It has taken me quite a while to appreciate the unassuming art of Philip Corner. One must acquire the taste, and this does not come easily, as Corner’s music involves a kind of subtlety that one does not find in other current music. It is never at all showy, and it requires a unique type of performer who knows how to keep his personality out of the way of the music. Aesthetically the attitude seems to have more to do with Zen and nature than with our musical past.
Sometimes Corner and his fellow musicians simply hold a mallet in one place and allow a swinging bell to make contact in its own time and in its own way. Sometimes they blow tones so soft that one hears more wind than tone. Most of the time the performers are involved in independent activities and don’t pay much attention to each other. Yet they always work with a common attitude, and even the sporadic rhythms which result seem vaguely logical, like the rhythm of leaves falling from a tree.
Corner makes calligraphic posters with brush strokes and verbal phrases that suggest ways of producing a sound or listening to one, and some of these were on exhibition at the Kitchen during his three-day series last week, but he does not notate his current music in any specific way. His musicians have all worked together quite a bit before, however, and all of the performances which I heard seemed clearly focused on specific attitudes. Several of these, billed under the generic title of ‘Metal Meditations,’ involve an extensive collection of bells, and numerous other metal objects. In some of these ‘meditations’ the musicians remain in one place. In others they wander around the space. Sometimes microphones are used for subtle effects.
Typical of Corner’s unpretentiousness and his genuine openness to all sounds, he did not allow his programs to be dominated completely by his own ideas, but left quite a bit of room for pieces by other composers. These included a very curious piano piece by Edward Grieg, called ‘Bell Ringing,’ other short keyboard works by Bach, Tomkins, Rameau, Satie, Hauer, Schoenberg, and Feldman, and a fascinating piece by one of the musicians, Carole Weber, which requires several performers to play percussion instruments in the tempo of their individual pulse rates.
Most impressive, however, was a new work called ‘Circular Thoughts’ by another one of the musicians, Daniel Goode. This solo clarinet piece is ingenious, and the skill with which the composer performs it is nothing short of astounding. Most of the piece involves a seven-note scale which ripples upward over and over again at a terribly fast tempo. As he plays this, Goode somehow manages to isolate certain tones with tiny accents, creating an overlay of other melodies which are sometimes quite intricate. Occasionally the basic scale-wise pattern shifts, or accidentals are inserted, sometimes so subtly that the listener is not sure whether he is hearing what he thinks he is hearing or not. On top of all that, Goode plays almost the entire 15-minutes piece without a pause, employing that rarely mastered technique of continuous breathing, where one inhales through his nose without stopping the tone.