To better stay a perceived erosion of French cultural significance and language, the government of France is energetic in supporting French artists abroad. To insure performances of their contemporary music in the U.S., it means giving grants to large or small organizations that will devote shows to French sounds and influences. A few years ago, there was a major “Sounds French” festival at New York’s Lincoln Center. Bent Frequency, an Atlanta group that celebrates the avant-garde and is linked with Georgia State University, gave its own sponsored Francophile concert a couple of seasons back.
Georgia Tech’s Sonic Generator offered “The French-American Connection” in the school’s Alumni House ballroom on November 16. Right up front, SG Director Jason Freeman thanked its partnership with the Cultural Services section of the French Embassy.
The trouble with any thematic program is that you listen hard for trends and aesthetic alliances, even if the sample size isn’t large enough to be representative. Here just two active Frenchmen were included.
The first was François Sarhan, born in 1972. His “Pirouette, cacahouète,” from 2001, is a novelty piece with a piercing heart. The composer loved hearing his three-year-old niece sing the nursery rhyme in the bathtub. One truism (which the French themselves talk about) is that they love their own language; their mother tongue is its own music (and thus any piece of composed music played by instruments falls somewhere lower on the hierarchy). This toddler has a playfully cute voice, as all tots do, but what’s striking about Sarhan’s “Pirouette, cacahouète,” a little waltz lasting four minutes, is the attention paid to the rises and falls of the language, the infectious joy of dispatching a bass clarinet (played by Ted Gurch), a violin (Helen Hwaya Kim) and percussion (Tom Sherwood) to ride the waves of song and laughter and splashing water that accompanies a homemade recording of the girl singing. Not a masterpiece, but clever and endearing. And very French: the love of the language is fixed in blurry pastel harmonies that ooze post-Impressionism.
Pierre Jodlowski, the other active Frenchman on the program, was born in 1971 and comes from the opposite aesthetic. An architect might describe Jodlowski’s 11-minute “Collapsed” (2007) as a work of Brutalism. With Gurch on soprano sax and Sherwood on a variety of percussion instruments, it opens with a sonic boom and a radiant cacophony that sounds improvisatory with no pulse, no sense of rhythm or movement — all of which are the byproduct of extremely dense atonal writing. There are electronic slurps and crashes and zoinks. It is brutal. The second section is milder, yet the sax-percussion duo still doesn’t fit together, they don’t seem to know each other. The composer says in a program note that “Collapsed” speaks about the state of the world, “of a form of degeneration which progressively limits the borders of our intellectual maneuvers.”
The show opened with “Density 21.5” by Edgard Varèse, a visionary Frenchman who moved to America in 1915. It was written in 1936 for a new flute made of platinum (although today the density is measured as 21.09 g/cubic cm). Jessica Peek Sherwood’s warm, purring tone and machine-tool precision painted an image of desperate humanity trapped in the motor age.
“Orphée” by John Zorn, a raucously talented American jazz-alt-classical performer and composer, was inspired by the Orpheus legend. It sounds like industrial-strength Debussy, as if Monet’s water lily pond became polluted by toxic sludge. There are also lovely repeated patterns, and each instrument gets a haunting, solo bit. Scored for a sextet — flute (Peek Sherwood), viola (Joli Wu), harp (Elisabeth Remy Johnson), electronic keyboard (Lisa Leong), percussion (Sherwood) and electronics (with Andrew Colella at the laptop) — the 11-minute piece carries the listener with elements of narrative, or at least invites you to create your own imagery to accompany the serene and aggressive scenes. It’s scary, and wonderful.
Philip Glass’ “Metamorphosis IV” was composed in 1988 and, like most of the composer’s best work, is linked to drama: it was incidental music to a play based on Kafka’s short story. (Glass’ Francophilic leanings are well known; he also studied in Paris with that legendary teacher of young American composers, Nadia Boulanger.) Though it was originally for solo piano, Brad Ritchie played “Metamorphosis IV” in an arrangement by former Kronos Quartet cellist Joan Jeanrenaud for four cellos. In a suit and tie, Ritchie sat and played one of the parts. Behind him, a three-way split screen projected video of him playing the three other parts.
This was done for humor. Each of the three Brads wore a different outfit and conveyed different personalities on screen. One Brad, looking like a doofus in a sports cap and jersey, yawned as he counted his measures of rest and protested when his dreiergängers — is that a word? — got to play and he didn’t. (The video was created by Thomas Barnwell.) Musically, this is eight minutes of very compelling Philip Glass, but the Brad quartet failed to heighten the little harmonic eruption that comes in the middle and coasted throughout. It was a case where messing with new technology distracted the musician(s) from the prime directive.
Steve Reich, along with Glass a superstar of American music, has no obvious French connection, but his “Double Sextet,” from 2007, fit the instrumentation on hand and made a terrific addition. The work isn’t Reich’s finest, and the slow middle section is dull. But it won the composer an overdue Pulitzer Prize — a case where the award was enhanced more by the reputation of the winner than the winner by the reputation of the award. Six Sonic Generator musicians played against a tape of another six musicians, and it was all dispatched crisply but without much tension till near the end, when the Reichian euphoria kicked in. For the few minutes it lasted, bliss.