To jazz musician Duke Ellington, there are just two kinds of music: “The good kind and the other kind. If it sounds good, it’s successful; if it doesn’t, it has failed; and it depends on who’s listening.”
The label “new music” could mean anything these days. Wet Ink, Nevada County Composers Cooperative’s annual concert of new music, now in its 10th year, encourages us to set aside our preconceptions.
The concert, part of Music in the Mountains SummerFest, offers an intriguing program by four local composers (and some outliers) performed by the trio of violinist Richard Altenbach, cellist David Eby and pianist Toon Vandervorst, the MIM Chamber Choir, acclaimed West Coast Soprano Carrie Hennessey and Sacramento-based trio Rootstock Percussion.
Richard Altenbach’s “Poe-etic Reflections: Five Baga-tales of passion and the macabre” are impressions for piano trio of writings by Edgar Alan Poe. The work conjures the moods created by Poe’s words, but Altenbach goes beyond the texts to express what words alone cannot say.
Toon Vandevorst’s “Copper and Iron” also has a literary theme, inspired by the myth of a boy maturing into independence with help of the wild man, Iron John, one of the fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. The first movement of a planned three movement piano trio, the work, says Vandevorst, “owes a lot to the music of my teacher, Terry Riley.”
Riley, leading proponent of Minimalism, was one of the founding members of the Composers Cooperative.
The literary theme (by chance, all the composers were inspired by literary texts) continues in Jerry Grant’s “Island in Space” for choir, electroacoustics and video. The work speaks of our place in the cosmos and our tenuous stewardship of the world. Grant has adapted words of such writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson and T. S. Eliot and incorporates quotes from astronauts. The MIM chamber choir sings the impassioned plea to care for our planet, electroacoustic sounds evoke the universe, and images created by videographers Dick Mentzer and Mike Bloebaum remind us of the beauty of our globe. It’s an out-of-this-world blend of sound, words and imagery.
Using words as their own vehicle, Mark Vance’s setting of three poems by Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875-1939) features soprano Hennessey and the Rootstock Percussion. The poet speaks of how easy it is to be distracted from what really matters. He expresses his anguish at the death of his wife, and creates luscious dream imagery of the God in his heart. For Vance, the words are foremost, while percussion highlights the intensity of the emotions.
The program is rounded out by works for percussion performed by Rootstock, last heard at Wet Ink in 2010, by Stephen Reich, inspired by African drumming, the University of California at Berkeley’s John MacCallum and Guo Wenjing, professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory. Video projections of the performers and their instruments will add to the experience.
“The public does not want new music,” said Swiss composer Arthur Honegger. “The main thing it demands of a composer is that he be dead.”
Well, not in Nevada County, where we prefer our composers very much alive and exploring the rich possibilities of new music.
Charles Atthill lives in Alta Sierra. His experience as a percussionist is limited to banging on a saucepan.