It was a stroke of luck to have happened on Contemporaneous when the ensemble was still at Bard and barely six months old. That was in 2010, and it’s an ongoing cause for celebration that this treasurable rara avis, a chamber orchestra dedicated solely to new music, has not only survived, but is thriving today. Over that time, as Contemporaneous continues to amass significant musical accomplishments, we, as listeners, reap the benefit in an ongoing series of musical gifts. The April 15, 2017, concert at Murray’s in Tivoli was but the latest in a long, glittering string.
Composers and musicians, like artists, poets, and writers, expand our horizons as nothing else can do. They imagine that which had not been dreamt of until they dared, not only to dream, but also, through perseverance, talent, and dedication, to will those dreams into being. That, in fact, is the clarion call of Contemporaneous to composers:
It is our mission to help you bring about the most meaningful dreams that you do not think possible to realize . . . . Please be willing to be daring in your imagination for the future — we promise to respond with the seriousness your ideas deserve, no matter how crazy or impossible they sound. [Concert program notes]
True to its promise, Contemporaneous’s program, “Transcendental Geometry,” presented four vital new works, three co-commissioned by Contemporaneous, the overarching theme of which was to challenge conventional boundaries of sound:
Most of the music we hear in the United States is created in “equal temperament,” the system of tuning used by the modern piano. But much of the music of the broader world throughout history uses entirely different pitches. Transcendental Geometry presents a program of four new works by composers who are committed to contributing to the collective imagination of what tuning can be. [Concert program notes]
Katherine Balch’s New Geometry
Katherine Balch’s intriguing New Geometry (2015, rev. 2017), for octet, opened the program. As Balch explained in her program notes:
New Geometry takes its title from a scene in Tom Stoppard’s play, Arcadia. In this scene, young Thomasina Coverly discovers a recursive function that allows her graph the intimate design of an apple leaf, which she calls a “New Geometry of Irregular Forms.” Thomasina’s math allows her to zoom into the miniscule veins and fine details of a shape that appears very simple to the naked eye. In my piece, I play with the opposite process: zooming out from and amplifying compact gestures through the harmonic trajectory of the piece, which passes from microtonal to chromatic to diatonic landscapes. The harmonic broadening loosely guides simultaneous trajectories of registral expansion and rhythmic diminution. But most critically, this exploration is not so bound to a process as mundane as Thomasina’s recursive math. As Valentine Coverly later remarks in reference to Thomasina’s graph, “real data is messy”, and ultimately, in the search for mathematical truth “it’s all very, very noisy out there, very hard to spot the tune…the unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.”
Shawn Jaeger’s Wilderness of Woe
Next up was an excerpt from Shawn Jaeger’s Wilderness of Woe (2017), for large ensemble. In the work, Jaeger, with intelligence and wit, subverts our expectations, opening our ears to the sounds within sounds. Here’s Jaeger’s description of what he’s up to in this piece:
Wilderness of Woe, like an earlier piece of mine, The Carolina Lady, for baritone saxophone, takes the form of free transcriptions of transformed audio—in this case, live recordings from the 1950s and 60s of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Through extreme time-stretching and sample “smearing,” brief gestures, such as scratchy fiddle attacks, vocal yips, etc., become vast expanses of sound—utterly transformed, yet entirely themselves. What you hear tonight is an excerpt from this work-in-progress, which will ultimately become a large-scale, multi-movement homage to the Father of Bluegrass from Rosine, Kentucky. [Concert program notes]
Video from a performance of an excerpt at Roulette is in the listening list below. A score for the work-in-progress is here.
Kyle Gann’s Cap Rock Wind
After intermission, Kyle Gann weighed in with Cap Rock Wind (2016), for mezzo-soprano and chamber orchestra. Gann’s resonant evocation of text by Woody Guthrie is captivating and assured. Here’s an excerpt from Gann’s program notes:
The ensemble Contemporaneous had just asked me to write them a piece. I wanted to take advantage of their expert conductor, David Bloom, to employ the kind of intricate ensemble polyrhythms that I rarely get to indulge in with a chamber orchestra; I wanted to also benefit from their dynamic mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae. I pored through various texts, none of which inspired me until I found House of Earth . . . .
The piece is about wind, and, in the first half, is a depiction of high winds and associated weather, climaxing in a cathartic rainstorm. . . . The first 3/5 of the text describes the weather in the Texas panhandle; the remainder charts the thoughts of the woman in the novel as her baby is coming into the world.
I realized, after the premiere, that this is a very special piece in my output. . . . this is the most totalist piece I’ve ever written, the music I’d been wanting to write for thirty years at least. I’m very grateful to Contemporaneous for commissioning it and especially to conductor David Bloom for being musical enough to know exactly how to do it.
Kristofer Svensson’s Si beatitudo aeterna non est malo in somniis versari
As often happens with Contemporaneous, Kristofer Svensson was a composer entirely new to me, and what a gift that he’d come from his home in Sweden to introduce the work. His delicately lovely Si beatitudo aeterna non est malo in somniis versari (2017) for soprano and eighteen musicians made for an exquisite close to a brilliant program.
The work is one of a series of “Erasure pieces,” in which “Latin source texts are manipulated in order to generate new original texts.” In this case,
The piece takes as it starting point the seven eclogues of the roman poet Calpurnius Siculus, from which single words and incomplete sentences were extracted in order to create the text. As a pastoral, the piece is about being transported to a more beautiful, lush, landscape, where one does not really labor. . . . The title . . . is not found in the text of Capurnius but is the composer’s own commentary to the piece, as well as the pastoral tradition at large: if there is no eternal bliss, I rather live in dreams. [Concert program notes]
You can hear an excerpt from this and two other “Erasure” pieces here.
Kyle Gann’s praise of Contemporaneous, David Bloom, and Lucy Dhegrae doesn’t come lightly. Gann is not only a fine composer, but also a scholar of American classical music with several books to his credit, and in addition was the new music critic for the Village Voice for many years. He knows the work of Contemporaneous, Bloom, and Dhegrae up close and personal, as he taught many of the ensemble’s members when they were students at Bard.
I don’t have Gann’s credentials (to say the least), but I’m happy to pile on and state, unequivocally, that he’s absolutely right in everything he says about Contemporaneous, Bloom, and Dhegrae. Dhegrae was in particularly gorgeous voice. She is, indeed, as David Bloom stated, the muse of Contemporaneous, inspiring several of Contemporaneous’s composers to write music specifically for her.
May that continue, and may the celebration of imagination by these audacious, talented, heaven-sent composers and musicians continue, on and on and on. Thanks to each and every one of you for your sublime dedication to expanding our horizons and enriching our world. Now, more than ever, we need our dreams.
Shawn Jaeger, Wilderness of Woe (excerpt)
Kristofer Svensson, I denna ljuva sommartid (for sextet [a.fl, cl, a.trbn,pno,vln,cb])