Some of us may have difficulty appreciating works by composers of American academia such as Milton Babbit and Anthony Davis. But there are UCSD students totally at home with this contemporary music that tends to have no obvious rhythm or melody.
"It's funny to see the audience trying to nod along to the beat when there isn't one," a student was heard to say on a La Jolla sidewalk after San Diego New Music's (SDNM's) first concert of this year's Noise at the Library series at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library on Sunday, January 21.
His female companion concurred that it was hilarious to see an audience member nod when there was an accented beat and then almost nod again when another accented beat did not occur as expected.
"I had to close my eyes when Anthony was playing because it puts me off to see him grooving," was what the male speaker had to say of UCSD professor Anthony Davis' deft and contemplative rendition of his "Goddess Variations III."
Arguably Davis has every right to groove at the piano. Before joining the UCSD's faculty two years ago, he was not only an accomplished scholar of African-American studies but also was distinguished in the world of jazz. He won the critics' poll of jazz magazine Down Beat in two categories: pianist and composer.
Davis gave a short talk prior to the concert and explained the Variations were part of a work inspired by the plight of slaves transported from Africa, the majority of whom were jettisoned en route because they were dead, or were too sick to fetch a price at auction.
The goddess in the title is Yemalla who would have received the bodies of those who died too soon, because in the Yoruba culture she is the deity who holds the secrets that are hidden in the sea.
For another Davis composition, "Still Waters III," the pianist was joined by cellist Reynard Rott and flutist Lisa Cella who is now San Diego New Music's executive director.
Rott and Cella are members of NOISE, SDNM's resident ensemble dedicated to the presentation of contemporary music. Guitarist Colin McAllister and percussionist Morris Palter, the other two core members of NOISE, did not appear in the evening's program. That is, unless they were among the six shadowy figures playing different percussion instruments in various corners of the library at subtly differing volumes to give a highly atmospheric effect before the concert began.
Vocalist Fiona Chatwin joined Rott and Cella to perform the first item of the evening: "TemA" by Helmut Lachenmann. According to the program notes, "Lachenmann, born 1935, is hailed as a radicalist who helped break out of the imminent artistic 'cul de sac' that serialism seemed to be heading into during the era of the post-war avant garde."
Apparently the text of this work is designed to be unintelligible and serves only as a further modification of the exhaling breath. But the talented Chatwin should not be offended to learn that several Athenaeum staff took refuge in the cottage behind the library during rehearsals because "it sounds like somebody dying."
Later, Violinist Mark Menzies replaced Chatwin in the trio to play "Con Voce für Drei Stumme Spieler" by Mauricio Kagel. The gimmick in this number is that the instruments remained stumme (dumb) while the musicians made played con voce (with their voices). Whether this is music or modernist theater the comic effect of the violinist's groaning provoked some giggles.
The same trio was made a quartet by the addition of clarinetist Anthony Burr whose solo made a pleasing beginning to Milton Babbitt's "Composition for Four Intruments" (1948).
Composer Nicolas Frances Chase was introduced from the audience to tell how his art teacher mother brought home a print the Andy Warhol masterpiece "Sixteen Jackies" and this encounter so changed Chase's life that he composed "tw!TcH" to express what he believes Warhol would have written had he been a composer instead of a painter.
The Chase work (performed by Cella on flute, Menzies on violin and Charon Rosner on contrabass) painted a jolly picture with much wood knocking and tongue clicking that seemed to satisfy Philistines and cognoscenti alike.
The evening was the first concert of the sixth season of Noise at the Library. On each date NOISE will present a seminal post-war work as the centerpiece of a stylistically diverse program.
On March 4, they present "Le Marteau sans Maitre" by Pierre Boulez, a premiere by Erik Ulhuan, "NoaNoa" by Kaija Saariaho and "Caught by the Sky with Wire" by Nick Didkovsky. On April 29 they offer works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Liza Lim, Frederic Rzowaki and others.
But before either of those dates, the distinguished contrabassist Bertram Turetzky will play a benefit for SDNM on February 11. Turetzky is the senior professor of music at UCSD.
All these concerts begin at 7:30 at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library, 1008 Wall Street, La Jolla. For tickets at $15 (or $13 to SDNM members) call (858) 454-5872. For further information see SDNM's Web site at: www.geocities.com/sdnm/.