Friday, October 16, 2009

Went to Roulette on Thursday for a set of solo piano works performed by the Belgian pianist, Daan Vandewalle. The program was in large part given over to pieces by Gordon Mumma but also included works by three lesser known (to US audiences, anyway) Belgian composers and closed with a composition by Alvin Curran. The music was part of Thomas Buckner's Interpretations series that Roulette has hosted for a few years now.

The performance began with Mumma's "Jardin" (1958-1997). Listeners familiar only with his radical electronic pieces from the 60s and 70s might be quite surprised at the delicate, romantic nature of works like this one. I pick up a good deal of Satie in "Jardin" and, to a lesser extent, in the other works of his presented on this occasion. The opening section here, for instance, has a similar rocking motion, soft low chords offset by high single notes, that you hear in the Gymnopedies but also an air of contemplation one hears in the Ogives. Mumma's harmonies are different, of course, but not so many steps away. A sense of gentleness is pervasive, sometimes lilting, often pensive. There's a casual use of repetition, but it's always fleeting; taking a cue from the title, you can easily visualize a rough-hewn garden, Mumma flitting from flower to flower, weed to weed. As throughout the evening, Vandewalle was superb, evincing an imaginative sense of dynamics, always modulating the touch and volume.

Of the three Belgian composers heard here, Karel Goeyvaerts seems to be the best known and his Litany series are widely performed there. "Litany no. 1" (1979) began with a heavy, brutal staccato figure that reminded me strongly of Louis Andriessen's blocky minimalism from around the same period. That basic framework remained in place throughout even as it was added to and subtracted from. I had the mental image of a kind of latticework; as you scanned from left to right it might become almost entirely obscured by lush vegetation at one point but erode away to only a handful of vertices at another. It was quite complex and energetic, Vandewalle's hands often suspended and quivering before resuming the attack. Its somewhat brutal character grew a bit wearing over the last few minutes and when it abruptly shut down, there was a palpable sense of relief. Impressive, though.

Announcing the three short pieces by Boudewijn Buckinx, the pianist said, "They sound tonal, but they're not." Well, they did. Composed as part of a project wherein one was asked to somehow relate the music to Ives' "Three Pages Sonata" and Schoenberg's "Opus 23", they presumably did so though at a level well beyond this listener's capacity to ascertain. What registered once again--and not for the last time on this night--was Satie, here more in the nature of the Sarabandes, though, in the first piece ("Three Penny Sonata") with Middle Eastern references thrown in to boot. "Forensic Waltz" indeed had a dance hall character while "Middle Way" possessed a certain bluesiness, languid, soft and nocturnal. All three works were stunningly beautiful. Vandewalle referred to him as the most prolific composer alive. Not sure about that but his homepage shows quite a few. I'm hoping to investigate further.

The first half of the concert closed with Mumma's "Graftings" (1990-1996), a more severe set of pieces whose nature derives from "the complex timbres of resonating partials". While more rigorous in a post-serial sense and more like what one might have expected from a composer of Mumma's generation and affiliations, the music was not very arid at all, largely due once again to the marvelously subtle use of dynamics and touch; whether credit goes to Mumma or Vandewalle I'm not sure. Again, the sheer delicacy and consideration in the array of sounds made for fascinating listening.

Mumma's "Songs Without Words" began the second set, a series of nine brief compositions, portraits, of various people including Christian Wolff, David Tudor and Jon Barlow. Aside from the odd, loud trill here and there, they were pretty much of a piece: calm, very delicate, fairly tonal ruminations, seemingly set down in an intuitive fashion with no preconceived formula. There was an interesting sameness about them, as though Mumma was saying, "The differences between us are subtle, really not so large." At several points there was a gorgeous tentativeness in play, the single notes placed with such caution and care, as though the composer was attempting to limn his subject with an impossible degree of exactitude. These were the most transcendent moments of the evening.

Thomas Smetryns was a piano student of Vandewalle and, apparently, an awful one. In desperation, Vandewalle asked the 18-year old to write down some pieces so he could understand his ideas without going through the agony of hearing him trying to play them. The results astonished the teacher, Smetryns having clearly absorbed the concepts of composers from Wolff to Skempton at such a young age. (His site, in Belgian [which is to say, erm, Dutch], can be found here.) Indeed, Skempton was the composer that registered most strongly in the two works, "Brassens" and "Biermann", played this evening, along with a dash of Rzewski. The first was disarmingly "simple", with a steady, calm rhythm that was nonetheless surprising, the finely etched melody never going quite where you thought it would. Like Skempton's wayward son, maybe, very lovely. "Biermann" was darker, with a seesawing pattern of low chords and high, ringing notes but, as with almost all the music heard at this event, with a wonderful delicacy. More and more, I was assigning at least half the credit for this to the pianist.

The final piece on the program was Alvin Curran's "Inner Cities 5" and, well, I wish in some ways it hadn't been included. Part of a massive 4 1/2 hour cycle (which Vandewalle has recorded on a 6-disc set), it began impressively enough with Vandewalle very rapidly attacking the keyboard with the palms of his hands but not actually depressing the keys except, inevitably, accidentally. A wonderful effect, like a restrained Cecil Taylor. Little by little, more keys were sounded until, maybe two or three minutes in, the music abruptly shifted to a wild, maximalist stretch รก la Charlemagne Palestine, bubbling and rumbling at a furious pace. I believe the pianist is asked to to negotiate the score in as fast a tempo as possible but the result becomes more of a pyrotechnic display than anything else. The transcendence that Palestine sometimes achieved via similar means was absent. One admired the craft (and endurance!) but left with little of substance.

Apart from that, it was quite a special evening, rehearing the Mumma works in a live context (I'd heard and greatly enjoyed the 2-disc set a few months ago) and being introduced to a couple of composers, Buckinx and Smertrynsm, who I'll look into further. Anything with Vandewalle will also be the subject of increased interest in the future. I noticed he had some early Feldman pieces in his repertoire; hopefully he comes to include the later ones as well.


duif said...

Apart from Goeyvaert's name ringing a bell, I have never heard of any of these fellow countrymen. I'm losing touch, that much is obvious.
The website is in Dutch, Brian, 'Belgian' is not a language :-). I can translate some stuff if you want.

Brian Olewnick said...

d'ijh! (that's "d'oh!" in Dutch)

Richard Pinnell said...

He it amused me when I visited Brussels that three different languages seemed to be spoken, but none of them were Belgian ;)

You're not losing touch David, I haven't a clue about any of these names either, and am impressed that Brian knew enough to go along to the concert in the first place.

Anonymous said...

For once an for all: Belgium has three official languages: Dutch (the majority), French, and even German (about 100 000 people).

Joslyn said...

Thank you for the detailed review, Brian!