Ives and Finnissy

This Thursday, May 17th, nonce returns to the school that bred them together, New England Conservatory, for a fun and fantastic night of new music. We are proud to be presenting this program to our audience, as the array of pieces is quite representative of our style and mission, and should be wholly satisfying for ourselves and the listener. We will hear Charles Ives’ “A Set for Theatre Orchestra,” Michael Finnissy’s “Recent Britain,” Walter Zimmermann’s “Paradoxes of Love,” and the premiere of our own composer-in-resident Vanessa Wheeler’s “Successions.” The concert starts at 8PM in NEC’s Williams Hall. For more information, join the Facebook event. And stay tuned for a special segment on Vanessa’s new piece.

Michael Finnissy’s piece, “Recent Britain,” for violin, cello, bassoon, and piano, with pre-recorded tapes, takes the listener on a journey through webs of counterpoint, echoes of voices, and layers of cultural commentary, comprising a solemnly theatrical and mercurial essay on nature and culture after the industrial revolution. It is complex without sounding academic, rich and moving without sounding sentimental, and politically charged without coming off as empty or self-righteous. The piece, written in the late 90’s, is a comment on the preoccupations of England’s media at the time: public scandals of pedophilia, the right’s outcry against immigration, the death of Princess Diana, and so on. Fitting now that we would choose to return to such a piece amid the admonishment and unraveling of Rupert Murdoch, News of the World, and his NewsCorp empire. The piece, performed by an especially lush subset of our ensemble, features Diamanda on violin, special guest Jude Tedaldi on cello, Chris on bassoon, and Aaron Likness on piano, who has one of the warmest touches on that instrument I have ever heard. Let the mind wander amid fields of interweaving microtonal lines, with ghost voices and bird sounds, cut-up bits from news clippings and scraps from the pastoral poetry of John Clare; add to that a bunch of “cuddly-toys” and follow the piece as it culminates in a surprising and hope-affirming conclusion.

Charles Ives’ “A Set for Theatre Orchestra” is the oldest piece nonce has yet played – beating Cage and Cardew by almost fifty years – but is a perfect fit for our ensemble. The ad hoc nature of the piece’s instrumentation is especially relatable to nonce. “Nonce,” as a noun, means “for the time being” or “for the occasion,” and this piece, unlike others of Ives, allows for some adjustments in instrumentation, being written, as it is, for a theatre orchestra. As the American pioneer of classical music, Ives’ style was unique to this country, and his application of jazz and traditional idioms gives us much to work with. Further, Ives’ influence on Michael Finnissy is undeniable in the multiple tempi and disparate layers found in both pieces.

Like many of Ives’ ensemble pieces, this set is a triptych, and each of the pieces in the set exist elsewhere in different forms. The movements are titled “In the Cage,” “In the Inn,” and “In the Night,” and, aside from being arranged alphabetically, they follow an arc familiar to others of Ives’ three-movement works. We begin with an enigmatic, yet grounded, pianissimo for “In the Cage.” A very short work, with a whole-tone melody atop a quartal ostinato, the text for the original song was inspired by a walk Ives took with a friend through Central Park in 1906. The brief poem, which more recalls Kafka than the hymn text found elsewhere in Ives, reads as such:

A leopard went around his cage

from one side back to the other side;

he stopped only when the keeper came around with meat;

A boy who had been there three hours began to wonder,

“Is life anything like that?”

The raucous middle movement “In the Inn” is one of Ives’ ragtime studies, in which the general tenets of that flashy, jazzy genre – collections of melodies, accents on the offbeats, danceable virtuosity – are taken to the extreme. Actually, an orchestration from the first piano sonata, the work bears the subtitle “Potpourri,” apropos, as, in it, one can hear the waft of a multitude of tunes coming and going, as if walking through a bordello and hearing bits of music and conversation floating in from other rooms, drunkenly piecing together in our heads bits of tunes, heard in different keys and at different speeds. We hear soft hymns from the strings, jazzy snippets from the sax, all unexpectedly contextualized amidst an ensemble texture. Finally, at the end, the group seems to agree on a melody, and, just as soon as they do, they fade out, quickly and gracefully, as if a couple deciding to go home together.

Finally, “In the Night.” What a gorgeous ending! Not wishing to spoil the effect of such a tender and evocative finale, I will say merely that time moves at many different rates in this movement, slow and stretched, each member of the ensemble dividing the beat in his or her own way. The texture has the impression similar to that of looking at a painting or textile, in which many different details are initially apparent, but it is only as the eye moves across the canvas that all of its components and patterns can be fully appreciated. And just as soon as we begin to make sense of this music, we hear, for the first time in the set, the voice, as Ceceilia enters singing a melody in another tempo, completely apart from the others, gorgeously floating above this gentle apotheosis. The ensemble is fleshed out by the addition of Lucia Stavros on the harp and Elaine Rombola as the third and fourth hands of the piano part.

Life is polyphonic. Sound never stops, and no one sound is never alone. Ives and Finnissy exemplify this notion with their beautiful writing and reflections on the world we live in. We aim, with our interpretations, to do the same, to continue the impact of these pieces into the 21st century, and to do our best to do justice to such beautiful works of art. Come share in the experience with us.


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