As If – November 17, 2013

As If

Aventa Ensemble
Bill Linwood, conductor
Phillip T Young Recital Hall
November 17, 2013

By Deryk Barker – Music in Victoria
What comes after post-modernism? What, come to that, is post-modernism?

According the Stanford University’s online dictionary of philosophy, post-modernism “can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning”.

Indeed. (And academics wonder why the general populace regards them as divorced from the real world.)

Things get no better when we look at postmodernism’s successor which is, I’m reliably informed by my wife, neopostmodernism. And according to “NeoPostmodernism is one of the responses to postmodernism, or more precisely, a response to the responses of postmodernism. It is also a method to think more deeply about our identity as we we answer the question; Who am I? The methodology for this process is to objectify the subjective variables of the decision making process (DMP).”

And what, you are asking (assuming you are still reading, that is) has all this verbiage to do with Aventa?

Back in the 1960s and 70s we had – or thought we had – a pretty clear picture of where music was and where it was heading, even if some people believed that it was rapidly heading off a cliff. There were the avant-gardistes, whose primary modus operandi, according to many, was a desire to write music which an increasingly small number of people would actually be prepared to listen to, would even be prepared to call music.

There were also the traditionalists, who had never really given up on tonality or melody. (The emerging minimalists fell somewhere between the two camps: LaMonte Young may have written pieces lasting for several hours, but they were tonal.)

But over the next few decades things fell apart, the centre did not hold. Music – both “serious” and “popular” – fragmented into a bewildering variety of styles, sub-styles and sub-sub-styles. Tonality made a comeback or, if you prefer, finally got the upper hand over the upstart atonality.

There is almost certainly a PhD thesis or two to be had from analysing the relationship of these developments to political and – especially – economic changes during the same period.

However, back to Aventa: the above musings were prompted by the fact that this was surely the most tonal concert Aventa have given, the closest they are ever likely to come to “easy listening”.

No doubt there is, somewhere, a precedent for the sort of collaboration between composers which resulted in This next space by John Burke and John Celona, but, if there is, I am unable to bring it to mind at present. (And, no, the “FAE” Sonata is a completely different kettle of fish.)

Described as a chamber work for fifteen musicians, This next space is a highly attractive piece (as, indeed, has everything I’ve heard by Celona; I’d not previously encountered Burke); its opening gesture, of rippling waves within waves, anchored by the low winds, was slightly reminiscent of Steve Raich’s masterwork, Music for 18 Musicians, but I would put it no stronger than that: in no way did this seem to be a derivative piece.

There was a process behind the music’s development, the frankly gorgeous sounds of the opening section were followed by a section of snarling, threatening discords; there then followed what one might describe as a recapitulation, in which the two moods were combined (think sonata form sans development) before the discords gradually subsided and the music faded to silence.

Whatever the precise nature of the process at work in the composition – and an understanding of it was surely not necessary in order to enjoy the music – it always moved along before event hinting at tedium.

James Rolfe’s As If was an altogether sparser work which, although it may not have been, certainly felt as if its thematic material was all derived from the opening brass figure, nobly played (serially) by Louis Ranger, Darnell Linwood and Andrew Poirier.

This was the kind of music which one felt was saying something just beneath the level of one’s comprehension (mind you, how many in the first audience fully understood Beethoven’s “Eroica”? not that I am making a direct comparison).

Rolfe certainly has a fine ear for texture and colour – I particularly enjoyed the section featuring bell (which sounded like an old-fashioned bicycle bell), piano and strings. There was even music which was reminiscent of some of the spikier jazz of the 1950s.

This was one of those pieces which leaves the listener not just needing a second hearing, but actually desiring one.

Lacking any prior knowledge of its origins, it would be natural to assume that Gerald Barry’s Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions was a form of homage to the sainted Morton. In fact it is a reference to the collections of popular music for home consumption published by a London music store of that name in the early twentieth century, first encountered by Barry as a young boy.

The work consists of eight short movements of considerable variety, infused with humour and wit, and marvellously orchestrated.

In a work brimming with highlights, it would be folly to try and mention them all. But I was particularly taken with the delicious string and wind textures of the opening movement and its long crescendo; with the frantic (unaccompanied) pianism of the second movement, magnificently played by Tzenka Dianova while wearing gloves; the wonderful combination of bass clarinet and doublebass in the third; the striding confidence and slightly Handelian melody of the fourth.

All in all Feldman’s Sixpenny Editions struck me as an ideal Divertimento for the Twenty-First Century.

It is almost (but perhaps not quite) superfluous to note that all this music was played and directed superbly.