For over 20 years, New Music in San Diego has brought some of the finest new music performances to our town. Their mission is simple and utopian: to present uncompromising and compelling new works by living composers, easily comparable in content and performance to similar events in other big cities. It is programmed in a festival that takes place over several days. Friday night was his second in a three-day Sound On his festival, a recurring title for San Diego New Music’s annual event.
This is a community project. Musicians are often their own administrators and publicity managers, and support for visiting artists comes primarily from donors, some of whom provide housing for out-of-town players.
Friday night’s concert at La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music & Arts Library was typical. A diverse and carefully curated set of new chamber music pieces were presented in vibrant and impressive performances by accomplished musicians. The concert began and ended with a big production by his NOISE, a resident ensemble of San Diego New Music whose members are veterans and virtuosos.
Katherine Balch’s ‘musica spolia’ was a fitting introduction to the synthesis of avant-garde imagination and performance expertise that these festivals regularly showcase. “Spolia” (the title of this year’s SoundOn festival) is a small architectural remnant of a pillar that was reworked into a later building. Indeed, Balch’s work is an artful recontextualization of fragments of old musical material woven into new settings. All too often, works that attempt to do something similar—dropping familiar material into new textures—get out of the cheesy, generic ‘new music’ backdrop. Balch’s work creates a discourse in which these fragments, many of which are tonal fragments, are somehow meaningfully integrated into a new language. Pianist Christopher Adler spins a meticulous series of minor piano arpeggios, percussionist Morris Palter is impressive, precise and visceral, performed in a variety of setups including bubble wrap wrapping. It maintained the whole traditional harmony scheme, even when countered with a traditional rhythm. Violinist Myra Hinrichs and flutist Lisa Serra unite violently in unison, jagged textures, guided by the commanding clarity of Robert Zellickman.
Yan Ee Toh’s “Rainbow Shadow” featured Cella on flute and Zelickman on bass clarinet. These players have collaborated on countless productions, but their innate empathy was evident as they smoothly moved between conflicting states of entrainment and conflict, acceleration and entropy. Yang’s work is masterfully written for the instrument, exploring all kinds of sonic detail and extended technique. The duo’s ability to articulate these unfamiliar sounds with confidence and prowess helped make this piece clear and moving.
Cellist and composer Franklin Cox has been with San Diego New Music since its inception. Cox’s creative practice is so diverse that Friday’s show featured two very different pieces of his. His “educative etudes in F-sharp minor”, which he performed on the solo cello, are positioned alongside the educational works of Bach, Bartok and Chopin. Cox’s remarks before the performance referred to the music of Bohuslav Martinu, whose influence can be heard in a glowing chromatic expression, the extremes of tone, registration, acoustics and expressiveness of this fascinating work. . Another aspect of Cox’s aesthetics and performance was featured in his Duet for Bass Flute and Cello. This was the world premiere with the composer playing the cello and Miss His Serra returning for the flute. This is another piece. Each performer, prickly and chunky, develops the material as if independently, coming together only for compelling moments and flipping the track. Cox’s music is widely performed at San Diego New Music and is the musical avatar of the group’s commitment to presenting work with musical and intellectual rigor in a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
Pianist Christopher Adler gave the world premiere of another work, ‘Multiplicity’ (6 miniatures) from Adam Green’s ‘Notes’ for solo piano. Despite the use of the term ‘miniature’, this washes away the problems that surfaced in Italo Calvino’s writings and explores the expressiveness and sonic possibilities of the modern piano in an almost catalogue style. It’s an extended, difficult, and challenging piece of work. The complexity of Calvino’s ideas, sources, and literary techniques is reflected in his textures in a series of remarkable, inspired programs, each completely original. The canon of contemporary concert music is almost jam-packed with big tunes for piano solos, but Green’s textures and the quasi-metaphorical ideas that enliven them are striking and new. I moved easily between moments of virtuosity and meditative, sustained silence.
Adam Borecki’s “Scorpio” perfectly complements NOISE. Borecki’s work is so smart, it’s kind of a miracle, combining different elements to create a triumphant new music sundae for millennials. The tumultuous, mercurial textures thump us in heavy atonal chaos before settling into a focused harmonic gully. A sassy chorus of blown melodica punctuates the song with a grand, almost sentimental chorale. “Scorpio” has a great many referents, some of which are hilarious, but the work as a whole emerges as very serious. It sounds like NOISE has been playing this song around the world for longer than ever, and each player feels perfectly at home in this wild and enchanting landscape.
Schultz is a freelance writer.