Whim vs. rigor

The 26th annual Festival of New American Music just opened at CSUS. Most of it is free and well worth checking out

Not a maroon: Steven Mackey, this year’s most featured composer at the Festival of New American Music.

Not a maroon: Steven Mackey, this year’s most featured composer at the Festival of New American Music.

On the surface, the new OutKast single “Hey Ya!” has almost nothing to do with the Festival of New American Music (FeNAM). What can a ubiquitous dance-pop hit have in common with a program, spread over 12 days, that presents the modern expression of music from the concert-hall or classical tradition, mixed with a healthy dose of avant-garde jazz?

However, listen more closely to “Hey Ya!”—a song that adroitly straddles the juncture of pop music, hip-hop, R&B and rock—and you’ll hear a bass line played loosely on a tuba, along with some furious noodling on some kind of keyboard instrument. What makes the song so much fun is that it sounds as if it was conceived in a spirit of carefree experimentation.

And experimentation, or at least the willingness to push musical boundaries over a metaphorical cliff, is what FeNAM, held every November at California State University, Sacramento, is all about.

Granted, little if any of the music performed at the festival will display the booty-shaking ebullience of “Hey Ya!”; the compositions played at FeNAM tend to have an appeal that’s far more cerebral than visceral. But if there’s any joy to be found in the discovery of new sonic landscapes, this festival is the best place in town to find it. And most of its events are free.

The opening-night gala, on Wednesday, November 5, at the Sterling Hotel, featured the music of composers Steven Mackey, Andrew Imbrie, Wayne Peterson and Leo Eylar, played by the chamber ensembles “eighth blackbird” and the Sun Quartet, along with violinist Rolf Schulte and pianist James Winn. The event was broadcast live on Capital Public Radio.

Though that gala preceded the Thursday appearance of this paper by one day, the remainder of the festival, beginning November 6 and running through Sunday, November 16, is still open for exploration. In addition to musical performances, there will be “master classes” (seminars conducted by performers), lectures and composer forums spread throughout the two weeks. Many of the events will take place on the CSUS campus. Other performances will take place at 11 high-school and four community-college campuses, along with the Crocker Art Museum—which charges the only admission to the otherwise free festival. (A full schedule, too lengthy to list here, is available online at www.csus.edu/events/fenam2003.html.)

There’s also a keynote address, by Steven Mackey, a Princeton University music professor and composer. The theme of that address, “Whim and Rigor: Finding a Balance Between Discipline and Spontaneity,” which Mackey will deliver at noon on Monday, November 10, nicely encapsulates the two opposing forces of stasis and novelty, or the problems posed by marrying the rigid architecture of the post-classical tradition to the more fluid dynamics of jazz and improvisation-based music.

"[Whim and rigor] actually goes far in describing Mackey’s music,” said Stephen Blumberg, the co-director of FeNAM (this year with Steve Roach; longtime director Dan Kennedy has been on sabbatical). “In some ways, it’s very structured, and he writes incredibly intricate music that’s on a very high level, in terms of writing idiomatically for instruments; it’s just very well-crafted and well-wrought. And yet it’s also—he doesn’t take himself too seriously. There’s a parodistic element to his titles. He’s postmodernist. It’s interesting; he teaches at Princeton, and in some ways, he kind of took Milton Babbitt’s place, and Babbitt is, like, one of the most super-structuralist, post-serialist composers. And I think that to have a guy who started his life playing electric guitar and then ended up teaching composition at Princeton, there’s that whim-and-rigor thing. In some ways, he’s quite rigorous.”

Many FeNAMs of past years—this is its 26th year—have featured one composer whose presence dominates the festival, and this year that composer is Mackey. In addition to the keynote address and the opening gala, 47-year-old Mackey will team with electronic composer Rand Steiger for a composer’s forum (Friday, November 7) and a performance (Saturday, November 8) with Mackey on electric guitar. Mackey also will perform with the New York-based new-music quartet Mosaic (Monday, November 10), and his music will be part of a multi-composer program by the Chicago-based chamber sextet eighth blackbird (Friday, November 7).

Mackey, a one-time undergrad at the University of California, Davis, has written a number of works. Local music fans may be familiar with his musical-theater piece Ravenshead, performed by vocalist Rinde Eckert. Mackey’s concerto Tuck and Roll, recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony, came out on the RCA Victor Red Seal label in 2001. One reviewer described Mackey’s music as a Bugs Bunny cartoon jointly scored by Frank Zappa and Charles Ives, which is close to the mark, although Mackey’s electric-guitar tone on the Tuck and Roll pieces is more like somewhere between Utopia-era Todd Rundgren and 1970s jazz-fusion player Larry Coryell. One of Mackey’s string-quartet works, Ars Moriendi, is a musical expression of the physical manifestations of the death experience, which Mackey wrote after observing his father’s passing. At FeNAM, Mackey’s 1989 chamber work Indigenous Instruments will be performed by eighth blackbird.

The astonishing Infinitesimal Flash Quartet will close the Festival of New American Music. Members are: Adam Lane, Mat Marucci, John Tchicai and Francis Wong.

Blumberg will have his own limelight moment at the festival. He collaborated on a piece with another CSUS instructor, Rachel Clarke, an electronic media artist. Blumberg began scoring the nine-minute-15-second composition for flute/alto flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano and then presented his preliminary musical scaffolds to Clarke, who began sketching the accompanying visuals using Macromedia Flash animation. “We collaborated on this from the start,” Blumberg explained. “We actually conceived of it together as a piece that would be involving live instrumental performance and projected video animation. And her animation is actually—well, she’s calling it, like, an animation drawing. It’s actually hand-drawn animation in a computer program.”

The composition, titled “Skirr,” got its world premiere on Sunday, November 2, at the Mondavi Center, played by the Davis-based chamber group Empyrean Ensemble; the same program will repeat on Sunday, November 9, at CSUS.

“The word ‘skirr’ is English,” Blumberg explained. “It’s kind of obscure. It means to fly or go rapidly over, or to search rapidly for something. It also refers to a whirring sound. I found the word after Rachel and I were talking about something that would involve perpetual motion. And when I found this word, I thought it would be a good kind of guiding image for the whole piece.”

Blumberg described the music as fast and relentless music that changes character rapidly. “At the beginning, it’s really kind of intense and edgy, and then it seems to be, oh, more kind of scurrying in little fragments and things, in different places. And then, later, I think it really does kind of soar and really fly and glide.

“Before I wrote the piece, I came up with this kind of geometrical shape that guides the piece,” he added. “It’s like the registral face, kind of like the map of the boundaries of the piece. It has a real strict time structure, and then it also has boundaries on the [musical] registers. In other words, it starts on the midrange, and it can only go out so far.”

According to the composer, “Skirr” is exactly 1,000 beats long. “After I designed the architecture, I just composed my way through it,” he said. “And before I was even that far into it, Rachel started doing the animation. It really was influencing each other back and forth.”

For Clarke, the collaboration presented a challenge to find an appropriate visual analogue to Blumberg’s music. When Blumberg presented her with a floor plan of what he was planning to build, Clarke went to work, laboriously sketching her part, frame by frame, with a stylus onto a pad hooked to a computer.

“The way I would describe it, visually, it’s kind of like a living drawing. It’s like a line that grows and moves and changes, and so there’s this constant sense of metamorphosis. The quality is quite abstract at times, and then, at other times, it seems to kind of appear like there’s something actually there that you could recognize, but it never really firms up into anything. It moves and changes, and there’s another metamorphosis, and it changes into something else. It kind of follows along with the moods and the ebb and flow of the music.”

According to the animator, the visual component of “Skirr” consists of more than 8,000 frames. Blumberg and Clarke will present a composer’s forum on Thursday, November 13. Other such forums include those by Andrew Imbrie (Thursday, November 6), Leo Eylar (Tuesday, November 11), Ross Bauer (Tuesday, November 11), and Belinda Reynolds and Alex Shapiro (Thursday, November 13).

Three jazz programs are worth mentioning: the Delbert Bump Jazz Organ Quintet (Wednesday, November 12); Capital Jazz Project with guest trombonist Conrad Herwig (Friday, November 14); and the festival’s closing performance, Danish-Congolese avant-garde jazz tenor saxophonist/flutist John Tchicai, who lived in Davis until 2001 and now resides in Paris. Tchicai will perform with his Infinitesimal Flash Quartet (tenor saxophonist/flutist Francis Wong, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Mat Marucci) on Sunday, November 16. That group, which also will perform at the Palms in Winters on Thursday, November 20, is the perfect embodiment of Mackey’s dictum of whim vs. rigor. Tchicai played on John Coltrane’s landmark 1965 album Ascension; he and the other members of this quartet use African and Asian motifs as a springboard for interplanetary exploration.

As Blumberg put it, “I do think that at the festival, we’re often promoting things, sometimes by people who are already well-known. And other times, we’re kind of foreshadowing things.” According to him, Mackey is pretty well-known, although he’s not an elder statesman yet. Tchicai is a real find, a jazz giant and elder statesman whose brilliance hasn’t been recognized by the world at large—not yet, anyway. And there are many other moments of brilliance to be found here. Are you curious?