Ostrava Days (4): Promises of intriguing program delivers dullness and disappointment

 Czech RepublicCzech Republic Ostrava Days (4): Massobrio, De Bièvre, Ames, Polansky, Hiller, Sievers: ZWERM, Ostravská Banda String Quartet, Jeroen Stevens (percussion), Jutta Troch (harp), Larry Polansky (guitar), Péter Balog (guitar), Philharmonic Hall, Ostrava, Czech Republic. 02.09.2011 (GG)

Alessandro Massobrio: Pale Blue Meadows
Guy De Bièvre: Pokertest
Charles Ames: Excursion
Larry Polansky: for jim, ben and lou
Lejaren Hiller: String Quartet No. 6
Beau Sievers: Memory Networks
Larry Polansky: Ensembles of Note

Given that this concert had some of the most intriguing promise of the Ostrava Days Festival, its overall dullness – and there is no better word – was a disappointment. Composers and musicians like Steven Mackey and the Dither quartet have been cultivating the electric guitar as the new instrumental frontier in contemporary classical music, and doing it in ways that are both idiomatically creative and that harness the depth and power of classical forms. To see the instrument featured so prominently on the program led me to expect adventurousness and surprise.

The fault seemed to lie as much with the musicians as the composers. ZWERM is a technically adept group but they have a dearth of musical charisma. Rather than play with a sense of inherent confidence – the feeling that they know the music and know what they want to do with it – they seem hesitant, almost apologetic for the sounds they are about to produce. They were not effective advocates for the pieces.

There was also, surprisingly, very little exploration of the possibilities inherent in the electric guitar, an instrument that even a novice can use to produce interesting sounds, even if they can’t actually play it that well. Working with sound itself, outside of questions of structure and form, is one of the fundamental elements of new and experimental music, so a concert featuring the electric “axe” that is so mild, polite and often musically uninteresting is disappointing.

The pieces from Alessandrio Massobrio, Guy De Bièvre, and Beau Sievers had their moments of crunchy delights, but each of them seemed lost within their own concepts, dutifully proceeding in ways that followed the stated structural method, but without much attention paid to producing musical statements – to actually saying something. They sounded more like exercises, De Bièvre’s Pokertest being a case in point. It’s a piece based on principles from the card game, one that combines skill, luck and the tension of not knowing exactly what one’s opponent honestly holds. But the music drifted, presenting relatively sparse moments that seemed to have no connection to each other – as if the guitarists, isolated from each other, were actually playing solitaire.

Charles Ames’s second piece in the festival has convinced me that while he may be a strong thinker and creator of systems for understanding and producing music, he’s not a composer. His Excursion was made using a computer process that created a twelve-minute sequence of quasi-dissonant arpeggiations, and that’s that. The musician (Péter Balog, who seemed to be struggling at times) runs through them, and it ends. It’s a method for making a piece, but it’s just a start. Ames, unfortunately, thinks it’s an end.

Larry Polansky, a guitarist himself, touched the low and high points of the evening. His Ensembles of Note has massed guitars, piano, percussion, clarinet and harp all playing the same riff over and over again – like a Glenn Branca piece but with less content and sonic interest. I understand the impulse to have fun, and applaud it, but the riff and execution are just plain dull. However, his trio for percussion plus detuned guitar and harp, called for jim, ben and lou, is quite appealing, and given a wonderful performance by Toon Callier, Jutta Troch and Jeroen Stevens. The detuned strings (and the percussionist further detunes the guitar pegs as the instrument is played in the first movement) have a glistening, lapidary sound, like shining stones on a forest floor. The second section is exceptionally simple and moving, the musicians accompanying themselves as they sing a Yiddish resistance song, the music as sincere and winningly shambling as a Tom Waits song, the expression communal and tinged with history.

The highlight of the concert, and one of the high points of the festival, had nothing to do with guitars. It was the Ostravská Banda String Quartet’s assured, energetic playing of the Lejaren Hiller Quartet No. 6. In contrast to pieces that are satisfied with the process of their own creation and nothing more, Hiller used complex chance processes to develop the material to write into an intelligent, skillful and often witty piece. The process doesn’t replace his exceptional craft – it supports it. With its rapid shifts in style and tempo, its juxtaposition of pitched sound and noise, and its truly great rendition of his impressions of Saturday morning television cartoon music, the quartet anticipates some of the work of John Adams and John Zorn. Yet Hiller’s piece, dating from 1973, has somehow trumped them both. This was a treat for the soul and the mind.

George Grella