Primary tabs

Sight and Sound

October 16, 2007

Is there anyone in the Bay Area consistently putting together cooler programs than Nicole Paiement? Saturday's season-opening BluePrint concert, by the San Francisco Conservatory's New Music Ensemble and various guest artists under Paiement's direction, was typical of her programming since BluePrint was launched six years ago. That is to say, its design was ingenious and thought-provoking in a way that we are in danger of coming to regard as routine from her. In a region awash in new-music ensembles of various stripes, I can't think of another that ranges so widely and profitably through the musical landscape as Paiement and her musicians do, nor one that so reliably draws interesting connections between its various finds.
This BluePrint season is titled "Mind the Gap," and the concerts each explore a particular "gap" between music and something else. On Saturday at the San Francisco Conservatory's Concert Hall, the something else was the other senses, and the program — called "Synesthesia" — focused on pieces in some way referencing or putting sound to the visual.

The evident germ of the program — the piece to which everything else seemed connected, in one way or another — was Jay Lyon's Voyelles, begun in 1998 and reaching its current form only last year. Voyelles sets a sonnet of the same title by Arthur Rimbaud. It's a bewildering poem that apostrophizes the five vowels and attaches to each a color and a series of vivid, often disturbing, images. (Here's the vowel a, for example, in the program's translation: "A, black corset hairy with bursting flies / That buzz around cruel stinks, / Gulfs of darkness ...")

Lyon gives the French text to two singers and a speaker, backed by an ensemble of flute, piano, synthesizer, five strings, electric bass, and drum set. In front of all this was a hip-hop MC, WiseProof Avataré, who overlaid a rapid-fire, virtuosically rhymed English-language gloss on the original text. The commentary, WiseProof's own in collaboration with the composer, was a hoot. I loved the drawled "Pardon my French!" at one point, as well as the finger-to-the-lips "Shhh!" where Rimbaud mentions "Silences."

So captivating was the hip-hop layer of the piece that it was difficult to get a sense of the rest of it. The instrumental component is built over a strong groove, with occasional high lines from violins or flute. The singers and speaker are not in sync with one another, each interjecting words or phrases at irregular intervals, and I could not tell whether everyone in fact uttered all of the text. Each vowel's section is built on a different collection of pitches, harmonically pungent for the darker images and more open in sound for others. The concluding o — "supreme Trumpet full of strange discords, / Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels" — brought out ecstatic outpourings from singers and high instruments and a flush of brilliant sound from the keyboards.

The program notes make no mention of this, but Lyon revealed in his preconcert talk that the hip-hop layer of Voyelles was actually an afterthought, added after the piece was composed and indeed already recorded. Evidently, on listening to the recording, Lyon found the words too sparse and belatedly recognized the work as a rap manqué. This is not something you'd have guessed from Saturday's performance, in which the MC's role put everything else in the shade. There is altogether too much going on in Voyelles to be caught in one hearing; the piece seems designed, like hip-hop, for repeated listening. I wish Paiement had put it twice on this shortish program. (It ended the first half, and a reprise after intermission would have been more than welcome.)
Illuminating Soprano, for a Change
From this centerpiece, the rest of the program took its various bearings. Britten's early song cycle Les Illuminations, which ended the concert, was obviously there courtesy of Rimbaud, whose verse it sets. It's a dazzling piece, crammed with ideas and scored with Britten's usual savvy when writing for strings. Tenors, following the example of Peter Pears, have taken over the cycle of late, but it was originally meant for soprano voice.

It was a great pleasure, then, to hear it for once up the octave, and as well sung as it was Saturday by soprano Ambur Braid. I can't vouch for her French (though it seemed articulate and well-enunciated to me), but the firmness of her tone and the confidence with which she negotiated Britten's wide-ranging, often elaborate vocal line were a delight.

The Conservatory's New Music Ensemble, expanded in size for the occasion to the scale of a respectable string orchestra, accompanied confidently under Paiement's direction, even if it lacked the last degree of abandon. (The program doesn't credit the concertmaster, which is a shame, since his graceful and sensuous accounts of the many violin solo passages were among the high points of the performance.)

Other parts of the program expanded, in one way or another, on the idea of synesthesia. Tan Dun's 1986 Eight Colors, for string quartet, comprised eight short sketches, some of the movement titles directly mentioning colors ("Pink Actress," "Black Dance"), others not ("Drum and Gong," "Cloudiness"). The composer writes that the string-playing techniques as well as the musical material derive from Peking Opera. There are slow glissandos, slap pizzicatos, static and slowly shifting textures. One oft-recurring element is a long note begun with little bow pressure and then squeezed ever harder until the pitch cracks and breaks.

Despite the brevity of the sections, the work felt overlong, the sparse material not quite justifying the span over which it was spread. The lighting crew attempted to add variety, changing the illumination of the quartet movement by movement (lowering the lights way down for the static "Zen," for example). The performance, polished and obviously attentive, was by Conservatory students Claude Halter and Stephanie Bibbo, violins; Alexa Beattie, viola; and Charles Akert, cello.
Sonic Flutter-By
Kaija Saariaho's 2000 Sept Papillons (Seven butterflies) drew an amazing array of tremulous, fluttering effects out of Conservatory faculty cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau's solitary instrument. The butterflies of Saariaho's imagination are large, colorful, sometimes alarming. The pieces portray them not only in sound, but also visually, in the complicated gymnastics the music demands of the cellist's left hand. (Fonteneau's hand — trembling between two widely spaced harmonics, thumb flying from top to bottom string and back again, fingers whirring on the fingerboard without bow or pizzicato — fluttered most captivatingly.) The technical challenges are enormous, but never gratuitous. Fonteneau was adept at getting Saariaho's complex mixtures of harmonics, "natural" notes, and left-hand pizzicatos to speak clearly within a single phrase.

Philip Glass' 1981 Facades, an outtake from the much-lauded score to the film Koyaanisqatsi, came with more explicit visual accompaniment, in the shape of a digital-video essay by Elliot Anderson. The video used what I took to be photographic stills looking up the walls of various buildings toward the sky. (In one, a flying hawk appeared, silhouetted against the blue.) These images, cut into angular shapes, seemed to rotate and interpenetrate one another in three dimensions, continually turning in on themselves in the manner of a gigantic kaleidoscope.

It was fascinating to watch, and it is fair to say that Glass' music did its part by not hogging the attention. Facades gives lyrical lines to oboe and alto sax (Benjamin Opie and Jonathan Russell on Saturday), over a typical undulating Glassian background laid down by five strings and synthesizer. The music did little but step nervously away from its oppressively stable A minor and then back again, until it seemed to lack the will even to venture so far. As a standalone piece, I think it would have been insufferable; as accompaniment to Anderson's work, it was oddly apt.

BluePrint has moved up in scale from last year's season-opener, which was in the Conservatory's smaller Recital Hall, and Saturday's sizable audience looked as though the word about the series' quality has gotten out beyond the Conservatory-student crowd. I hope that the Conservatory's new Civic Center home encourages more Bay Area music-lovers to think of the SFCM as a concert-presenter, and not only as a school. There are great musical goings-on at the Conservatory, and BluePrint continues to be one of them.

Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.