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Aspen Music Festival strengthens position of new composers

Paul Fromm had only one point he wished to make to his August audience of concertgoers and composers during Aspen's Second Annual Fromm Week of New Music: ``Our purpose is to restore to the composer his rightful position at the center of music and art.''

That may sound like heresy in an age that extols the performer and gives us daily servings of older music on silver platters. But the 80-year-old Mr.Fromm has had 30 years of engagement with contemporary music, supported by his Harvard-based Fromm Foundation. During this time, he has commissioned more than 150 pieces of new music.

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This year's Fromm Week produced a fine balance between a manageable number of visiting ``emerging'' composers (all past or present recipients of Fromm commissions) and well-rehearsed, insightful performances of their works, beautifully conducted by composers Stephen Mosko, Daniel Asia, and Steven Mackey.

There was an underlying unity to many of the pieces. Each of them worked well on a structural level, though their ability to involve the listener emotionally on first hearing was variable.

More important, though, as an underlying unity was the unusual use of musical, psychological, and physical time. New music often expresses the spirit of its age by moving through musical time in unusual ways. In most of the Fromm compositions, music did not move from a point to a point, from a fixed beginning to a fixed end. It did not ``progress'' in a linear way, with a nice gravitational center and chords pushing toward home base. Listeners had to adjust themselves to the psychological time scale of each composer to get the most from these splendidly crafted and imaginative pieces.

Steven Mackey's ``Journey to Ixtlan,'' triggered by Carlos Castaneda's book of the same name and by ``Three Nahuatl Poems'' of William Carlos Williams, takes the listener on a mystical, nonprogrammatic musical journey through real-world time and the otherworldly time of ``no end, no final outcome.'' The highly coloristic, energized, and often thickly textured music blends an almost omnipresent chorus vocalizing long, fluid lines with the more punctuated, richly timbral scatter effects of winds, brass, percussion, and piano. The ``humanoid'' presence is there, even when just whispering or whistling, and the eventual transformation after a false musical climax seems worth the trip, even though it's a bit long.

Stephen Mosko, another composer of metaphysical bent, was triggered by the world of subatomic particles ``bound'' for eternity, and by the 22 paths to wisdom of the mystical Cabala in his ``Superluminal Connections I: The Atu of Tahuti.'' This is exceedingly original but strangely effective music for chamber orchestra and three amplified voices. It expands into a timeless space, often almost without changing pitch, and contrasts violent explosions of sound with seconds of silence. Notes swell and decay; sounds unfold for the moment; repetitions and flutter tonguings energize the pulse; and everything seems to collide, scatter, or hang in a timeless, cosmic limbo.

Its immaculately designed layered structure is based on a 30-note chord, parts of which Mosko tries to ``shine light'' on.

The quintessential example of layered music was Elliott Carter's ``Penthode,'' in which five different instrumental groups move at individually different rates of speed that are mathematically proportionate.

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For a so-called ``difficult'' composer, this was an amazingly lyrical piece, stressing the warmth of strings and with a recognizable motif that passes from instrument to instrument. It was almost a dissonant, 20th-century version of serenely balanced, classical counterpoint.

``Passing Fancies,'' an homage to Fromm by Faye-Ellen Silverman, pits a cheerful, D-major melody, usually for clarinet, against an initially dissonant world of sharp, trilly winds and angry, insistent chords. Slowly the melody (``expressing Paul Fromm's eternal optimism,'' says Silverman) takes over, seeming to banish dissonance and struggle. While the piece is fresh, beautifully structured, and full of intriguing colors and motifs, the contrast of opposing musical worlds gains with repeated hearings.

``Rivalries,'' by Daniel Asia, is an immaculately crafted work that pits different orchestral groups against one another, including even a jazz trio of soprano saxophone, piano, and bass. The music is full of dynamic tension and release, sometimes combative and sometimes playfully flexible with the inflections of jazz rhythms. While not emotionally gripping, the work was always exciting.

Rand Steiger is especially interested in the act of performance as a process. In his joyful, energy-filled piece ``Quintessence,'' he gives virtuoso material to a delicious combination of five instruments -- clarinet, percussion, piano, cello, and electric piano. Each of the players has high points of challenging solo moments in between ensemble passages where motivic, coloristic, or rhythmic flavors are tossed back and forth within the group. This is highly accessible, well-shaped but spontaneous-sounding music that makes absolutely no condescensions to the listener.

Paul Lansky, who has called himself ``a virtuoso of the synthesizer,'' is a quirky but fascinating composer.

``As If'' is his first work combining synthesized music with live musicians -- in this case, a string trio. The synthetic tape sounds, which seem to expand into a larger spatial scale, are distorted, modified, and reconstituted from the live playing of a violinist and a saxophonist. The electronic music blends, contrasts, and interweaves with the smaller-scale, live, string trio sounds.

Lansky plays with these disparities, giving for example, a long, Romantic flexible line to the synthesizer and letting the string trio play a ``straighter'' musicmaking role. It's a beautiful, haunting blend. The witty, first section plays with open-string tuning-up sounds of the ensemble and the synthesized music, so that the audience doesn't know the piece has begun until it's well underway.

All in all, the Fromm Week of New Music revealed the significant talents of a vital group of ``emerging'' composers who are mostly in their thirties. The concerts left one thirsty for more.

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