New York Philharmonic at the Metropolitan Museum

Four fragile views of the future—new music in New York

On Saturday, Dec. 19, the New York Philharmonic extended their music making in two ways: they performed a concert of four World premieres by younger composers outside the mainstream. And they held it at the Metropolitan Museum, stepping outside their classy quarters for a more direct experience. Appropriately, the new-music series is titled “Contact!”

Mongolian fugue, French plainchant, Brazilian mythology and survival of the fittest…instrument: these composers drew on a rich past to thumb their noses at established musical forms. Philharmonic composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg interviewed the four beforehand, lending insights, or at times incredulity, to the performances. Although these pieces may not all pass the test of time, they were certainly provocative.

Arlene Sierra

American-born Arlene Sierra, currently teaching in Wales, spoke of her musical impulses in the creation of Game of Attrition. “The idea of a musical game has long held resonance for me.” She described how in Darwin’s The Origin of Species he wrote of close species in similar ecological niches competing for the same resources. Substituting instruments of similar octaves for species, Game of Attrition is a fight to the death.

“How much of your music is textural and how much thematic?” asked Lindberg.

“It is rhythmic,” she replied, “with small musical cels that evolve and grow. Underneath is an energetic burbling, meant to be essential…”

Lindberg raised his baton and brass and strings squared off. Violins brought a disjoint snarling. Harp plucked against cello pizzicatos, clarinet and oboe played figures of four descending notes accented by marimba, and a flute gave long-held calls. In a quiet moment, a cello played a surprisingly wistful passage.

Then the burbles returned, a muted jungle savagery, ending with soft frogs of sound.

And the survivors? Well, it was compelling, but the French horn still looked hungry.

Lei Liang began Verge one month before his son was born and finished it one month after the birth. Converging to a point and then diverging, his work is both homage to life and life changing.

“I came to love Mongolian long-chants—such a sense of space,” said Liang, using the polyphonic structure of that form for his own flowing lines. “We named our son Albert, and took the motif from his name. A, B, E and Re.” Shostakovich famously sketched his own name as motif.

18 musicians took the stage in a semi-circle—four string quartets (two violins, a viola and cello each) bracketed by a bass on each end. The bass were to play deep plucked notes at 150 beats per minute, a neo-natal heart rate.

Expecting lullabies, squeaks and thumps greeted us. A violin’s sharply bowed “skrich” led to high harmonics, punctuated by occasional smack of plucked bass. Though not easy listening, patterns soon appeared. Slow shimmers and violent rising glissandos were unsettling, a nervous waiting. Then a viola broke through the hisses with a pentatonic motif, unexpected and tender, the notes from Albert’s name.

As the work evolved, cellos ran after each other and violins churned out dense matter, gradually converging to a single note before dying away. Slow sounds of tuning arose, awareness conceived from intervals of open strings. Albert’s melody resurfaced, and violins rose to harmonic screams against urgent bass pizzicato.  A newborn was crying.

After intermission Lindberg introduced French composer Marc-André Dalbavie, who described his musical sources for Melodia: “Spectral music was very important for us in Paris in the 1980’s—a microscope into the sound and how it behaves…its harmonic structure.”

“How do your harmonies lean into melodies?” asked Lindberg.Marc-Andre Dalbavie

“When I was young I was interested in plainchant…and the basic melody is Gregorian,” he replied, and asked a cellist to play that passage for us. Spectralism’s slow decay of sound nicely paralleled the meditative church forms.

Pizzicato and tremolo added a Flamenco edge. Long flute notes were lightly flutter-tongued. Violins whispered into each note, then leaned on the ends, shaping them like speech in reverse. Call and response, flute and clarinet joined for a trill that slowed to sustain, two French horns stepping through a sonorous modal dance—Melodia was inward looking and accessible.

Brazilian Arthur Kampela closed the evening with Macunaíma, a Tupi/Portuguese culture clash that follows the “hero without character” of the title. Encouraged by this mythological trickster, Kampela wrote a piece that questions the music making along with the music. Accordingly, violinists walked slowly down the aisles with thunder-maker drums, the bassoonist propped a washboard between her knees, and the tuba, piccolo and trumpet walked behind a curtain, where they played the happy cries of Brazilian chorinho without being distracted by the conductor. Elsewhere Kampela also bridges techniques—his guitar pieces intertwine percussive slaps with fast fingering.

He described Western musical forms as “anthropophagic—eating the flesh of other cultures.” Despite this protestation, his own music reflected a variety of sources: gourds and bowed cymbal marked the beginning and ends, and he quoted salsa and choro. Macunaíma was abrupt and bubbly, leaving us to wander out, invigorated and puzzled.

—Adam Broner

Photo, top: Arlene Sierra, composer of Game of Attrition, photo by Ian Philips-McLaren

Bottom, Marc-André Dalbavie, composer of Melodia, photo by Roger Mastoianni