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Art Passing Through Itself

Schnee (Snow), 2008,  Composer Hans Abrahamsen
Cave Creek. Winter canon. 2011., Filmmaker Rick Bahto
Monday Evening Concerts, Zipper Auditorium –

The closing event of the Monday Evening Concerts series this year featured an ideal pairing of experimental film and Danish post-“New Simplicity” music, both incorporating canonic techniques in their conveyance of an altered sense of the passage of time. Los Angeles filmmaker and performer Rick Bahto presented the world premiere of his most recent film Cave Creek. Winter canon. 2011. and Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, completed in 2008, was given its west coast premiere.

Hans Abrahamsen

Schnee (Snow) is a roughly hour-long chamber work for double ensemble. Each group includes a piano and either strings or woodwinds in various registers; a percussionist serves as a visual and auditory bridge between the groups. While much can be made of the composer’s use of a variety of canonic structures, including a mensuration canon in which the strings simultaneously deliver the slower version of the piano’s melody in dusky harmonics, one need not follow the composer’s frequently intricate creative methods to take in the surpassing beauty of this precious and thoughtful work. Like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Schnee forces us to change our own tempo to be able to experience time as the work seeks its own position in it.

Michel Galante, a superb conductor of economical motion and limitless concentration, led the equally expert musicians, some of whom were flown in from New York for the week of rehearsals that preceded the performance. The demands placed on the players were varied and sometimes rhythmically breathtaking. When it seemed as though the two ensembles were in different metrical spaces, it turned out that one group was working with 8 beats to the bar, while the other was working with 9 beats to the same bar. Maybe this is how it sounds to have a different iPod in each ear, both playing different performances of the same music. And how thrilling it was to have grace notes pass from one group to the principal note in the other group. With lesser players, such an expressive division could seem to be an ensemble error; these players demonstrated uncompromising attention to such fineries, their instruments behaving as one unified device.

The melody that we hear in whole or fragments throughout Schnee is itself perhaps a metaphoric canon subject for one of the composer’s intentions: to express that the time of our lives “runs ever faster to its end.” The melody, played at first on the piano, begins with long tones and continues to ever-shorter ones, extinguishing itself in a swirl of rapid notes. Abrahamsen had originally wanted each pair of the five pairs of canons that constitute the work to become ever shorter, although he admits to being unsuccessful: the third pair is longer than the second, a fact that in no way distracts from any artistic aspect of the composition.

Even the most jaded new-music connoisseur would be pleased with Abrahamsen’s use of extended instrumental techniques in Schnee–no effect was out of place or gimmicky. Several times the flute was called upon to overblow a phrase which was completed by a glissando from the opposite ensemble’s piano, perfectly matching the intensity of the gesture. For a simple percussion effect near the beginning, both pianists had prepared their instruments by resting music booklets on the strings. And for a high-pitched textural shimmer, both pianists were several times called upon to brush their hands across the key tops in glissandi of skin.

Schnee is delicate without being fragile–and the mostly reverent MEC crowd allowed all the delicacies and exposed timbres to be heard. Until, that is, after the last notes of the final canon (marked einfach und kindlich, simple and childlike) were sounded, and the conductor sat still, allowing all of us to appreciate in silence the exquisite intensity of the preceding hour’s sounds. An audience member penetrated the stillness with intrusive clapping, reminding us of where we had been and how different from our day-to-day lives that aural space had been, an intimate investigation of time that was more observation than judgment.

Canon 1A – Ruhig aber beweglich: Canon 1A – Ruhig aber beweglich by Ensemble Recherche

Canon 1B – Fast immer zart und still: Canon 1B – Fast immer zart und still by Ensemble Recherche

Preceding the music performance was a presentation of Rick Bahto’s silent paean to the Sonoran desert, the multiple-projection film Cave Creek. Winter canon. 2011. Two of three projectors are each started at some interval after the first one so that the visual canons are intact. While the presentation of the film was hampered by the failure of the third projector’s lamp, the two-thirds we witnessed were effective on their own. Bahto’s consideration of the varied textures and weathers of the desert through a “score” (not part of the film, just a plan) that specified different uses of the camera recreates the initial experience of any natural wonder: a sense of the impossibility of grasping it all at once along with delight at the capture of all that one can savor in the moment. One direction in the score resulted in a steadily accelerating panning in the film; the rate of the acceleration varied between the projections, a subtle developmental touch that speaks to Bahto’s awareness of the irregular rhythms of the landscape. The two projections suggested new combinations as they progressed, just as Abrahamsen’s music, which followed the film, became more than individual statements of repeated melodic lines. Unlike the music, however, the films are not time-synced: each presentation is unique since Bahto, who serves as his own projectionist, allows himself some leeway in starting each unit.

When it was clear to him that the third projector would yield no light, Bahto conceded quietly: the nature of using Super-8 film is to be at the mercy of antique technology that fails completely when it fails. It is fortunate that two of the three threads of his work were shown and we were able to experience a convincing segment of this talented filmmaker’s sensitive encapsulation of the desert environment, preparing us for Abrahamsen’s musical inspiration from one effect of winter.

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