What Is New Music? Why I Listen To It.
There is a new music season sponsored by the Vancouver Symphony starting in a few days. They are doing stuff in collaboration with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra and Early Music Vancouver. My question to which I have always answered in the same way (No!) is if new music has to be brand new, composed recently. To me new music is simply listening to something I have not heard before.
I was listening to Vancouver BC’s Pacific Baroque Orchestra rehearse, with Alexander Weimann directing a flute concerto by František Benda (1709–1786) in early October 2014. I had never heard of the composer or his Flute concerto in E minor played by the Finnish soloist Soile Stratkauskas. It was new, pristine and fresh.
Flute Concerto in E minor František Benda
It was as new, pristine, fresh, and as surprising (and exciting) as going to my first opera at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in 1964. A beautiful Viennese girl invited me to Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel.
It was as new, etc as my first listening to Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd playing Desafinado in Jazz Samba in 1962.
In fact of all the new music I have been exposed to since I can remember, it was that Jazz Samba, coming out, seemingly from nowhere, that truly wowed me to the experience of listening to something for the first time.
That lyrical Jazz Samba gave me the impetus to take my chances on a record I purchased at an import store where I could not listen to it first. It was Stan Getz’s Focus with a string orchestra and music composed and arranged by Eddie Sauter. This record, with the tune I’m Late, I’m Late first weaned me from syrupy jazz and prepared me to some day “take music like a man” as Charles Ives once said. Dissonance was now part of my vocabulary. But Arnold Schoenberg had to wait.
At the time there was a movement called Third Stream Music that attempted (successfully in my opinion) to merge jazz with contemporary classical (as in New Music) of the time. In fact it was John Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1959 album Third Stream Music that had alerted me to the wonders of dissonance and the sound of cellos being played loudly particularly in Sketch For Double String Quartet.
Learning to print b+w prints in the darkroom of Mexico City’s University of the Americas with my friend Robert we would listen to Getz, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and The Modern Jazz Quartet from his huge reel to reel tape machine. I also listened to an odd rendition of Tea For Two played by the solo piano of Thelonius Monk. To my ears he seemed to play the right wrong notes. Almost more lyrical is Dmitri Shostakovich’s arrangement of that song.
It was in 1962 that the Baroque Era blossomed into a re-existence as new music through the proliferation of recordings by the German label Archiv. It was in 1962 that I first heard music by Girolamo Frescobaldi in a Mexican baroque church concert. Being up close in a small place gave the music an immediacy I had not experienced before. Because of my mother I had listened to too much Tchaikovsky, Grieg and, Rachmaninoff although I never ever got tired of listening to her play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Toccata Terza — libro primo — Girolamo Frescobaldi Hank Knox
Now, most recently Early Music Vancouver has been featuring the music of the 17th century sometimes called music of the fantastic period. Many of the composers, up until now, in our times, may have been unknown and recordings of their music all but unavailable. That has changed. Consider that a small group called Stile Moderno is playing a concert on 14 November with music by luminaries of the 17th century Marco Uccelini, Dario Castello, Biagio Marini, Girolamo Frescobabldi, Giovanni Battista Vitali, Johanb Rosenmüller, and Antonio Bertali. How is that for new music? And there are other groups that play this fantastic stuff like Zephiro
In spite of my early exposure to the harpsichord through the music of Girolamo Frescobaldi I did not much care for the instrument, particularly as I could not sense its presence in a baroque orchestra when it played in a continuo (bass accompaniment) mode. But talking to virtuoso harpsichord man, Alexander Weimann, Artistic Director of the Pacific Baroque Orchestra I found out that lots of that continuo playing is not written down. The harpsichordist must then improvise. With this connection to jazz, my ears opened to the wonders of the instrument.
In the year 2001 while driving to a photographic job I was listening to a Beethoven Bagatelle on my CBC Radio. I had to stop the car because it was so beautiful. I had to share the experience so I called my friend Linda Lee Thomas the pianist for the VSO. Her husband John Washburn answered. I told him of my experience. His answer was one of long experience in an almost monotone and with a hint of jealousy, “Ah, that feeling of hearing something for the first time.”
Beethoven, Bagatelle №3. Op. 126 Glen Gould
If you go to any New Music concerts in Vancouver be presented by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra or concerts with the Turning Point Ensemble you will note musicians that play for other well-established orchestras. They, too, must feel a need to approach music for the first time. Or as in the case of a recent concert by Turning Point Ensemble to have the renewed pleasure of being exposed for a second time of rare music of Duke Ellington. Where else in Vancouver would you get such a chance? Or how about Stravinsky’s 1940 Tango for piano? TPE’s pianist Jane Hays’s rendition sounded as Argentine as anything by Piazzolla.
Vayamos al Diablo Astor Piazzola
Tango — Igor Stravinsky Elena Kuschnerova
Music that has been played and played can be new, too. I remember the first time (and just as fresh the last time) I heard Pablo Casal’s conducting Bach’s Second Brandenburg Concerto in my 1987 Cassette Tape. Casals directs the first movement Allegro and the third Allegro assai, my favourite concerto for trumpet part as if there were no tomorrow or the musicians were being paid per minutes played. After this bullet train performance the trumpet player must have been given oxygen. It wasn’t until I came to Vancouver that I first heard the Number 2 played live. In Mexico City no trumpet player could tackle that first movement with the oxygen depletion of Mexico City’s 2250 meter altitude.
Brandenburg №2 JS Bach Casals directs first Allegro.
I must confess that I went nuts over Bach only after listening to the Dave Brubeck Quartet play in their 1958 record Jazz Impressions of Eurasia a lovely piece called
Nor am I too embarrassed to admit that the Swingle Singers helped, too.
Usually in Vancouver, New Music concerts involve programs that draw from the fact that our city has an abundance of contemporary music composers. I have been to concerts featuring many of them. That some of these composers had theirs works performed by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra tells you that your musical institutions are not ready to rest on their laurels. Not only that the VSO has opened a smaller venue near the Orpheum that is part of its Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music. And next to it is Pyatt Hall. Both these nice intimate halls feature lots of new and experimental music.
The Pacific Baroque Orchestra has commissioned works by the likes of Bradshaw Pack, Jocelyn Morlock and Peter Hannan. In a recent past Ballet British Columbia, under John Alleyne hired Turning Point Ensemble Musical Director Owen Underhill to compose the music for Boy Wonder. Ballet BC did the same with Underhill and Michael Bushnell to adapt the music of Henry Purcell for Fairie Queen. And more recently Ballet BC and Turning Point Ensemble worked together in Grace Symmetry.
Not all the orchestras that commission new stuff are big. Novo’s young cellist Marina Hasselberg does interesting stuff too.
In 2008 I attended a concert Turning Point Ensemble concert at Ryerson United Church that was all intimate warmth even though I did not expect such a thing to happen. In my ignorance I thought that Olivier Messiaen was one of those distant French composers of the mid 20 century that I did not need to know anything about. His Quartet for the End of Time was one most pleasant surprise for me as played by these guys!
I have to admit that I find American Charles Ives a tad difficult but if you begin with the Unanswered Question and prepare for it with Aaron Copland’s El Salón México you will be well on your way to appreciating music that is old enough (well into the past century) so that the very idea of that concept “New Music” should simply be replaced by good music that will challenge and surprise your senses.
Unanswered Question — Charles Ives Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas
In closing I must point out that if your first opportunity to listen to opera is to listen to a recording, forget it. You want to see an opera performed. Then it makes sense and it will grow on you. A good sort of modern opera to go to (or listen to if you must) is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. That I saw it performed by Evelyn Hart means I kind die soon and not feel that the world passed my by.
Romeo & Juliet — Prokofiev Dance of the Knights.
I never did like Stravinsky’s Firebird. I could not understand all the big bangs and the noise. Then I saw it performed (as it should be) as a ballet by the National Ballet of Canada and all the bangs and the noise fell into place. And it did more so when in 2011 I saw a version by the Turning Point Ensemble in cooperation with Ballet BC’s Simon Orlando and composer Jocelyn Morlock.
Perhaps some of the most intimidating music, even though it is from that past century, is the music of Béla Bartók. His Six String Quartets are especially so. And yet I heard them all this year (some more than once) played by the Microcosmos String Quartet. I can certify here that I cannot yet hum any parts or differentiate one from another. But…
Listening to them in the intimacy of a living room in a nice home, with goodies and wine and being so close to the quartet that could hear them breathe contradicts the idea that this sort of music is remote and cold. Part of the fun is watching the musicians of the quartet smiling as they navigate trying parts. There is an exhilaration that is catching. The Microcosmos String Quartet headed by violinist Marc Destrubé sweetened the programs with the three Benjamin Britten Quartets. All of the music, the Britten and the Bártok were new to me, therefore it was new music!
I would like to finish this with saxophonist and composer Colin MacDonald’s Folie à Deux. It is a re-interpretation of La Folia, a sort of Louie Louie of the 16th century that was interpreted by the likes of Arcangelo Corelli in 1700 and by Francesco Geminiani later in the 18th century. MacDonald makes really old music seem fresh with his interpretation (and added composition) in which he mixes conventional instruments of a past age with a more modern and rarely used (in new music) soprano saxophone. MacDonald could be your first potato chip into enjoyment of many more to come.
I am not yet sure I can tackle Arnold Schoenberg — early 20th century music that might be my new music of tomorrow.
Originally published at blog.alexwaterhousehayward.com.