Young Composers Series: John Adams, Michael Nyman, Paul Dresher, Ingram Marshall February 5, 1979

My head is still swimming from all the music I confronted at the New International Young Composers Concerts Series, sponsored by the Reich Music Foundation. At least half of the time the compositional level was extremely high, and many of the works reached into areas of musical style that have never been encountered by New York concertgoers. I don’t think it’s possible to fully process that much information in only a few days, but I can at least offer a few generalities and a few basic observations on four composers who were represented on these three concerts at the Guggenheim Museum, January 16-18.

John Adams, 31, teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where he directs a new music ensemble and frequently presents experimental music to San Francisco audiences. His ‘Shaker Loops’ was probably the most effective single piece in the series, but it shouldn’t have worked at all. If music is going to charge ahead with Beethoven-like energy, and move through widely contrasting moods, then it’s obvious that it must have some kind of overall dramatic structure that makes sense. Transitions have to be prepared, climaxes have to be reached at exactly the right time, and so on. It’s similarly obvious that music based in minimalism, with repeated figures, simple harmony, and lots of repetition, has to stay on an even keel and progress only very slowly and subtly. Yet Adams takes seven stringed instruments, writes rather simple textures of sustained tones, tremolos, and repeated figures, and proceeds to break all the rules by blithely submitting his materials to sudden modulations and drastic mood changes, without preparing anything. And somehow he makes everything work. The highly charged ‘Shaker Loops,’ which the composer conducted himself, seems to open up a whole new area of formal possibilities. Adams’s virtuoso piano piece, ‘Phrygian Gates,’ played with this same basic contradiction between developmental form and minimalist form, and it too succeeded, at least in this performance by Ursula Oppens. Adams’s pianistic vocabulary of rapid-fire repeated tones, modal harmonies, and rippling textures did not seem quite as inventive as his string writing, however.

Michael Nyman, 34, is from London, and some of his music criticism is already familiar here, particularly through his book Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond. Aside from the two Nyman works presented at the Guggenheim, I heard several tapes and an informal lecture the composer presented, and I also saw two films he had scored when they were shown at the Kitchen. In discussing British experimental music, Nyman had emphasized the modest, reserved, restrained quality he felt it had all, and it seems to me that Nyman’s own work is perhaps the most modest, most reserved, and most restrained of all. His music is so understated, in fact, that it comes dangerously close to seeming simplistic. But there is always a touch of sophistication in the orchestration or the form of the rhythm, and the result is usually not simplistic at all, but quite charming. My favorite Nyman work is his droll ‘Bird List Song,’ in which about 10 instrumentalists play a sequence of four dominant seventh chords over and over and over, while the vocalist sings the names of birds. The volume is loud, the rhythms are square, and the music sounds vaguely like rock. The sophistication in this case lies in the inner voices, which shift in instrumentation from time to time. While the performance at the Guggenheim was adequate, I preferred a recorded version played by the London-based Michael Nyman Band, which made use of a rebec and banjo as well as more conventional winds and percussion.

Paul Dresher is only 27, but this ambitious composer from San Diego is already writing long, multileveled pieces that have a good deal of substance. His 45-minute ‘Z’ contains a section for mallet instruments that sounds quite derivative of Reich’s ‘Drumming,’ but it also involves a unique progression in which six percussionists play in different tempos, utilizes a unique recording of a wailing Philippine tribal woman, and makes a strong, though not very clear, political statement. ‘This same temple’ is a Dresher work for two pianos that puts together effective polyrhythmic textures with notational techniques that I had never encountered before.

Ingram Marshall lives in San Francisco, where he has taught, written criticism, worked in radio, and directed a concert series. His contributions to the Guggenheim series were ‘Cortez,’ a prerecorded tape piece, and ‘Non Confundar,’ a work for strings, clarinet, and flute, with electronic processing. Both pieces are moody, and it is here, more than anywhere else in the series, that I am tempted to use the word ‘neo-romantic.’ But of course, Marshall’s expressive inclinations are far removed from Howard Hanson’s. Marshall works with pure sounds rather than melodic themes, and electronic reverberation rather than opulent orchestration. Still, the resulting emotions remind me very much of Sibelius, whom Marshall appreciates very much, and Mahler, from whom he borrowed some ‘Non Confundar’ material. I used to feel it was the electronic veneer that made Marshall’s music seem saccharine to me, but I’m beginning to realize that the basic problem has more to do with my own less romantic inclinations. I probably wouldn’t be swept away by his lush pieces if he did them with the Philadelphia Orchestra either. But many certainly would.