"Improvisation for Horn and Amplified Cardboard Tube" from the album Volume One
It's been said that theaters are to the arts what canaries are to the coal mine. If they aren't doing well, the arts scene in general isn't doing well. Time to get out.
I've often thought theaters aren't alone in this formulation. In a way, they aren't even the most vulnerable of the arts. Poets, dancers, and classical composers, especially composers of new classical music, are more likely to be a barometer of a community's robustness than theatrical ventures.
There will always be an acceptable role for Nunsense or Greater Tuna, but not necessarily for Milton Babbitt. So I was heartened to discover on relocating last October that Charleston boasts a group of musicians interested in composing new music called, no surprise, the New Music Collective.
These aren't tweedy types scoring self-serving masterpieces that will never be heard. The NMC aims to perform its work. In front of people. And those people, some of them devotees of the jam music scene with curious minds and open ears, seem to like it a lot.
Over the past three years, NMC has recorded, commissioned, written, and performed works that no one has heard before. And they might never be heard again if it weren't for an impressive compilation filled with strong compositions and stellar musicianship called Volume One.
The collection features eight works of varying moods and textures that follow, for the most part, two compositional schools of thought: minimalism and aleatoric music (meaning music that's chance-oriented or improvisational) or some kind of mixture of the two. Works are well-crafted, superbly performed (these require a high level of musical mastery), and are often emotionally engaging. They feel purposeful. Each seems to have an internal direction and logic. With the exception of one extremely improvisational piece for percussion, I've hit the playback button a number of times, notably for the trippy, hypnotic tracks called "Feedback for Flute," "Fell Back Into," and "Improvisation for Horn and Amplified Cardboard Tube" (the cardboard is more than a novelty, believe me). I love that kind of thing.
For much of "new music" history (I mean here, music that's consciously anti-traditional) composers have done what they can to piss people off.
Alex Ross in The Rest Is Noise, a new book about the 20th century vis-à-vis its music, calls this "the politics of style," in which the vanguard of one generation attempts to subvert the previous generation. The same thing, what you might call "the paradigm of punk," occurred outside classical music starting in years after Elvis and before the Beatles, in which rock history ebbed in time with rebellions against the so-called establishment.
The end result of this way of thinking is new classical music that's hard to listen to.
Take the Helicopter String Quartet by the late German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, in which each member of the ensemble performs in isolation while being flown around in helicopters (it's worth checking out on YouTube). It's perhaps an extreme example, but one that nevertheless might inspire some to say it sounds like a stroke of genius, but for others it might sound merely like a stroke.
Unfortunately, these are cultural pressures even hometown groups like the NMC must push against in the politically charged air of new music. Fortunately, Charleston's NMC doesn't seem addled by the anxiety of influence. For the most part, Volume One is not only listenable, it invites the listener to enjoy the ride. In many cases, the music is ear-pleasing and pleasurable. To borrow a title from a 2001 record by Mark-Anthony Turnage, the NMC has made music to hear.
The three works I already mentioned are emblematic of the group's interest in exploring the possibilities of computer-enhanced sounds — echoing, playback, feedback, distortion, etc. — and acoustic instruments. Mariah Dodson's "I Still Have My Mother's Hands" does the same with stretches of elastic tempo and ungrounded harmonics punctuated by sharp electronic effects. In one memorable moment, it sounds like a dentist's drill is whirling. "Flow," written for solo French horn, is pure minimalism and its power to change slowly over time, enhancing our awareness of it and the music.
One of the compilation's drawbacks might be an inability to envisage possibilities beyond the dominant styles of the 1960s. I still think I'm right in saying the NMC doesn't suffer from the anxiety of influence. But Volume One suggests the NMC is aware of the musical shadows cast by pioneers of that heady era — Steve Reich and John Cage come to mind, as well as their progeny during the 1980s in postmodern improv pastiche, like John Zorn.
This is a small quibble of sensibility, however, not of execution, technique, or musicianship. In any event, sensibility changes. These are young artists eager to create and grow. I look forward to experiencing more.
Proceeds from the sale of Volume One will benefit the programs and events of the New Music Collective. For more info, check out www.newmusiccollective.org.