February 23, 2007

A Weekend of Classy Music

Print More

This coming weekend, Cornell’s music department is presenting a delicious array of new music. The centerpiece of the weekend is the visit of composer Fred Lerdahl from Columbia University. Lerdahl was one of the first current classical composers to recognize what many have come to believe about this genre: a large portion of it isn’t accessible to listeners without an advanced degree in music. He argued that the “compositional grammar,” (essentially, how composers compose), had become estranged from “listening grammar” (how listeners listen). At the same time, he did some truly pioneering work in the growing field of music cognition and coauthored A Generative Theory of Tonal Music. From here, he has developed an approach to writing music that takes into account the ways in which leading theorists and scholars believe that people actually listen to music. The actual arguments are pretty complex, but in effect, Lerdahl has designed an entirely new model of the exchange between composers and listeners in contemporary Western classical music. Still, somehow, he has time to come up to Cornell for two lectures and a concert. Yesterday, he gave a lecture, along with Prof. Carol Krumhansl, psychology, called “Modeling Tonal Tension,” which delved into the cognitive science of music appreciation. Today, Lerdahl will present his new works at the weekly composer’s forum, at 1:25 in Lincoln 220.
Lerdahl’s “Fantasy Etudes” will be performed Saturday night at 8 p.m. in Barnes Hall. The concert is being put on by Ensemble X, Ithaca’s standard-bearer for new classical music, directed by Cornell faculty composer Steven Stucky. In addition to one of Lerdahl’s compositions, the group will perform a new piece by composer Xi Wang, entitled “Three Images.” For a small ensemble of winds, strings, piano and percussion, Xi’s composition channels everything from her memories of women crying to evocations of the chanting of monks to music described by Xi as having “an aroma of bitter smile.” Finally, the concert will feature works by composers Stephen Hartke, who cites influences of bebop, gamelan music and Stravinsky, and Witold Lutoslawski. Saturday’s piece “Oh Them Rats Is Mean In My Kitchen,” is gloriously spastic and apocalyptically jazzy.
Lutoslawski was one of the most important composers that Poland has ever produced. He moved from being influenced by the folk music of Poland to developing his own textures that utilized chance-based processes. Outside of the music world, Lutoslawski was also active in political change, using his artistic clout to provide solidarity to a group of Polish musicians who boycotted the oppressive Soviet government in protest.
The weekend doesn’t end there. On Sunday, the Cornell Chamber Orchestra gives its first concert of 2007, with an abundance of guest appearances. On the program are two string orchestra pieces by Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughn-Williams. In addition, Profs. Annette Richards and David Yearsley will join for the Double Concerto by C.P.E. Bach, one of the more successful composers of the famous Bach’s many sons. My personal favorite on the program is a Concertino by Italian modernist Luciano Berio, who was one of the big figures in Italian concert music of the 20th century. This piece, which will feature violinist Steve Miahky and visiting clarinetist Richard Faria, is marked by incredibly dense textures of strings, clarinet, celesta and harp. At times the emotional build-ups are not unlike a suspense film soundtrack, and throughout, the clarinet does some pretty impressive showing off.
Finally, on Sunday night at 8 p.m. visiting flutist Daria Binkowski, visiting cellist Ellinor Frey and graduate student pianist Emily Green will be performing a host of new music at Barnes Hall. The concert is a reunion of sorts, as the former two contemporary music specialists played with Steven Stucky in Aspen in 2005. On the program is more music by Xi Wang, a piece by graduate student composer Stephen Gorbos and several other works for flute, cello and piano, alone and together.
If this isn’t enough to chew on, you could always stop over to the Nines, where on Saturday night at 10p.m. many, including yours truly, will be rocking out with student band Leopold Bloom.