Thursday, March 28, 2013

Iowa Sounds

Last night, I heard the premiere of David Gompper's Double Concerto, featuring violinist Wolfgang David and cellist Timothy Gill. It's a rich and contemplative work, and it's one of those pieces you can't wait to hear recorded--subtle gradations in orchestral timbre mix in with quiet and resonant solo themes, one of those pieces that invites the audience to lean in and experience a new world. (Or, don't it always seem to go, to shuffle around and clear their throat right when, in the closing cadenza, the soloists converge on angelic double-stops. Some things never change.)

The Double Concerto was an outgrowth/reworking of Dialogue I, premiered by the same performers last year. Given the stillness, warmth, and clarity of last night's premiere, it's not surprising to read that the extensive revisions took place at Banff. The timbral subtlety evoked that kind of naturalistic stereophony one gets from Rothko Chapel or (in another stylistic vein entirely) the more mysterious episodes of Boulez's Derivé, where wisps of motives flicker around you.

Gompper's a UI professor, and lately, my research projects--focusing on institutionalized structures and projects of "new music"-making in the 1960s--have been synthesizing the local and the international, seeing Iowa as a site of innovation, part and parcel of a decentralized arts subsidy strategy. (Check out the Rockefeller Foundation reports if you want to see just how much money was flying around.)

Still, it's somewhat frustrating that these innovations too often seem--when viewed on paper--so remote and inaccessible (not Gompper's--I'm referring here to the long out-of-print CTI recordings, a national treasure of a record label to be sure). For all the casual scholarly and journalistic talk of "academic composition" as a totalitarian regime, it sure is hard to find recordings even of many oft-studied pieces. 

That's why I was heartened, lately, to come across the University of Iowa's Iowa Sounds database, a project that I'm sure has peers but will be very useful to 20th-century music buffs. There's an embarrassment of riches, including some stunning choral albums led by electronic music pioneer Kenneth Gaburo (with Bethany Beardslee, among others, in the choir). Another terrific recording features Paul Zukovsky (!), peerless American new music violinist, in a compelling reading of Charles Wuorinen's edgy Concerto for Amplified Violin and Orchestra, with the UI orchestra under the direction of James Dixon (another figure with deep and storied roots in the history of American music). 

There's also work that hasn't aged well, historically speaking, but somehow becomes all the more charming for the wear. Some of it is restricted, but Iowa Ear Music was:

Recorded in a variety of informal and formal non-public situations between 1967 and 1976.Includes "the ’Four Room Session’ of March 1973:..performers were isolated in four completely,separate rooms (connected... by microphones and headphones)Following a strict time schedule, the performers grouped and regrouped themselves in the four rooms..using nothing but theirears to guide them...."

It's on vinyl, under the corn pride label. YES.

For the less, um, adventuresome among you, there are hundreds of choral and chamber recordings, with a broad swath of repertoire.

At a time when artists (as ever) have been forced to justify the public investment in them, reciprocating state funding with goodwill gestures that make performances, recordings--and scholarship--more publicly consumable and accessible seems like a fair trade. I have a friend, a terrific computer musician, who has arcane interests in 1960s information theory. Making an honest living as a programmer and touring musician, however, he lacks access to a lot of walled research consortiums and recording databases. He's highly trained, and--arguably--does as much to spread knowledge about computer music than any professor. He once tried to buy a study of Lejaren Hiller, only to find the $200+ price tag prohibitively expensive.

We should be paying people to read books about Lejaren Hiller. There are thousands of people like him, highly trained musicians looking to engage and celebrate their craft beyond the academy, who are omnivorous and hungry consumers of musical content.

 Let's be real--the commercial implications of a "four room session" are, will always be, and have always been, absolutely negligible. But as a document, it's absolutely vital that we share what we do and what we've done in order to better articulate why we must do it.

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