Friday, June 29, 2018

concert review: Visual Piano

There's a lot of small and obscure performing arts venues in San Francisco, and last night I was at one of the smaller and obscurer, the Center for New Music, carved out of a bit of a warehouse in the Tenderloin, for a program called Visual Piano.

Two performers from Italy were featured on this program. Francesco Di Fiore played the piano nearly unceasingly, and with unflagging high energy, for forty minutes, while Valeria Di Matteo stood over in a corner manipulating her laptop to show films on a large screen.

The music consisted of a dozen short pieces, succeeding each other with no formal breaks, by five contemporary composers of three nationalities: two Italian (Di Fiore himself and Matteo Sommacal), two American (William Susman and Olivia Kieffer), and one Dutch (Douwe Eisenga). Despite their varied origins, and definite individual distinctiveness, their music was all of basically the same kind.

As for what kind that was, one other concertgoer I talked with described one piece as a combination of Ginastera, Prokofiev, and Bartok. This determined attempt to graft the evening's music onto a respectable high modernist (if presumably primitivist) pedigree was a valiant try at selling it by a now old-fashioned set of standards, but allow me to suggest that the comparison was specious.

This music was post-minimalist. It consisted almost exclusively of repeated arpeggiated phrases over oscillating accompaniment, which is the basis of process minimalism; and what made it post- was, it achieved variety not through cell-shifting or additive processes, but by assortments of speeds, timbres, and energy levels. Nor, except occasionally, did it cease abruptly. The other most obvious influence was smooth jazz of the Windham Hill school, which contributed not just phrasing and sound quality but also, it seemed to me, much of the individual pieces' structure.

That there are so many composers willing to write, not just tonal and pleasing, yet distinctively 21st-century (nothing like this existed before about 30 years ago), music, but nearly identikit cadre music the way that the modernist hordes used to write identikit serialist music is astonishing to me, but not entirely unwelcome. I liked all of this music and would happily give all the composers the time of day, but its tight similarity of style was a little disconcerting. I did say the composers had some individual character, but Susman - the only one I'd ever heard before - differs from all of the rest far more than any of them differ from each other, and sounds like a dissonant modernist in this context, which is actually a pretty hilarious observation.

The visuals were short films tied to each individual piece. Some of them were Reggio-like divided-screen stuttering close-ups of the inside of a piano or of feet on an escalator or the like, but my favorites consisted of grease-pencil shore-scape drawings with tiny bits of quiet animation - seagulls (depicted as wavy line fragments) or a motorboat going by, trees waving in the wind, etc. - salted in.

That was half the program; the other consisted of 25 minutes of more music of the same kind by Di Fiore, played by the piano duet Zofo or by half of Zofo plus a soprano sax, a variety small enough to look silly, though it sounded good. Tiny instrument, tiny program, tiny pieces, tiny venue, tiny audience, but a big enough reward to be worth the trip up to the City for it.

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