PICTURA: New Music for Women's Voices - March 30, 2014
by Dick Frantzreb
The idea behind this concert, subtitled "New Music for Women's Voices," was to present new compositions by local composers. To source these new compositions, a competition was held over the past several months. It yielded 10 entries, of which 6 were chosen by the Vox Musica singers for this event. The inspiration for all the music was the current exhibition (January 26-April 20) at the Crocker Art Museum of the work of California abstract expressionist, Sam Francis. The project had originated last year when Rika Nelson, the Crocker's Director of Public Programs contacted Vox Musica’s Artistic Director, Daniel Paulson, about the possibility of a concert in connection with the exhibition. Appropriately, this 4-concert series culminates with a concert at the Crocker on April 3.
At the Sunday afternoon performance I attended, I was struck with the informal atmosphere. Director Paulson introduced the concert in a casual way and with humor, pointing out, for example, that every piece in the program was a "world premier." The composers were all present, and before the performance of their piece, they explained their work, mostly clarifying the connection between Francis’ painting and their music. Since he was an abstract expressionist, most of their comments were about color and the translation of paintbrush techniques into music. The program notes (click here to open the program in a new window) give a good summary of the remarks they delivered to the audience. After the performance, they took questions, and the audience members weren’t shy about speaking up.
The first four compositions were performed a cappella by the 9-member ensemble, with Paulson directing. "Early Morning Blue" by Portia Njoku, was itself an abstract "musical painting" of pure sounds without words. I couldn't understand, let alone analyze, its structure, but I found it an appealing and engaging color wash of sounds. For this, as for all the other compositions, the audience reaction was very enthusiastic. (It's not often that you get to applaud the composer of a piece.) And I was struck with the thoughtfulness of the questions raised throughout the concert. Most reflected a knowledge of music theory that goes far beyond my own, so I realized early on that many in the audience had the tools for a deeper appreciation of what was being presented. Still, reflecting on Vox Musica's new motto, "music worth sharing," I have to say that even though I sometimes felt like a layman among the experts, this music was, indeed, worth sharing.
The second selection, "When I Am Among the Trees," by Vox Musica singer Heather Razo, was based, not on Francis' paintings, but on a poem by Mary Oliver. To me, it was full of lovely dissonances, along with melodic and satisfying harmonies. In the spirit of the informality of the occasion, Paulson echoed my thought after the piece concluded, saying "Isn't it beautiful?" This has to be a thrilling experience for a composer, not just to hear their piece performed for an audience, but to get, along with the questions, expressions of appreciation from the listeners – and director.
In the introduction to her "It's Francis," Iranian-born composer Maryam Mirbagheri explained the fascinating system she developed as a child for establishing correspondences between colors and notes in the musical scale. This background influenced her composition, which showed a jazz influence. As I listened, I thought it had to be incredibly difficult to perform for both singers and director. And Paulson confirmed my impression, commenting on its conclusion that it was "a very difficult piece."
In the introduction to his pair of compositions, Travis Maslen (possibly the most prolific of all these composers) explained his process as a matter of inspiration, rather than an academic exercise. As he spoke, I realized that all these composers want people to enjoy their work without having to have a highly-sophisticated musical taste. Still, for me, listening to this music was an education, more like a workshop than a concert, and yet interesting and engaging. I doubt you've ever heard a concert like this: I certainly haven't.
After an intermission, Paulson directed his own composition, "Blue, Red, Yellow," to the accompaniment of HAPI Drum (think mini steel drum) and cello. Part of his introduction was an explanation of how the piece was built on "perfect fifths," different fifths for each of those "perfect" primary colors. I struggled unsuccessfully to recognize them. I'm a person of broad musical tastes, a lifetime of experience singing, but negligible formal music education. Still, I could see Paulson's piece as a musical painting with which I could engage on a non-rational level. The note I wrote to myself as I listened read, "Clearly musical artistry."
For this piece – and all of them to some extent – I found myself struggling to understand all the musical ideas. In thinking about my shortcomings, it struck me that perhaps no one could have full understanding of what was being presented. Isn't that what "art" is – an expression of human creativity that holds the potential of layer upon layer of meaning, worth returning to for the new insights it may offer? I think some of my musings as I listened came from Paulson's own text: "...beyond the visual, beyond the tangible. Building bridges between the innermost thoughts and emotions of the surrounding world."
In Paulson's comments at the conclusion of his piece, I came to appreciate even more the profound thought that went into all these compositions – and the extraordinary effort to do them justice in performance. For his part, Paulson was almost ecstatic after conducting the performance of his work, observing that his piece was "a tuning nightmare" and that this was "the first time we sang it in tune."
The final piece, "Abstract Blue," by Clifford Shockney, was performed with piano accompaniment and without a director. The lyric consisted exclusively of shades of blue (except a surprising "red"), and nearly all the colors were represented by a recurring musical theme. It was, as Paulson observed, "a fun piece," a fact that was reflected by the smiles on the singers' faces – and probably on the faces of the audience, as well.
It was interesting to hear Paulson describe Vox Musica as a "niche ensemble." If what he means by that is the fact that they tackle unusual music, ranging over the whole world for ideas to present something fresh and innovative – I guess I can confirm that observation. Clearly, Paulson and his collaborators prefer not to follow well-worn paths in programming choral music. I've been with them for most of the journey over the past few years, and it's been an eye-opener, an education, a surprise – and a delight.