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New Music

At Holmes Hall last week

By Chris Rochester

(This review is the first of two article concerning new work by Harvard and Radcliffe composers.)

THE HOLMES HALL concert of students compositions was held in an unpretentious atmosphere as players simply performed the works without recourse to program notes or composer apologias. And there was an intermission, presumably for ventilation, since the room was stifling with a midsummer night heat. I went to the concert expecting to be neither electrified, moved, outraged, nor jaded.

But I did hope there would be no academic championships or effigies. Unlike Winthrop Sargeant I will not lament the absence of an identifiable tradition as a terminus ad quem. I agree with Stravinsky that the nonexistence of the past is necessary for anyone wishing to start from scratch. Musical comparisons can be annihilating just as compassionate historicism can be illuminating.

The evening began with an attractive if unremarkable sonata for violin and piano by Michael Friedman. The violin writing was awkward rather than intelligently varied, suffering from repetitious phrase-length and dynamic graduations. The two instruments were carelessly counterpoised in a discontinuously rhapsodic style.

Allen Shawn's Song on a text by Maikov seemed a poor work obliterated by unacceptable singing. The piece consisted largely of a tawdry Dello Joio scherzo but provided neither beauty nor interest. It was especially unsuccessful in the registration and duration of its vowels.

Chamber Piece for four players by John Stewart is an examples of the quasi-Schonbergian writing which seems to spring eternal in student pieces like the waters of Lethe. The irrepressible antiquarianism of this style is characterized by self-conscious alternation of techniques, little rhythmic interest, and no intensity of construction. It fails to explore the subtler sound properties and combinations of the instruments, resulting in tedious, rhetorical pointillism. In this case the tedium nearly became punishment since the clarinet tone was coarse enough to make a serpent seem mellifluous. As with all the works, it was impossible to determine without a score if genuine serial procedures were employed.

THE MOST conservative piece of the evening was Leonard Lehrman's String Trio, written with frank lyricism, at times slightly oleoginous, culminating in a strong last page of almost botanical beauty. The work is not wholly successful as its ostinato Intermezzo is banal. The piece is redolent of the elegaic Bartok but would be properly described as derivative rather than eclectic.

The problem with eclecticism is not that it is thievery but that it is miscalculated. It resorts to idiomatic mimicry as an expressive inheritance rather than as the perfect means of musical expression which inner necessity dictates. Eclecticism is consequently faded and diffuse instead of directed towards precise statement. The work of an eclectic laborer cannot possess independent life, whereas the work of the derivative artist cannot possess anything else. This was what T.S. Eliot meant when he said that immature poets borrow while mature poets steal. Stravinsky's Pulcinella is derivative, Poulenc's Gloria eclectic.

Another examples of eclectic music was Michael Friedmann's Leuchten, a "work in progress" for four players. I hope the work progresses considerably because in its present pseudo-Webernian condition it seems unimaginative in the extreme and generally unredeemable. Janice Hamer's String Trio, while stronger, suffers from repetitive alternation between cantilena and pizzicato writing.

The final work of the evening was Gregory Biss's String Quartet. The string quarter provides the advantage of lucidity, rapid harmonic and dynamic change, absolute audibility and visibility, manageable balance, tremendous possibilities for sheer sounds, and maximum polyphonic delineation. The Biss Quarter demonstrated both the advantages and potential tediousness of the mercurial technician. Biss's combination of strategies included collegno, microtonesia, and heroic written out glissandi. The work 's primary fault was monotony of radical techniques. The cumulative effect--if that is a proper term since it is not clear since it is not cleat whether the work is sequential, progressive, or in any way organic--was not irritation but incipient somnolence. While some moments were undeniably refreshing, the work lacked stylistic mobility simply because the style was the subject.

THE HOLMES concert included works which were genuinely interesting as well as technical quodlibets and eclectic gruels which were only fitfully provocative and occasionally boring. This range of quality reflects the differences between craftsmen and technicians, experiment and gesture, ideas and platitudes, insights and effects. If these works were not distinguished by brilliant felicity or profundity, neither were they irrecoverably interred by grandiloquence or senescence. Those qualities are the uninspired composer's short cut to maturity.

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