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Noise levels
Electronic music at Boston’s Cyberarts Festival; the BSO’s season closer

BY LLOYD SCHWARTZ

Boston’s second annual Cyberarts Festival took over the city and its environs the first week of May. There was the Worcester Art Museum’s continuous projection of a film (Wall at WAM) made by sculptor Denise Marika of herself, nude, slapping up a clay wall (with a soundtrack of heavy grunting). There was a performance at Symphony Hall of George Antheil’s notorious 1924 Ballet mécanique for multiple sirens, airplane propellers, live percussion orchestra, and 16 player pianos. (“There are only 12 Yamaha Disklaviers here tonight,” announced Paul Lehrman, who’s devoted the past few years to realizing this score, “but you’re not going to miss the other four.”) And there was a 24-hour marathon of electronic music at Brandeis that included Lehrman’s brilliant synchronization of Antheil’s music as the soundtrack to Fernand Léger’s landmark surrealistic silent film of Ballet mécanique (an especially hard trick to pull off since there’s twice as much music as film).

A key player was Gil Rose, director of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP — or is it Beam-Up?), who conducted a three-hour-long free concert at Symphony Hall (“Orchestra Music at the Technological Frontier”) that ended with Ballet mécanique. He started with the world premiere of John Oswald’s Concerto for Conductor and Orchestra, a piece of what the composer calls “Plunderphonics.” Rose, wired, with a tail emerging from behind his jacket that connected to a bank of computers in front of the stage, began alone at the podium. His movements triggered musical samples. The familiar descending piano chords of the Edvard Grieg concerto merged into the Sunrise of Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra (Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 music). A flutist wandered on, then a bassoonist, and soon the rest of the live orchestra. Zarathustra morphed into the 1812 Overture, the opening of the Beethoven Fifth into the opening of the last movement of the Beethoven Ninth. Rhythmic repetitions expanded exponentially or were overwhelmed by electronic hurricanes, yodels, growls, and yowls. Delightful — and soon over.

Rose and the orchestra were then joined by French-Canadian ondes martenot player Genevieve Grenier, who explained, in halting English, the nature of this monophonic (no chords) electronic keyboard instrument that musician-inventor Maurice Martenot, inspired by the sound of radio waves, first demonstrated at the Paris Opera on April 20, 1928. The world’s first ondes martenot concerto, composed in 1947 by Andre Jolivet, starts off like the soundtrack to Spellbound (1945), emphasizing the whistling, hooting, throbbingly vocal aspects of the instrument. Then it sounds like something pastoral by Debussy. In a duet with flute, it was hard to tell which instrument was which. (The ondes also makes a great saxophone.) The second movement is jazzier, like Ravel imitating Gershwin. And the third ends with a languorous blues song — AM radio circa 1947, with Grenier as Carmen McRae — and an utterly unexpected final (full-orchestra) major chord.

After the first intermission, Rose led the world premiere of Brandeis music-department chair Eric Chasalow’s Dream Songs, which is based on John Berryman’s edgy poems, with tenor William Hite, pre-recorded, singing fragments in the voice of Berryman’s fragmented hero, Henry. It was frustrating not to have a text to read, since the words, often buried in the orchestration, were comprehensible only in bits and pieces (“Henry bores me”; “he’s making ready to move on”). The electronically augmented orchestra made attractively splintered but not unfamiliar sounds. Hite was impressive. But at least on a first hearing, this nearly half-hour-long piece didn’t hold me because I couldn’t follow it.

And it exhausted me for Tod Machover’s Forever and Ever (1993), which came next. This is the third part of the MIT composer’s remarkable trilogy for “hyperinstruments,” newly designed instruments that work both acoustically and with electronic augmentation. Forever and Ever, for hyperviolin (breathlessly played by Ani Kavafian) and orchestra, is the Paradiso of Machover’s Divine Comedy. It begins with a quiet solo not unlike the violin solo at the opening of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade — a seductive narrative that soon spirals into galaxies of twinkling stars, millions of notes wildly orbiting a syncopated universe. This nonstop movement is a kind of rondo, in which a sprightly folk dance returns and re-turns. The entire Hyperstring Trilogy was performed at the Tsai Center the following night, where in context Forever and Ever seemed less endless, though I suspect it could still lose five or six minutes and no one would notice.

Ballet mécanique arrived late in the evening, after another intermission — which meant that lots of people left without hearing it. Too bad, because it was a thrilling event. Twelve player pianos will probably never reverberate anywhere more gloriously than they did in Symphony Hall (and what a gas to watch so many keys moving up and down by themselves). Such synchronization was not possible when Antheil originally conceived the piece in 1924. The 1926 Paris premiere of Ballet mécanique was a shorter and much simplified version using a single pianola and several live pianists. (Antheil was clearly influenced by Stravinsky’s Les noces, with its ensemble of four pianos and percussion, which had its premiere in June 1923 — the work in which Stravinsky discovers 20th-century polyrhythms in a traditional Russian folk wedding.) At Symphony Hall, the propellers and sirens sounded spectacular, and so did the percussion players, with Paul Lehrman himself pumping a wind-up siren.

Lehrman produced an excellent CD of the 1999 premiere of his realization at the University of Lowell, with a student orchestra led by Jeffrey Fischer. After maybe 20 minutes of pounding syncopated rhythms and high noise quotient, Rose made far more of Antheil’s 20 crucial “silences.” Are they power failures in the new urban megalopolis? Momentary cease-fires on the front lines? In his introductory talk, Lehrman said Antheil thought of these pauses as “time moving without our touching it.” Rose played a risky game of brinksmanship, extending the silences almost beyond endurance. But he won. These daring silences revealed Ballet mécanique’s powerful and vivid musical shape. A friend said it was like hearing the 20th-century modern being born.

TOD MACHOVER was less lucky with technology. Hypercellist — and supercellist — Matt Heimovitz’s plane arrived late from London, so the beginning of the hypertrilogy was delayed to give him some breathing space. After a brief demonstration, Begin Again Again . . . , the Inferno of Machover’s Divine Comedy, began. But suddenly Heimovitz was playing solo — that is, the computers weren’t producing the marvelous electronic textures generated by the sensors on his bow and by an electronic glove on his bowing hand (all the music, including the electronic augmentation, is live). “It doesn’t have this title for nothing,” Machover joked, and so after a short break to reboot (he called these old Macs “historical instrument computers”), Begin Again Again . . . began again.

Based on the Sarabande from Bach’s second solo cello suite, with 10 variations on a theme, it remains — and Heimovitz’s performance ensured that it continues to be — the most moving section of the trilogy, though it’s been changed some from the 1991 premiere at Tanglewood with Yo-Yo Ma (who in the original conception switched over to a Strad in the middle of the piece). The electronic “accompaniment” sometimes sounds like a harpsichord, sometimes like a Chinese harp. Slow passages are profound lamentations. In the quiet coda, the hypercello rises and rises up over a slow rhythmic tread like a flock of screechy new-born birds.

Begin Again Again . . . is about renewal after suffering. The second — the shortest and most violent — section of the trilogy is in some ways more painful. This purgatorial Song of Penance (1992) adds live chamber orchestra and a pre-recorded voice (soprano Karol Bennett, reciting and then singing a poem by Rose Moss) that is activated by the hyperviola (played with eloquent inventiveness by Kim Kashkashian). But even following along on the page, I couldn’t make out most of the words.

Kavafian and the full BMOP orchestra then returned for Forever and Ever, which once again came late in a long evening. Parts of it still felt repetitive. But a repeated hearing revealed new delights. This time I could hear more clearly the changing rhythmic figurations (first pizzicatos, later the entire orchestra chiming) and how a little folk dance could turn into a joyously cosmic reel. This was evidently only the second time the entire trilogy has been performed together. It’s being recorded this week, with the same extraordinary musicians.

THE BOSTON SYMPHONY SEASON ended with an odd program: Mahler’s wonderful settings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”), a 19th-century volume of popular folk poems — or pseudo-folk poems (several of which he recycled into his symphonies); and Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. The singer was a big star, baritone Thomas Hampson, making his BSO debut (in a frock coat). He barked some of the songs (especially the satirical “Antonius des Paduas Fischpredigt” — “St. Anthony’s Sermon to the Fishes”) and crooned others. He looked intense, yet the characterizations (a dialogue between a mother and her starving child; a young woman meeting her lover who may already have been killed in battle; a ghostly soldier on the march) were generic and the phrasing was more often mannered than natural.

Seiji Ozawa conducted from the authoritative new 1999 edition but allowed the orchestra to drown out Hampson’s low notes. The songs (which Mahler himself didn’t put into a set order) were forced to make a kind of narrative that I thought undermined their individuality. Members of the audience were allowed to applaud each song, then Ozawa had to shush them for the artificial continuity he wanted to create between the last two.

A friend of mine once met George Antheil, who told him (in all modesty) that when someone asked him about Shostakovich’s influence on him, he remarked that, no, it was he who had influenced Shostakovich. The Russian’s brash ironies may indeed owe something to Antheil, and so too might the volume level. I don’t much like the aggressive Fifth Symphony (1937), which might be either Shostakovich’s capitulation to the Soviet propaganda machine or his ironic exposé of it. Under Ozawa it was a lot of loud music without any point of view.

CONGRATULATIONS TO PETER SELLARS for receiving this year’s Harvard Arts Medal (joining a list that includes Pete Seeger, Jack Lemmon, Bonnie Raitt, John Updike, and John Harbison). And congratulations to Harvard for the wisdom of its choice. Sellars graciously accepted, but he reminded Harvard that if it’s producing graduates who will become America’s most powerful CEOs, then it must instill in these future administrators a devotion to the arts and an understanding of their moral authority. Sellars seemed hopeful if not exactly optimistic. At least he’s out in the world actively practicing what he preaches — though Boston, he said, was the hardest place for him to get work.

Issue Date: May 17 - 24, 2001