Apr 16, 2012
The New Yorker
by Alex Ross
Michael Tilson Thomas’s “American Mavericks” festival.
In 1911, Hervey White, the founder of the Maverick Arts Colony, in Woodstock, New York, published an epic poem entitled “The Adventures of Young Maverick,” in which he extolled a wild horse, “free from the ownership of any master.” White’s utopian activities probably hastened the spread of the word “maverick”—associated at first with unbranded cattle—as a metaphor for independent-mindedness in American culture and politics. In recent decades, the term has spiralled inexorably toward meaninglessness. If Madonna, Sarah Palin, the Dallas basketball team, and the Tom Cruise character in “Top Gun” are mavericks, then everyone is, and no one.
In American musical history, though, the word retains a rough descriptive value, indicating a lineage of nonconformist composers that goes back a century to Charles Ives, the insurance executive who revelled in sonic chaos on the weekends. Others in this succession are Carl Ruggles, the irascible New Englander with a flair for discord; Edgard Varèse, the French expatriate who set the pace for New York’s early modernist scene; Henry Cowell, the California pioneer of cluster chords and open forms; Harry Partch, the sometime hobo who devised instruments pegged to a forty-three-note scale; Lou Harrison, the celebrant of the Indonesian gamelan; Conlon Nancarrow, the master manipulator of the player piano; and, of course, John Cage, the genial emperor of the avant-garde.
Partch spoke of maverick artists in his formidable 1949 text “Genesis of a Music.” In the nineteen-seventies, Philip Glass saluted the “maverick tradition,” linking outsider music of the early twentieth century to the rebellious onset of minimalism. Michael Tilson Thomas, the longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony, adopted the word for a pair of festivals that he mounted in 1996 and 2000; the first edition is happily burned in my memory as a boisterous uprising against a staid orchestral culture. Last month, Tilson Thomas revived the theme, presenting four “American Mavericks” concerts at home, in San Francisco; at the University Music Society, in Ann Arbor; and, finally, at Carnegie Hall, whose programmers shook off the caution of recent seasons and arranged auxiliary events at spaces around the city.
After eight concerts in eight days, I found the “maverick” label hazier than ever, particularly when it came time to induct living composers into the club. As John Pickford Richards, the violist of the JACK Quartet, commented in a program note accompanying the group’s contribution to the festival—a blistering traversal of Ives’s Second Quartet, Ruth Crawford Seeger’s “String Quartet 1931,” and Steven Mackey’s “Physical Property”—anyone foolish enough to pursue a living as a composer is going against the grain. Unless you happen to be named Philip Glass, the corporate colossus of popular culture has no use for you. Yet, a few lulls aside, the musical offerings were so enthralling that I soon stopped worrying about the “m” word. In the end, it sticks. Not by accident, the première of Cage’s “4’33″”—the famous 1952 piece in which the performer makes no sound—took place at the Maverick Concert Hall, in Woodstock, with a wooden statue of Hervey White’s wild horse listening in.
Cage, whose hundredth anniversary arrives in September, was at the heart of “American Mavericks.” The first San Francisco Symphony concert at Carnegie opened with his “Song Books,” a 1970 work that calls for a comprehensive tumult of sounds and activities. A starry trio of vocal soloists was on hand to realize Cage’s brain-teasing instructions: Joan La Barbara, a veteran Cage interpreter; Meredith Monk, one of the few living musicians fully deserving of the “maverick” name; and Jessye Norman, in all her diva splendor. The Carnegie main stage was transformed into a kind of homemade habitat in which these singers, Tilson Thomas, and musicians from the San Francisco Symphony moved about and made noise, with video projections magnifying their gestures. The highlight came when Norman, executing Solo 15 of “Song Books,” sat at a typewriter and repeatedly banged out a phrase from the writings of Erik Satie (“The artist has no right to waste the audience’s time,” in French), while Tilson Thomas fed a cucumber, celery, carrots, an apple, and a banana into a Cuisinart and made himself a smoothie.
The proceedings unfolded with graceful absurdity, although you never quite forgot that a group of celebrity artists was paying homage to Cage. The previous night’s “Mavericks” concert—a Cage tribute by the ensemble So Percussion—had a more riotous immediacy. Drew Daniel and M. C. Schmidt, of the electronic duo Matmos, joined the members of So for a collage of canonical Cage pieces and new works created for the group by Cenk Ergün, Dan Deacon, and the performers themselves. The event lasted ninety-one minutes—4’33″ times twenty—with a chronometer onstage supplying a countdown; the clock came in handy for Deacon’s “Take a Deep Breath,” which invited the audience to hoot, holler, stamp, sing, and set off smartphone alarms at intervals designated in a handout. Meanwhile, Schmidt, dressed in a classic Cagean outfit of a gray suit and a slender tie, recited the monologue “45′ for a Speaker,” and Daniel did thirty pushups, in keeping with Cage’s instruction to “perform a disciplined action.” (He later stripped to his underwear.) The evening was an exhilarating blend of precision and anarchy, rigor and bedlam—Cage punkishly reinvented for a new generation, without nostalgia for the old downtown scene.
Tilson Thomas and the San Franciscans were at their best in honoring the monuments of the maverick tradition. Varèse’s 1921 juggernaut “Amériques,” which concluded the first concert, received an opulent, flawlessly balanced performance, avoiding the sense of overkill that can ensue in less assured hands. The second concert brought together Ruggles’s “Sun-Treader,” Morton Feldman’s “Piano and Orchestra,” and Henry Brant’s crisp orchestration of the Ives “Concord” Sonata, here retitled “A Concord Symphony.” The genius of this program was that it slyly subverted the business-as-usual subscription concert, which all too often supplies an orchestral opener, a concerto, and a symphony. Tilson Thomas served up an overture of apocalyptic force, a concerto in which the piano hovers on the edge of silence (Emanuel Ax was the hypersensitive soloist), and a symphony incorporating both monolithic dissonance and marching-band vulgarity.
Other orchestras hardly touch this music, but in San Francisco it has become standard fare, and the authority of the playing was staggering. “Sun-Treader,” which Ruggles completed in 1931, is one of the most potent works ever conceived in an atonal idiom, and under Tilson Thomas it took on Beethovenian inevitability, not to mention Mahlerian heat in the section marked “Serene, but with great expression.” The fact that this was only its third New York rendition in more than twenty years should be a source of local embarrassment. (The good news for Ruggles fans is that the San Francisco new-music organization Other Minds will soon reissue Tilson Thomas’s recorded survey of the composer’s output, which appeared on LP in 1980 but, inexplicably, never made it to CD.)
A sixty-thousand-dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Arts helped the San Francisco Symphony, and its partners, commission four new pieces for “American Mavericks.” The loveliest of these was Monk’s “Realm Variations,” for six singers and seven instrumentalists, with a piccolo player taking the lead role. While the likes of Ruggles and Varèse rant majestically against the world, Monk, like Feldman before her, seeks out alternative spaces of repose; in “Realm Variations,” the dynamic level never rises above forte, and layerings of folkish melody are interspersed with deep-breathing silences. One episode suggested a scene on a transcendental pond, with the upper voices murmuring like insects, the piccolo chirping insistently, and a contrabass clarinet joining Sidney Chen, the bass member of the Monk vocal ensemble, to sound like a maverick frog. Monk, with Tilson Thomas’s encouragement, has turned toward concert forms in recent years, and “Realm Variations” is her most cogent, confident effort to date.
John Adams’s “Absolute Jest,” the other keeper among the commissions, is a manic takeoff on the scherzo movements of the late Beethoven quartets, with hints of the “Grosse Fuge” and the Scherzo of the Ninth Symphony thrown in. Although, at twenty-five minutes, it may have gone on a bit long, it offers the engaging spectacle of one major composer thrashing around in the sound world of another. Morton Subotnick’s “Jacob’s Room: Monodrama” and Mason Bates’s “Mass Transmission” took on ambitious topics—the agony of world conflict, the ecstasy of global communication—but in both cases the musical invention lagged behind the concept. Bates’s post-minimalist note-spinning sounded especially feeble in the company of the adamantine elders. A friend commented that if he were a composer this festival would make him want to tear up everything on his desk and start over.
Some younger composers, fortunately, need no spur to move forward. In a downtown extension of “American Mavericks,” the Brooklyn-based new-music impresario Nick Hallett, who co-hosts an invaluable series called “Darmstadt: Classics of the Avant-Garde” at ISSUE Project Room, presented a pair of concerts at the Kitchen. These events, too, were an up-and-down affair, at times numbingly tedious in time-honored downtown fashion. An attempt at resurrecting Arthur Russell’s “Instrumentals,” a semi-legendary 1975 spectacle that wedded minimalist repetition to easy-listening pop, propelled about half the audience toward the exits, and left me writhing in my seat. (Ear-stabbing amplification didn’t help.) A group of pieces for jazz septet, by the guitarist and composer Mary Halvorson, explored the border zones between genres with a great deal more zest. William Basinski’s 2008 electronic work “Vivian & Ondine” dwelled for forty-five minutes on a four-note lamenting figure; my mind wandered, though it did not yearn to flee the premises.
The most arresting new piece of the Kitchen sub-series, and perhaps of the entire festival, was “Dual Synthesis,” by the twenty-nine-year-old New York composer Tristan Perich. An old-school eccentric who drew media attention a few years ago for carrying around a bulky push-button telephone outfitted with cellular capability, Perich has specialized in pieces for one-bit electronics—raw, buzzing sonorities harking back to the early days of synthesized sound. “Dual Synthesis” mixes those saw-toothed textures with hallucinogenic arpeggios on a harpsichord, here played with extreme virtuosity by Daniel Walden. The antique machines of different ages came together in a hurtling form, savage and beautiful and strange. ♦