Pittsburgh loves new music -- somewhat
``Music Lives!'' proclaimed the Pittsburgh International Music Festival, and for four days the city could indeed lay claim to the title: new-music center of the world. Musically, the results were mixed though, and so was audience response. Emotions ran high, and comments like ``dry, academic, boring'' and ``That one sounds like it came out of Schoenberg's wastebasket'' abounded side by side with ``thrilling, wonderful'' and ``brilliant, groundbreaking!''
Partially a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble and partially a gathering of composers from around the world, ``Music Lives!'' consisted of a series of late-September concerts, headlining Steve Reich and Jean-Luc Ponty at the impressive, ornate Carnegie Music Hall, and spilling over with after-festival cabaret performances at Graffiti, a local club.
A number of musicians were invited to perform and were allowed to choose whatever works they wished to play, provided they were written by contemporary, living composers. In addition, David Stock, founder and director of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, conducted a search over the past year for talented young composers from around the world.
``We even had a letter hand carried to the Soviet Union,'' said Mr. Stock, ``but since no one submitted, we don't know what happened.''
Altogether, 168 scores were received from 23 countries and were narrowed down to six -- from Italy, Israel, the United Kingdom, West Germany, and Australia -- by a jury of three. The results of this competition were surprising, to say the least. In this age of backlash against atonalism and reacquaintance with tonality (minimalism, et al.), it was curious to note the fair share of atonal music, random sounds, and just plain rambling in this part of the program. It's amazing and depressing that from so many manuscripts the jurors couldn't find something really arresting.
The comments of the composers themselves, at a panel discussion, were both revealing and puzzling. Said Gerard Brophy, from Australia: ``Music for me doesn't express any emotion. I just like the sounds.'' Klaus-K. H"ubler from West Germany, disagreed. ``Philosophical ideas are important to me. Sounds are nice, but if you don't use them for a purpose . . .'' And Vincent Plush, from Australia, summed up the discussion by saying, ``There is a responsibility of the composer to communicate.''
Unfortunately, this was largely lacking in the composers' forum. Far more interesting were some of the other offerings on the program, notably a performance by cellist Rohan de Saram, who captivated an audience that was basically waiting for Jean-Luc Ponty. Then there was the Chinese pianist Margaret Leng Tan, who played a solo recital of pieces written by herself, Chan Wing-Wah, and Somei Satoh. She also played in a premi`ere of a work by Ge Gan Rhu, ``Wu,'' written for piano and the New Music Ensemble. Ms. Leng Tan's specialty is the ``prepared piano,'' which she handled with great mastery and precision, moving her body like a dancer as she worked outside and inside the instrument with mallets and spoons, plucking the strings with feeling and accuracy. Ge Gan Rhu's piece was the highlight of the festival, a soaringly dramatic foray into combined Eastern and Western musical forms.
As with popular music and jazz today, there seems to be a trend in the new music toward ethnic integration. A fine example of this was heard in ``Seven Persian Folk Songs,'' by Reza Vali, an Iranian composer. These songs, sung by soprano Lynn Webber, ranged in mood from childlike simplicity to near terrifying force, in a highly successful blend of Western music with Vali's native Persian folk melodies.
Several pieces at the festival were written for solo instruments, and these presented the biggest dilemma, one that was was magnified by the appearance of a couple of avant-garde jazz groups at Graffiti after the concerts. It's very difficult to appreciate a laboriously written new music piece for, say, solo bass clarinet or flute, for the simple reason that any accomplished avant-garde jazz player can improvise something just as good if not better, and probably with more feeling. Bearing this in mind, one could conclude that the most valuable, interesting, and ultimately lasting written music is the kind that cannot be approximated by an ad-lib on the spot.
Both Steve Reich and Jean-Luc Ponty gave solid performances. Reich's group played two sections of his masterful percussion piece, ``Drumming,'' as well as ``Clapping,'' and two newer pieces -- ``New York Counterpoint'' for clarinets and ``Sextet'' for keyboards, vibraphones, marimbas, and bass drum. Each piece reflected Reich's romance with percussion and his percussive way of approaching even the most melodic lines. His ``intellectual Africanism'' was like a breath of fresh air. Jean-Luc Ponty opened with his ``Electronic Violin Solo,'' a stunningly crafted overlapping of textures and colors produced by his electric violin with digital delay. It was a relatively new venture for him, and one hopes that he'll continue to explore it. Some of the most listenable music of the evening was Ponty's compositions, with his violin improvising over jazz and Latin-influenced modal vamps. Ponty proved that the ``old'' harmonies still have plenty of mileage left in them.
Will Pittsburgh do it again? Is it headed toward becoming a major center for new music?
``We'd like to do it again in three years,'' says Stock. ``We would like it to be one of the centers. There's no reason why, in a country like America, everything has to happen on the East Coast or the West Coast.''