"a huge fetid stinker"
--Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle
I hate writing chamber music. It makes me feel I should call up Beethoven, Brahms Schubert and Schumann, invite them to lunch, just to ask them how they did it, and did it so well. Then. When the salons, and the nobility, intellectuals and bourgeoisie that filled them, the real thing; when live music made live by and for the living, lived only in the home, or castle, church or theater - its natural "spaces"; when the fast growing business of "Ernstemusik" provided real gigs, and real livings for the contemporaries, and craftsmen and con-men alike knew what they were doing and why, and dealt it in a single unspoken language, IT was happening. Today this is no longer true, and that’s the sad truth, today’s chamber music tradition is largely a form of mystical séance where one goes to call on the great ancestors and bring their traditions back to life. Archaic as the Amish and equally stubborn, and not infrequently thrilling beyond description -- this music will never go away, but will remain in our sonic museums for eternal remembrance.
I love writing chamber music because (there is no need to) and because there are world-cup groups to write for -- like the Rova, Kronos, Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and the Dresher Ensemble, just to mention a few local stars, who are playing organically certified ball today (not to mention the prestigious well-financed European groups). Between love and hate there is no contradiction here, only an ongoing musical evolution whose artistic social and economic forms reinvent themselves daily, of necessity. This is after all, America not Leipzig or Vienna.
I write no frills music. No airsickness bags, no seat belts, no insurance, no pilot. It’s very democratic, and it usually gets you there. We do however offer a constant update on the situation -- mine and yours. It all begins in Providence Rhode Island, December 1996, it was Beethoven’s birthday; in the silence I decided to begin a new work, commissioned by the Dresher Ensemble. I had no ideas. So I reached for my lunch. There were some old notebooks full of sketches. One looked promising and I began to develop it; I noodled on it for days -- pages full of illegible arpeggios; I was convinced It was in the bag, I even knew what was coming next; I sent out for a bigger bag. Ideas were coming to me like crazy; none of them related to any other. My heart was pounding; I was discovering new music, or was it discovering me. Relationships were stretched to their limits, morphed so out of whack that gravity itself could be seen falling upward forcing the Triangle Players Union to sit at the bargaining table. On the synagogue steps, the young Carabinieri in a three cornered hat stopped me and asked me what was in the small wooden box I was carrying. I did not know (said Leatitia, inside of me), but they were not kidding, they were sure it was a bomb. The next thing I knew I was in Bali eating breakfast on a splendid verandah and writing music again ... now it was all clear to me: a series of events would occur over which I had practically no control -- this would be the music -- I’d thrown the noodles away a long time ago.
And so Pittura Fresca begins appropriately with a bang, Balinese Cymbals clanging their breakneck demon scaring rhythms reserved for the elaborate Cremation ceremonies. To this I add a cheesy Hammond Organ vamping in Ellington’s slow four as a ruse to get the Mills basketball team into the music. Now we’re at Letter B, where Abel’s violin dialogues with a solo basketball player (on tape), simple a-rhythmic dribbles and hoops against an obstinate discourse on a broken G major triad; before you know it, it’s counterpoint: Strict canonic imitation between two violins and a bassoon, in a field of alien midi objects; these midi ordinances are randomly heaved into the triadic space, like Italians who used to throw, sofas and refrigerators out the window to celebrate the new year. This seemingly causes or results in air turbulence in the solo violin, reflected in very brief atypical spasms (here called the "Goldstein Variations") eventually this leads to a quirky pseudo sequence figure (a D major/minor seven augmented 11 chord) which is used as an excuse to get everyone into the music at last in a normal menschlich way; but alas, stuff happens which sends everybody off on their own independent ways, hoping they will once again get back together in like normal music. This recurring instability happens over and over with increasing virulence, until the musicians had to call Mozart to help restore order. With Danny Levenstein’s help, I reconstructed the opening 16 bars of the Lachrymosa, from Mozart’s Requiem, knowing that Mozart did not really write the measures I would be lifting anyway. So there are all kinds of strange tales associated with this little passage, which served essentially to make a high-class transition from letter J to Letter K where my own post Corelli Figured bass kicks in. By now the piece is on automatic pilot, the band in full baroque sync with Abel darning his way in and out of obbligato hi-jinx, leading to a duo between electric drum pads and violin, and finally on to a violin cadenza like section where David finally spills the beans and lets you hear a fragment of Charlie Chaplin’s Theme from "Limelight," one of the subtle undetectable backbones to this whole Concerto. After a brief Avantgardistic block of cacophony swallows up the cadenza we’re in the Hoe Down Section (letter P), which sounds like cases of Jack Daniels falling off a truck in perfect fifths. Speed, Precision and Anarchistic minimalism dance us right to the quiet coda at the end, a variation on
you know what, with a sentimental goodbye to the morning roosters in Ahmed.
Alvin Curran, 1998