As we gear up for Talea’s Russian debut, checkout a preview by Matt Mendez.
For nearly a decade now, the Talea Ensemble has been one of the principal American conduits for recent music from the Continent—vital compositional work that remains all too slow in making its way over the Atlantic, even in our age of distance-defying globalization and electronic integration of distribution networks. Supplementing this core organizational mission have been more occasional ventures such as thematic-historical concerts, special collaborative projects, and workshops for emerging voices, and in that sense, this evening’s concert could justifiably be described as a prototypal Talea program, consisting as it does of two pieces by composers with whom the ensemble has enjoyed intimate, intensive working relationships (Haas, Billone), a classic of the post-1968 small group repertoire (Carter), and last but not least, the first performance of a freshly inked score (Dunne).
Currently a professor of composition at New York’s Columbia University, the institution in whose shadow Talea was originally founded, Georg Friedrich Haas has been enjoying considerable success with U.S. audiences since his appointment to that position three years ago. This has had much to do with Haas’s long-held interest in the composers of the so-called “American maverick” tradition, particularly those, like Harry Partch, James Tenney, and La Monte Young, who embraced the new horizons opened up by alternate tuning systems. Yet unlike some of those figures, the Austrian Haas remains devoted to the great names of classical music’s past, as can readily be discerned in tria ex uno (“Three Out of One”), his 2001 sextet “nach Josquin Desprez.” Its starting point was the second Agnus Dei from that composer’s Missa “L’homme armé” super voces musicales, a textbook example of Renaissance-era contrapuntal technique—specifically, the three-voice mensuration canon, whose parts share the same melodic identity, but proceed using different temporal proportions.
tria ex uno maps this “tripling” principle recursively, onto the level of a tripartite structure. The first part consists of a straightforward transcription of Josquin’s Agnus Dei for bass clarinet, violin, and cello. Exploiting the full ensemble, the second is a “creative” arrangement of the same music, in the manner of Haas’s Austrian forebear Anton Webern, who orchestrated J.S. Bach’s six-voice Ricercare as a way of demystifying its formal properties. As for the third and most extensive part, it blends Haas’s trademark microtonal textures with a veiled homage (in the piano’s pulsed chords) to the minimalism of Steve Reich. Here Josquin’s original material is “paraphrased, transferred, and painted over”—the words are Haas’s, to which we might also add “elongated”—to the point of near-unrecognizability.
Another composerly tip of the hat comes courtesy Timothy Dunne, whose for B (Oiseaux Pétrifiés) here receives its world premiere under Talea. Written last year, the piece was inspired by the work of that most famous of musical ornithologists, Olivier Messiaen. More precisely, it was prompted by a comment from the former Messiaen pupil André Bon, who drew Dunne’s attention to the “sculpted,” “petrified” quality the birdsongs take on in his scores. (By this, Bon was presumably referring to Messiaen’s tendency to clothe his birdcalls in the same instrumental garb each time they appear in a given piece.) The scoring, notes Dunne, also nods subtly in the direction of Messiaen, whose Quatuor pour la fin du temps forces—clarinet, two strings, and piano—he supplemented with three further wind instruments. The seven players’ interactions are largely heterophonic, whereby a principal melody (often, as at the very beginning, given over to the clarinet) is elaborated, embellished, and exploded by the other instruments. While such textures are frequently encountered in Messiaen’s catalog, the directional continuity of for B—its “migration from rapid, episodic material to an entropic state of petrifaction,” as Dunne puts it—can perhaps be heard as a riposte to the excessive fragmentariness of the Frenchman’s forms.
One of the first harbingers of the “late style” that preoccupied him until his death in 2012, at the age of 103, the Triple Duo was Elliott Carter’s contribution to the repertoire of one of Talea’s ancestors, the British group The Fires of London, which did so much in its day to establish the expanded Pierrot ensemble as one of new music’s bread-and-butter instrumental lineups. A “free fantasy,” so Carter referred to it, the Triple Duo exploits most of the favorite technical devices of his maturity: extreme rhythmic stratification, long-range structural polyrhythms, the rigorously selective allocation of intervals and chords, and acute instrumental characterization. As the title discloses, Carter partitions his forces into pairs—flute and clarinet, percussion and piano, and violin and cello. Each duet goes its own way, more or less, observing its own expressive laws and following its own fancy. Though this gambit was already a hallmark of Carter’s 1970s music, in the Triple Duo the relationships between the groups are now no longer predominantly antagonistic. Instead, the earlier emphasis on conflict and indifference is now vitiated by moments of coordination, reconciliation, and playful sparring, a tendency Carter would only develop further in the coming years.
A very different impulse animates Pierluigi Billone’s Δίκη (Dike) Wall, a Talea commission first unveiled in 2012. In Billone’s hands, composing takes the form of painstaking instrumental research: uncovering means for transcending conventional performance techniques. In this he takes after his teachers Salvatore Sciarrino and Helmut Lachenmann, the latter of whom Billone credits with helping him cultivate “a ‘pathos’ of reflection.” To these precursors we might also add Billone’s countryman Giacinto Scelsi, for even though their work has almost nothing in common in sonic terms, the two outputs are nevertheless uniquely invested in the ritualistic, shamanistic meanings of music making. Billone demands of his performers an accordingly preternatural, bodily concentration, and Talea percussionist and Executive Director Alex Lipowski has spoken along these lines of the precarious, “fragile” quality of his practice: given “the super-specific techniques that he requires,” Lipowski explains, “there’s a deep trust that Billone offers his musicians.” That Talea is one of the rare ensembles to which Billone has bestowed that trust is due largely to Lipowski himself, who has in recent years become one of the leading proponents of his solo percussion scores. Δίκη (Dike) Wall reflects this relationship: a pocket percussion concerto of sorts, it conjures an entirely new syntax and vocabulary out of the most elementary of gestures, the rough, rude scrape of metal on metal.