Music in the 21st Century: San Francisco State hosts ambitious new symposium

How do faith and science interact in the creative arts? In the octatonic, according to rumors at a two-day symposium of 21st-century music held at SF State Feb. 6 and 7. The high-powered gathering included a fascinating retrospective of works by SF State professor and composer Richard Festinger and a concert of pieces by seven winners of the Emerging Composers competition.

Saturday’s events also focused on Olivier Messiaen and Elliott Carter, honoring these two modern giants with papers, a panel and an evening concert.  They were both “born 100 years ago and just one day apart, to the consternation of astrologers,” quipped composer and panel member Robert Morris, who went on to contrast the two. And two more different composers would be hard to find.

Carter taught math and physics, and his rigorous approach to composition gave rise to a new “set theory” of musical interval. Messiaen’s love of primes came not from his study of math but from a view of indivisible numbers as “closer to God.” His composing was rooted in deep faith, a lifelong love of bird song and a curious synaesthesia that allowed him to “see” chords. And yet each composer broke new ground.

Searching for commonality, Morris revealed that both were self-taught and strongly influenced by Stravinsky’s octatonic scale. This curious scale alternates whole steps with half to squeeze an extra note into the usual seven-note octave.

In an excerpt of Messiaen’s opera, Saint François d’Assise, there are open-sounding passages, which panel member Harvey Sollberger explained as French dance hall rather than American Copland. “Using four notes of the octatonic, he achieves pairs of lovely sixths to give that wide-open Western harmony,” further explained Morris, “but the other four notes, a [dissonant] tritone lower, hover in the background.”

Carter’s approach to the octatonic is more vertical: overlapping instruments supply the density that Messiaen achieves with chords. It is a rather fragile interaction of faith and science, but in both cases theirs is music of subtlety and vision.

Saturday evening’s concert featured Carter’s 1959 String Quartet No. 2 performed by the Alexander String Quartet. They performed it a year ago in the “Inspiration” series of SF Performances, with Robert Greenberg lecturing on Carter and Haydn (Feb. 20, 2008, Piedmont Post), and this performance was also stellar. Paul Yarbrough’s viola was more than expressive: it achieved a hungry sort of melancholia. Violinist Frederick Lifsitz played an irritable “accountant,” exacting in a private rhythm and full of brighty inappropriate pizzicati. First violinist Zakarias Grafilo performed a stunning soliloquy, as the others softly droned, and then they all drifted back to their own melodies and modes.

“Elliott doesn’t particularly care about his audience…he is writing for performers,” commented Sollberger. “He writes music that goes right to the edge of what a performer can achieve physically and conceptually. …it is difficult and rewarding.”

Carter’s more recent Tempo e tempi (1999) showed a more lyrical side. Soprano Susan Narucki, a leading interpreter of contemporary music, sang these eight poems about time with the sfSoundGroup. They showed off moods that varied from brief and pungent to soulful and clever. In Giuseppe Ungaretti’s one-line poem, Una Colomba (A Dove), Matt Ingall’s clarinet softly trilled, then reached for soft bursts of notes against a mysterious vocal line. “D’altri diluvi una colomba ascolto” (I hear a dove from other floods). It petered out on clarinet-amplified breaths.

After intermission Norucki provided contrast with Messiaen’s song set, Poèmes pour Mi, accompanied by pianist Ann Yi. This early work was exuberant and accessible, dedicated to his wife, Claire Delbos, nicknamed “Mi.” In Le Collier (The Necklace) a gently erotic vocal line described her arms around his neck as chords washed over the audience.

Messiaen’s directness and transcendent voice brought back Robert Morris’ pithy comment on the two composers’ differences. “Messiaen writes music in the first person, and Carter in the third person.” In a literary analogy, the personal and the narrative never mix—but they can tell the same story.

—Adam Broner

Originally published in the Piedmont Post