Monday, February 07, 2011

Keener sounds: Robert Erickson at Mills College

"WHAT IS IT FOR?", Ann asked, as we sat in her small comfortable small living room after the concert. We'd been reflecting on the concert we'd just heard, and its small audience — no more than forty or fifty people, I'd guess, scattered through the nicely restored concert hall out at Mills College.

It was a one-man concert: five pieces by Robert Erickson (1917-1997), who was my composition teacher, and who I suspect guided my career in other ways, and whom I thanked, partly, by writing his biography, Thinking Sound Music. (In fact it was Ann whose Fallen Leaf Press published the book, back in 1995.)

"I mean," she went on, "why do composers go on writing music; it's so hard." Left unsaid: "And so few seem to understand, or be interested, or even be aware."

Another few beats of silence, while I thought about my grandson Simon, another composer. Well, I thought, what is life for; it's for making more life. Same for music: we go on composing, so the next generation can compose.

A high percentage of the audience had in fact been other composers; many of us Eridkson's students, at one time or another. We're a loyal crew, partly for human reasons, partly for musical. Human: Bob was enterprising, patient, affable (though he could be crusty too), generally optimistic, practical, generous. (He refused any payment from me for my lessons, knowing I had hardly any money to spare.)

Musical: well, those reasons were evident at the concert. If there are musical "mavericks," Erickson is certainly among them. He was born in Marquette, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and grew up in a Swedish-American family in a backwoods setting; but his intellectual curiosity and his remarkably sensitive ear — encouraged by early teachers — took him ultimately to Chicago where he met Modernism. Industry, Modernism, and an innate gregariousness informed the rest of his career: teaching, broadcasting (he was an early music director at Berkeley's KPFAA), writing, above all composing.

We're so conditioned these days to think in terms of quantity. There are billions and billions of us humans on this planet, millions and millions in this state: if a concert has a small turnout, something seems wrong. But as Gertrude Stein said,
I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it. Everybody is a real one to me, everybody is like some one else too to me. No one of them that I know can want to know it and so I write for myself and strangers.
Composers compose similarly, I think, though with luck we all work for colleagues as well as ourselves and strangers.

Unfortunately the fundamentally paranoid streak in the American temperament, which promotes healthy skepticism to outright mistrust, leads audiences — and, worse, what critical establishment remains — to reject convivia not themselves embraced as exclusive and "elitist." (Think, for example, of the contempt lavished on Stein's own salon.) So we who "like," want, and listen to new music have in the last fifty years become increasingly marginalized, not by our own activity (or lack of activity) but by what you might call a culture-historical process.

(The late Milton Babbitt wrote about this a generation and more ago, in an essay commissioned by the magazine High Fidelity. He called his article "The Composer as Specialist," but the editors re-titled it, without consulting him, "Who Cares If You Listen?" The title, much more widely read than the article itself (which in this online version is dry and "difficult", like much of Babbitt's music), contributed to the marginalization of new music in the United States.)

Erickson tended to shrug off failure and rejection. He preferred to focus on the positive values of whatever resulted from his work, the performances of his music, the work of his students; he met indifference or, worse, distraction — faculty meetings, for example — with a cheerful kind of inattention. He knew, I'm sure, that it's Pythagorus, Euripides, and Epicurus who are remembered, who are "important," not the hundreds of nameless citizens who ignored them at best, hounded them at worst.

Still, it's hard not to be discouraged at the inattention of even the musical community to work of such interest and beauty as Robert Erickson's. He taught at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, and the San Francisco Conservatory: interestingly, only Mills College, among the important Bay Area music departments, seems to be curious about his work and influence. (He never taught at Mills, but one of his most celebrated students, Pauline Oliveros, oversaw the relocation of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, one of his "step-children," to Mills College in 1967.)
AND WHAT OF HIS MUSIC did we hear Saturday night at Mills College? The evening began with a clip from a San Diego television story about Erickson's activity as a soundcatcher, prowling towers, airports, and electric substations with a shotgun mike and a portable tape recorder: he was always keen to find new sounds in everyday modern life, sounds that could contribute to his composition, either directly as sonic ingredients or indirectly as suggesting areas of sonic awareness.

Then came an electronic example of that: Roddy (1966), for tape; a work of musique concrète whose original sounds were improvised (following the composer's scenarios) on a percussion instrument made by clamping various lengths of steel rod to the sounding board of a piano, then altered and edited in the Tape Music Center studio.

To my ear the "performance" of the tape — I mean its playback in the spacious Mills College Concert Hall — was more artifact than expression. Roddy, like much tape music, seems to me to be chamber music, to need intimacy between listener and sound source; the separation of the loudspeakers, their distance from the listening ear, and the awareness of a lack of listening community within the audience all made the piece more intellectually interesting than artistically expressive. But the rest of the program more than made up for this.

I had never heard the Trio (1953), for violin, viola, and piano, in a live performance before, and was charmed and fascinated by its eccentricity. The piece is tonally melodic, brusque and edgy in its architecture. The piano writing is non-pianistic, often single-lined though also often chordal, given (like the string material) to insistantly repeated notes. Erickson never showed much interest, as far as I know, in jazz for itself; but his music often reminds me of bebop. (A lyrical episode reminds me, oddly, of Dvorak.)

But this Trio also made me think of his Swedish-American heritage. Violinist and violist saw away at their instruments, alternating between careful collaboration and go-it-alone soloistics, with a determination (and a beauty and skill, in this performance) that seems utterly unselfconscious, utterly uninterested in musical conventions other than those dictated by the instruments themselves. Two quick movements, three minutes, then four; and it's over.

Next came Pacific Sirens (1969), for tape (altered environmental sounds, this time from the ocean near San Diego) and a group of sustaining instruments (in this case cello, trombone, flute, bass clarinet, trumpet, clarinet, two contrabasses, and three percussionists). Conducted (which in this case really means rehearsed and shaped) by Steed Cowart, the performance seemed utterly authentic, with all the contemplative beauty I remember from performances years ago. The instruments handed off sustained pitches effortlessly, overlapping and merging, occasionally emerging more or less soloistically (trombone; flute-and-trumpet; rolls on suspended cymbals and drums), as one's attention, at the beach, drifts from one suddenly isolated observation of sonic or visual or even tactile detail to another, always aware simultaneously of the more generally undistinguished fabric of all these cumulative events.

After an intermission, Gloria Justen returned to play Summer Music (1974), another environmentally responsive piece; its ongoing, meditative violin melody counterposed to a tape recording of processed and filtered natural sounds — a babbling brook, in fact, considerably altered but retaining its sounds-of-nature atmosphere. And the concert ended with a truly magnificent performance of The Idea of Order at Key West (1979), a setting of Wallace Stevens's poem for soprano, flute, clarinet, trumpet, viola, and cello.

Where Pacific Sirens is concrete, using natural sounds as if to anchor the music's process, the procedure Erickson uses to build a sonic artistic statement reflective of his impressions on reading about the sirens who sang to Odysseus and the moaning, singing sounds sailors still hear when rounding certain rocks on the Italian coast; The Idea of Order at Key West is more abstract. Like the unnamed "she" of the poem, the composer makes his music
…beyond the genius of the sea,
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood…
The music proceeds by repeated held tones, spinning into more quickening elements, always contrasting those two ideas but within no immediately apparent structural process: it is incantatory, improvisatory, yet clearly carefully (if intuitively) measured out. Many composers have turned to Stevens for material; few, perhaps none, have so persuasively achieved a sonic equivalent of his poised, intelligent, crystalline yet often decorative poetry.

What Stevens writes about — the nature of song as a generative, mediating influence between singer and setting — is a central issue of music itself, and certainly of the composition of music. "She" is of course Wallace Stevens, and Robert Erickson, as she measures
to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang.…
as the poet and the composer are the single artificers of theirs, in their "Blessed rage for order…
The maker's rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

Looking over these notes I realize how cunningly the program had been chosen and arranged, clearly and overwhelmingly setting Erickson in place as a composer whose music mediates musicianship and the environment. Perhaps this explains his neglect by the musical establishment, which is nothing if not urban, metropolitan even. The immediate effect of the material in the early Trio is very different indeed from that of Pacific Sirens or The Idea of Order at Key West; but on reconsideration they represent different moments in a body of work that's personal, intuitive though tremendously knowledgable, patient, aware of tonality but careless of conventions.

The perfomances were marvelous; all the musicians deserve mention. They were, first of all, Christine Abraham, the magnificent soprano in The Idea of Order at Key West. She has a very fine instrument; her elocution was spot-on; and her musicianship admirable. I can't imagine anyone singing this demanding cantata better. Then there was Gloria Justen, violin; Nils Bultmann, viola; Belle Bulwinkle, piano; Gianna Abondolo, cello; Jen Baker, trombone, Tod Brody, flute, Rachel Condry, bass clarinet; Tom Dambly, trumpet; Peter Josheff, clarinet; Adam Lowdermilk and Richard Worn, contrabasses; and Daniel Steffey, William Winant, and Anna Wray, percussion. Steed Cowart presides over this Mills Performing Group.

Fortunately, while neglected by the concert hall, Robert Erickson is fairly well represented by recordings, including all titles mentioned here except Roddy and, regrettably, the Trio. (Maybe the Mills Performing Group will rectify that omission.) Four works can be downloaded free at Community Audio, among them The Idea of Order at Key West.


Unknown said...

Thank you for this great review of a wonderful concert!


Adam Lowdermilk

Charles Shere said...

You're welcome. And, being a bassist, you remind me that I forgot to mention what a beautiful ensemble is created when there are two contrabasses, and no violins!