SF Contemporary Music Players Evoke Society at a “CROSSROADS”
Attending the “at the CROSSROADS series, Drama & Poetry II” performed by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players was one of my first outings to a theater in years. In any context other than that of the pandemic lifestyle, that may sound odd. The introductory talk by Artistic Director Eric Dudley and composer David Chisholm, however, gave a congenial context, noting that two of the pieces being performed had waited more than two years for this debut. So say we all!
The subject matter presented through these pieces also struck a chord in more than one register. Du Yun, the phenomenal contemporary composer working out of New York, attacked issues of sharing and talking about our mental health in her 2018 piece “I am my own Achilles heel” that couldn’t be more relevant today. While specifically mentioning Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, Du Yun presents a world outside reality, where perception is distorted; objects shrink or enlarge seemingly at will, and the instruments balloon and shrivel in a sonic Lilliputian hallucination.
Hrabba Altadottir’s violin and Stephen Harrison’s ajaeng-like cello work in counterpoint through the course of this piece, at first in a sparse call and response with scratchy textures and breathy reed-like tones, building in intensity until thalassic swells give way to placid doldrums. Busy chaos interrupts the reverie, but is soon replaced by swaying dizziness and moments of unity mediated by Roy Malan’s violin and Clio Tilton’s viola that seem to defy the intensity of the passage. Fading into whispers like a breeze on a hot, dry day, my mind went fleetingly to the dangers of a Santa Ana wind as the piece closed.
David Chisholm’s “Deepfake” debut is perhaps even more timely now due to current events in Ukraine. The supremely low register of the instruments used in this piece (bass flute, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, double-bass, cello, and piano, accompanied by 4-channel electronics) brought a weight to the composition, a commentary on the eponymous technology that now influences media, thought, and propaganda. The blending of physical musical instruments with their simulacra, provided by electronic synthesis runs parallel to the perceived versus the real, and the confounding, devious nature of this nascent technology.
The entlike march of gentle swells begins this piece against the backdrop of gentle runs from Tod Brody’s bass flute. Trills rise above low frequency blasts in an almost-consonant exchange between the macabre and pastoral. In a moment of shifting perspective, conflation of vibrato and the slow clap of countable hertz lead into a narrative passage by the bass flute that ducks behind as Jeff Anderle’s contrabass clarinet begins to lead the conversation. I have never seen an oil barge on a vernal pool, but now I’ve heard such a thing. All the while, I had the feeling that this was all ‘real’ and that I wasn’t hearing the 4-channel synthesis, but I was wrong. As the parts sectioned off into call and response, the real musicians mimicked simulated timbres and vice versa. A run of high notes on Kate Campbell’s piano signaled a sort of resolution to the conflict, and all players came together in a major consonance. But this wasn’t the end. Swells from across the ensemble led to frenetic flute calls and a free response. The piece sweeps out with a run from the violins; Violins Violence Silence.
Taylor Joshua Rankin’s duet “Touch/Still” followed the intermission. Here, Stephen Harrison’s cello began with a strong lead-in, with sparse notes dropped in by Kate Campbell’s piano in support. This sprinkle of notes becomes a torrent of ornamentation, with only whispers coming from the cello as it fades back. The crushing dissonance of the pair comes into consonance as the whole keyboard slowly comes into use. And the cello echoes: the piece ends on whispered notes as all four strings are bowed in a gentle rocking motion. Rushes and languorous passages throughout brought to mind elements of nature — gentle rain building into a shower, birds flitting into greenery, and finally leaves falling slowly to the ground.
The last piece was a 2008 work by the Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina for a quintet comprised of three guitars, cello, and double-bass entitled “Repentance.” This timbral masterwork employed the guitars to an advantage, using all manners of plucking, striking, and even slides (uncommon for classical guitar). Gubaidulina did not want to use amplification for this work, and instead arranged the guitars as one ‘organism’ in order to bring their sounds to the front of the ensemble, and to the back rows of the house as well. A notedly spiritual if not religious person, the title draws one toward connotations of devout repentance, but the composer notes that this particular repentance is one of regret at not having been able to complete the work while life took her attention away from the task of composition. Very relatable indeed in these times.
In a nod to her note about ‘that particular sort of expressivity that low-pitched instruments possess’, Gubaidulina starts off this composition with the double-bass at the forefront. Guitars work together to complete each other’s phrases, and a mournful cello alternates with the hocketed notes of the guitars. The slides come out, and open fretted low notes from the guitar course underneath a shrill cello passage. Bowed and plucked double-bass stalks the guitars’ light harmonics with a dissonant edge, pure textures in counterpoint to complex melodic lines. Penderecki-like slides and clusters across fretboards lead to a riotous crescendo that fades into lyrical, measured harmonies. The piece ends with all in unison, peace from chaos.
The striking contrast between and within these four pieces felt fitting, consanguine with our changing lifestyle in the early 2020s. Fast changes, strong and clear emotion, and heavy depth were the through lines in these pieces for me. There is no replacement for live performance, the raw vibrations pulsing out around you. Thankful that I experienced this set, I boarded BART and tuned in to the singing rails, strings ringing in my mind.
Evan Gilman is a musician, photographer, and coffee professional living in Oakland, CA. He has performed with Gamelan Sekar Jaya at ODC, the SF Symphony, the SF Ethnic Dance Festival, and many other engagements. His passion for both contemporary and traditional music has informed his travels, his photography, and his own compositions for guitar and percussion.