This last Saturday, I drove to the new Mexican-American Cultural Center,
here in Austin, the capital of Texas and home to one of the country's
great universities, for a concert of new music featuring the human voice.
While I dislike the idea of a new-music ghetto, it's often the only
concert venue for the avant-garde and thus the only chance to hear new
music live. Besides, I wanted to hear what the kids are up to these
The New Music Co-op has been giving concerts since roughly 2001, a long
time for such organizations, which usually have the life of mayflies.
I don't go to such concerts expecting to discover the Next Stravinsky,
but even so the concert disappointed me. "New?" Some of these pieces,
written with shock value in mind, could have been written eighty years
ago. It reminded me of creative-writing classes, where Young Turks,
intent on overthrowing the stodgy cliches of contemporary poetry, all
wind up channeling bad E. E. Cummings, because they have no idea of
the history of the avant-garde. They don't listen to their ancestors.
Everybody on the program treated the voice as an instrument (the concert
was titled "The Universal Instrument," because almost all of us have
voices). Text was largely beside the point. Most of the composers
deconstructed the text past the syllable, down to the level of the
As with many avant-garde concerts, the composers tended to concentrate
on means rather than on new attitudes and points of view. Two fellows
seemed to have glommed on to one of those puzzle books they sell in
airports. The first composer used an empty crossword-puzzle grid,
filling Across with Hebrew words that fit the spaces and Down with
English. Of course, the intersection of Hebrew letter with English
word creates "holes" in the English, reducing the English to a series
of phonemes. These were notated. The second composer constructed a
word ladder of 452 steps from "friend" to "end." The reciter speaks
into a microphone on a .6 second delay, so that the words overlap.
Both pieces were probably fun to compose, but pointless to perform.
As with many avant-garde works, the composer hogs all the bang.
Aside from the self-indulgent crap usual at such concerts (and, I
might add, poetry readings), we heard Holland Hopson's "Nine Tas," which
went better. The composer took the nine windows of Buddhism (aniccata,
dukkhata, etc.) as its basis and made little tone poems out of them.
From an extra-musical standpoint, the most interesting of them to me was
"dhammatthitata" (naturalness), a frenzied chaos. "Yes," I thought to
myself, "that's what a Buddhist would think."
One composer offered a song cycle, his first work with text, he told us.
He got his girlfriend to write some very good poems and was entirely
clueless as to how to set them. He didn't seem to realize that text has
its own rhythm. Each syllable got a long note, which of course erased
any meaning as well as the poet's art of line-building and enjambment.
All the interest of the cycle came down to the instruments, including
one, called an "owl" (a kind of super-zither), which the composer may
have invented. It went on for a long time. I started counting how many
lines to the end, for something to do.
Brent Fariss's "dim gleam" offered us a serene, non-corny vision of death
with a fine text, again by the poet of the song cycle. It may have gone
on a bit too long, and the instruments provided most of the interest.
I'd like to hear this piece again, this time with a vocal ensemble with
better diction. Perhaps the balance of the piece will change.
The two best pieces -- and, not coincidentally, with the best
understanding of the voice -- were Brandon Young's "Seven Episodes
for Six Voices" and Keith Manlove's "The Becoming Machine IV." Young
basically recycled Ligeti's Lux aeterna, now forty years old. It was
"about" the clash (and curious consonance) of small intervals -- whole
tones, semitones, and microtones. Furthermore, it reflected the composer's
practical experience as an ensemble singer. Manlove's "Becoming Machine,"
a duet for solo singers, was the hit of the night. It had drama, pacing,
and wit. "Pacing," by the way, was sadly lacking in almost every piece.
Manlove's piece, about the possibilities of transformation, used a lyrical
text, cut up into phonemes and flowing into intelligible phrases and
sentences. The ending broke your heart with its beauty.
The performers were amazing. Brandon Young, in addition to composer,
also wears the mantle of tenor and is a wonderful musician. Nothing
throws him, and he sings with real flair. Soprano Ashley Gaar did as
best she could with "dim gleam," and I should commend her for her breath
control and her ability to stay awake in a part that doesn't let her do
much. Sarah Norris, percussionist, played lyrically, even on the owl,
which she learned for the concert. However, the indisputable star was
Deena Hyatt, a rock-'n'-roll chick who can do apparently anything with
her voice -- from sound effects to opera -- and did do most of it in the
course of "The Becoming Machine." She duetted with Young. As fine as
Young is, Hyatt is at least an order of magnitude more astonishing. She
gave us a mini-drama. At the end of her performance, I heard at least
one well-deserved "Brava!" in the hall.
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