tenor, Neil Netherly, baritone, Jeffrey Gavett, tenor, Thomas Buckner, baritone, Megan Schubert, soprano, Rachel Calloway, alto, Michael Steinberger, tenor, Conrad Harris, violin, The Orchestra of the S.E.M. Ensemble, Petr Kotik, conductor, Paula Cooper Gallery, New York City, 16.3.2010 (GG)


Somei Satoh: The Passion
Thomas Buckner – Christ
Gregory Pernhagen – PilatE
Neil Netherly – Voice from the crowd
Jeffrey Gavett – Judas

Iannis Xenakis:
Mikka, Mikka “S”

Petr Kotik:
There is singularly nothing


Concerts like this one defy the normal means and language of criticism, and I mean this in a positive sense. The music is either so new, like the Satoh world premiere, that the time spent with it has been insufficient to come to more than a cursory understanding of it’s goals and means, or the piece, like Kotik’s, is so unique in it’s style and effect that the normal standards of critical thinking for a work don’t apply. The one relatively familiar piece on the program, the set of solos for violin by Xenakis, was highly unusual in its techniques and purposes.


To start with the familiar, then: in a concert of music that left a powerful and lingering impression, the Xenakis performance had the most immediate grip. It’s hard to believe that these were his first works for solo violin, as they completely demolish any previous idea of how such music could be written and create an entirely new vocabulary. The instrument moves from pitch to pitch, each placed with exactitude in time, by constant glissando; every moment of sound is of a notein constant motion, unsettled, up or down, with longer or shorter stretches of time in which to cover the distance. The combination of creativity and technical challenge is incredible, and the second version adds the additional layer of double stops, some with a held pitch under a glissando, others with glissandi moving in opposite directions simultaneously. Conrad Harris gave a performance that was almost beyond description, playing with technical ease and assurance, producing a huge, buzzing, angry sound out of the violin, much less that of a string instrument and more like someone constantly turning the knob on an oscillator. The sense of physical power, intensity and excitement he expressed was palpable. It was a thrilling, breathtaking performance, a concentrated moment of some of the most astonishing, exciting playing I’ve ever heard.

Satoh’s piece is an equally concentrated portrayal of The Passion, with spare text and accompanying textures. The writing is full of horizontal and vertical space with a tone set by the emotionally stark cello solo that opens the piece. Satoh uses touches of glissando as well, but as a color that actually emphasizes the long, spare lines in the voices and instruments. The pace is deliberately glacial but doesn’t drag. There are sets of extended lines and fragmented minor cadences that he repeats to make the structure, in a similar manner to how Arvo Pärt builds his Passio, but the musical and emotional quality are different. Satoh seems to see this musical setting of The Passion as an opportunity for a kind of ritualized emotional devastation, and the work is very effective in that sense. He gradually builds musical and emotional expression by adding colors and textures; after much deliberate, almost stylized sung dialogue and narration, Pilate’s music for “What is truth?” is lovely. When the chorus calls out for Jesus’ crucifixion, the writing is close to a traditional chorale. The structure is both well-controlled and well-judged, and the singing was notably fine, especially Buckner, an unusual choice of a baritone voice, as Jesus. His tone and phrasing where gently beautiful throughout and the sense of loss felt at the end of the piece, a final plucked note, was I think due as much to his expressive qualities as to the fascinating music.

Kotik’s piece sets a considerable amount of text from Gertrude Stein’s lecture “Composition as Explanation,” and that’s a brilliant choice. Music’s power is conveyed strongly through both repetition and variation of what has come before, and that’s the technical nature of Stein’s style. In a musical setting, the meaning of her words, if they have any, runs a far second to the quality of hearing a chain of recursive and discursive words and sounds. Her text has a particular meaning to Kotik, although I would not bother to try and understand exactly what that is; he clearly hears them a certain way and builds a musical method and structure that conveys a sense of purpose and focused expression. The instruments have long, winding lines, in a minor key, that are themselves as recursive and discursive as the text, and their entrances are ordered not by placement in an overall score but through some more abstract, atemporal structure, a set of ‘traffic’ instructions perhaps. The singers have their own sections of Stein to perform, and the writing for their voices is more varied; the tenor winds around much like the instruments, and has extended sections in the falsetto, while the soprano’s music is highly intervallic, which is unique in this context, and both those parts are clearly demanding. The baritone and alto have music that is a bit quieter, more subdued, very much in the style of the instruments in that it is highly horizontal and maintains a fairly tight range of pitch material, and that perhaps partly explains the noticeably appealing singing from Netherly and Calloway. The colors in the orchestra are dark and grainy, the trumpets muted, bass clarinet replacing the standard instrument, Kotik himself playing as much alto flute as regular flute. He perched on a stool at the end of the ensemble, playing much like a snake charmer, and as the piece went on it became completely mesmerizing, so much so that after the last note sounded the mysteriously powerful and indescribable aesthetic and emotional effects lingered on in the mind in silence, and then out into the street after the applause and the goodnights, and on into the next days and nights, to perhaps exert their power in perpetuity.

George Grella


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