Monday, November 22, 2004

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)

Yesterday, we went to Judi Lampert’s faculty flute recital at UNCA. Now, I’m not a huge fan of the flute; without my hearing aid, I can’t hear it in its higher ranges, and with the hearing aid, the shrillness borders on—and sometimes surpasses—an experience of acute pain. I probably wouldn’t have gone (no offense to the flautists of the world), except that my piano teacher, Deborah Belcher, was going to be playing in the trio performance of American composer George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale).

The concert was a performance of exclusively 20th-century music. Now, I don’t have a great deal of experience listening to such. LSU always had their Festival of Contemporary Music, and I attended many of the performances there when I lived in Baton Rouge. And I’ve seen a few symphony orchestras perform Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and Copland … but I've never really known enough about the music to get a good sense of it, or, I’m afraid, to develop a true appreciation for it. Add to that the fact that I know very few "classical music" listeners who seriously listen to compositions written after the 19th century (I have been guilty of that from time to time), and I haven’t exactly built an grand appreciation for the atonal styles and the weird rhythms found in much 20th-century music.

I do occasionally listen to recordings of 20th-century compositions on Sometimes I find a composer I really like, and other times, I’m left wishing that someone could explain to me why a certain piece is considered “music.” I really want to know. I just can’t figure it all out on my own.

Anyway, I’ve gotten off the subject. Back to Vox Balaenae.

Here is a description of the piece, in Crumb’s own words:

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale), composed in 1971 for the New York Camerata, is scored for flute, cello and piano (all amplified in concert performance). The work was inspired by the singing of the humpback whale, a tape recording of which I had heard two or three years previously. Each of the three performers is required to wear a black half-mask (or visor-mask). The masks, by effacing the sense of human projection, are intended to represent, symbolically, the powerful impersonal forces of nature (i.e. nature dehumanized). I have also suggested that the work be performed under deep-blue stage lighting.

The form of Voice of the Whale is a simple three-part design, consisting of a prologue, a set of variations named after the geological eras, and an epilogue.

The opening Vocalise (marked in the score: "wildly fantastic, grotesque") is a kind of cadenza for the flutist, who simultaneously plays his instrument and sings into it. This combination of instrumental and vocal sound produces an eerie, surreal timbre, not unlike the sounds of the humpback whale. The conclusion of the cadenza is announced by a parody of the opening measures of Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra.

The Sea-Theme ("solemn, with calm majesty") is presented by the cello (in harmonics), accompanied by dark, fateful chords of strummed piano strings. The following sequence of variations begins with the haunting sea-gull cries of the Archezoic ("timeless, inchoate") and, gradually increasing in intensity, reaches a strident climax in the Cenozoic ("dramatic, with a feeling of destiny"). The emergence of man in the Cenozoic era is symbolized by a partial restatement of the Zarathustra reference.

The concluding Sea-Nocturne ("serene, pure, transfigured") is an elaboration of the Sea-Theme. The piece is couched in the "luminous" tonality of B major and there are shimmering sounds of antique cymbals (played alternately by the cellist and flutist). In composing the Sea-Nocturne I wanted to suggest "a larger rhythm of nature" and a sense of suspension in time. The concluding gesture of the work is a gradually dying series of repetitions of a 10-note figure. In concert performance, the last figure is to be played "in pantomime" (to suggest a diminuendo beyond the threshold of hearing!); for recorded performances, the figure is played as a "fade-out".

The only disappointment in yesterday’s performance was the blue spotlight (or lack thereof). I think there was a blue spotlight; the piano seemed to have a tinge of blue at certain angles, but that may have just been my imagination wanting to see the blue spotlight. The stage, with its vinyl, wooden-legged chairs, looked less like an undersea world and more like … well, a university’s auditorium stage. It didn’t help that the auditorium itself wasn’t particularly dark, so that took away from the intended mystique of the performance.

That said (and I did say that it was the only disappointment, for me at least), the performance rocked. Well, perhaps “rocked” isn’t the right word. It swam. It breathed. It sang. It hummed. It captured the essence, as far as I could tell (with my admitted ignorance regarding atonal music), of the composition. In addition, the artists held my attention for the entire performance. Now, I’m a good listener and I love music concerts, but like most people (I believe), I occasionally find my mind wandering somewhere toward the end of the second movement, and then in the middle of the third movement during a concert. Didn’t happen this time. Yes, it was interesting to watch, certainly, but it was the effect of the performance that held my attention.

And if it had that effect on me, then that means they made it accessible. Now, I HATE to use the word "accessible" because it's often synonymous with "dumbed-down." But I don't mean it in that sense. Perhaps the word I am looking for is "listenable." (?) The music certainly wasn't "dumbed down" or "soft," but at the same time it was very ac ... ac ... accessible.

Now, for the performers. They wore, in accordance with the composer’s instructions, black half-masks. Deborah looked especially “so cute!” (to use my husband’s term), with her glasses worn over the mask.

Judi Lampert started with the Vocalise (the flute “kind of cadenza”), and her singing into the flute did indeed call to mind the eerie but beautiful sound of the humpback whale. It was so “odd” (to use Dan’s term again) so see a flute being played, but not to hear “flute sounds” coming out of it. It was even more fascinating to hear whale sounds coming out of it. Very intriguing.

Next, Frances Duff played the cello Sea Theme. Once again, there was the experience of an instrument not making its expected sound. She ran the bow across the strings, but instead of producing the rich tenor voice of a cello, it made high, longing noises … the sounds of sea-gulls calling. Wow. I stared at her bow with a combination of consternation and wonder--the way you’d want to stare at an especially grotesque but strangely beautiful insect.

And then there was Deborah, moving from the piano keys, to the innards of the piano, where she ran a glass rod over the strings to create an “in the depths of the ocean” effect, or lodged a paper clip or chisel in the strings to produce non-piano sounds when she struck the keys. It was amazing to watch. She kept busy, sitting and playing in her graceful style, then standing to produce some strange sound from the inside of the grand. I was so proud of her.

The final section, “Sea Nocturne (…for the end of time), was absolutely beautiful and dreamy. The medium-sized audience pretty much went wild when it was over (if a medium-sized audience can go wild). OK, so we didn’t go wild. But we clapped for a long time and the trio had to come out for a second bow. I heard several appreciative hoots.

Was it a good performance? I think so, but, since I have no previous knowledge of experience to which to compare it, I can't say for sure. I found this snippet from a panel discussion with George Crumb at Penn in 2001:

Prof. Narmour, making reference to Beethoven's distance and disinterest from pieces that he had composed earlier in his career, asked Prof. Crumb if a composition composed some thirty years ago maintained any relevance for him as the composer. Crumb's reply was that "with each different group of performers [the Vox Balanae] is reborn" and thus will always maintain a newness that is perhaps obscured by the date of composition. The downside, according to Crumb, is that the music is ever "vulnerable to less than convincing performances."

In my less-than-informed opinion, Judi Lampert, Frances Duff, and Deborah Belcher definitely gave a convincing performance. The music may be vulnerable, but these artists didn't let it down. They didn't let us, the audience, down, either.

Afterward, Deborah said that they had never played the Crumb together so well. The three artists definitely “clicked” up there. No one artist outshone the other, and they just seemed like mouthpieces for the whale- and ocean-like effects that Crumb wanted to produce in his composition.

So maybe the masks had the effect they were intended to have, too.

If anyone is interested, here are the pieces that comprised the concert. The guitar parts were played by Roger Allen Cope.

Histoire du Tango (Bordel 1900) by Astor Piazolla (1921-1992)

Soliloquy by Bertil Van Boer (b. 1924)

Pie’ce by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962)

Assobio a Ja’to (The Jet Whistle) by Heitor Villa Lobos (1881-1945)

Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale) for three masked players by George Crumb (b. 1954)

Sonatina by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968)

Also (and again, if anyone is interested), here is more information on Vox Balaenae, including the recommended placement of the instruments on the stage and some instances of how the actual music is written on the page.

When I got home last night, I practiced piano for two delicious hours.

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