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[whitespace] Passion And Protest

New Music Works' spirited 'Night of the Living Composers' turns poignant and political

By Scott MacClelland

DEATH TOOK NO HOLIDAY at March 9's "Night of the Living Composers" concert at UC-Santa Cruz's Recital Hall. A program concept that, years ago, had begun as a joke suddenly sobered up, leaving the sponsoring New Music Works with little choice but to solemnly honor those flames which fate had recently extinguished.

For this reason, and others, some totally ironic, this turned out to be a memorable and important event. Who knew, in the original planning, that Frederic Rzewski's grinding minimalist depiction of the 1971 massacre at Attica prison in New York, Coming Together, would magnify the grief over the loss of such cherished local talents as Gene Lewis and Bill Colvig? Indeed, who imagined that Ruth Barati would succumb last summer to--whatever else you could call it--a heart broken by the violent death of the husband she adored?

Without remarkable comment, homages appeared on the NMW program. A George Barati harp solo from 1948, Prisma, played mostly in arpeggios, was offered in memory of Ruth. Its player, the elegant Jennifer Cass, then went on to survey the mostly pentatonic For Bill and Me by Lou Harrison, who attended the concert even while grieving the loss of the "beautiful man" he loved for more than three decades. Lewis' remarkable Quartet for Flute, Clarinet, Cello and Piano of 1999, a NMW commission, memorialized him just one month after he lost his battle with cancer. The short piece wove various contemporary styles and moods into an extraordinarily rich and expressive tapestry.

But the living were present as well, sometimes in spirit only, and as often as not with abiding humor. Ron Elfving's droll Dry Martini took saxophonists William Trimble and Dale Wolford from "Ad nauseam" through "Bacchanal" to "Pink Panthers." Allen Strange's Werebeing Split-Personality Jazz spotlighted narrator Milton Williams reading James Dorr's hilarious verses of a man imagining himself a giant squid, a multi-headed hydra, a whale and a "one-critter band," while six strange moons cast their colors from high overhead. No less strange were Strange's electronic sounds on tape that enveloped Williams in myriad sonic washes and skittering points.

Fortunately, the program book included the words to the nonsense poems by Gertrude Stein set to music by Charles Shere. Using piano, violin and clarinets, sometimes in conflicting tonalities, composer Shere makes unforgiving demands of his vocalist. Mezzo-soprano Marie Bafus came through with amazing precision. Shere's songs sound more serious than perhaps he intended, although "You can only say what you know" turned plainly humorous.

Another brand-new NMW commission was Hyo-shin Na's Wooden Fish, using flutes, clarinet, saxophone, strings, and a large percussion battery commanded by Mark Veregge. Inspired by Korean Buddhist ritual, its underlying material is drawn from the so-called "Monk's Song," often heard in Pansori, the Korean opera. In her notes, Na calls attention to the recurring intervals of the second, third and fourth, useful information since these two-note mottos supply most of the formal organization in an otherwise aphoristic texture. The work whispered itself into being and faded to silence at its conclusion. In between, it developed considerable din, punctuated emphatically with three-timbred strokes on percussion.

NMW director Phil Collins conducted only during the program's second half. He had his hands full throwing cues and directing traffic in Rzewski's Coming Together, a work for flutes, clarinet, saxophone, strings, percussion, two pianos and narrator. Depending primarily on ostinato figures, the piece motors along with little variety--save changes in dynamic levels. Over this, narrator Williams recited a letter by Sam Melville, one of the Attica inmates who initiated the mutiny that led up to the climactic bloodbath. Melville had lately gained a breakthrough of personal clarity, and for the piece Rzewski directs the narrator to read sections of the text repeatedly, raising or lowering his amplified voice as the music swells and recedes.

The combination of ostinato figures, increasing volume of sound and repeating text, the "incessant noise" referred to by Melville, builds to a high degree of pressure and anxiety. (Minimalism works exceedingly well to this end.) Williams was remarkable for finding so many ways to say the same things over and over. Collins whipped the band into seething intensity. When it ended, the sense of release was profound. Whether you love political art or hate it, Collins and company made certain that you couldn't ignore Coming Together.

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From the March 15-22, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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