Jeffrey Means conducting Sound Icon (Michele McDonald/Boston-Globe)

Two Concerts in Boston: Preservationism or Progressivism? (part 2/2)

Sound Icon | Part 2: The Progressivist (read also Part 1: The Preservationist)

If Boston Musica Viva is the sagacious uncle whose wisdom is centered in the traditions of the past European masters who, despite ushering in the modern era, seem to be something of antiquity, then Sound Icon is the scrappy nephew who looks beyond the insularity of the “new niceness” of American contemporary music toward the primal fierceness of the post modern European avant-garde. The preservationist attitude does not seem to be in the wheelhouse of programming for Sound Icon led by conductor Jeffrey Means (see our interview, Ed.) and executive director Victoria Cheah.  Nearly absent are the ideas of historical reference and reverence  the Les Aventures Spectrales concert highlight this very keenly.

Jeffrey Means conducting Sound Icon (Michele McDonald/Boston-Globe)

Jeffrey Means conducting Sound Icon (Michele McDonald/Boston-Globe)

The concert was dedicated to the works of one French composer, Philippe Leroux. The ambitiousness of the project of getting people to a chamber orchestra concert with electronics, dedicated to a non-American living composer seemed nothing but standard fare when seeing the hall at The Fenway Center filled up to nearly standing room only capacity. In an era of disappearing orchestras, dismantling chamber groups and dwindling audience excitement, Sound Icon seems to be ushering in a brave renaissance of big and bold musical ideas. My unfamiliarity with Leroux’s music—but not with Sound Icon’s exciting progressiveness—gave the concert a certain edge to it. Leroux’s (d’)Aller featured violinist Gabríela Diaz with chamber orchestra. Although Leroux’s description of the piece tries to deflect the idea of a concerto, I couldn’t help but notice the calm virtuosity in Diaz’s playing, especially near the end when she broke into a beautiful, yet subtle, cadenza-like solo. It seemed to wink at rather than embrace the concerto tradition. The work was a magnificent representation of primality with gentle or violent ascents and descents that built an exciting sense of anticipation all stitched together with intricate orchestrational detail. It was as if Means was sitting at an analog synthesizer repeatedly changing filters and speeds without any preconceived ideas. In essence a pure act of improvisation that was only interrupted by a sudden and welcome return to opening material as it finished. Soprano Jennifer Ashe gave what can be hailed as a performance of a lifetime in the gargantuan Voi (Rex). Instead of focusing on abstracted forms, Voi (Rex) inhabits a primal space of proto-speech. Through live electronic mediation and modification Ashe’s voice was passed around the six channels, where each guttural grunt, or syllabic utterance acted as musical building blocks. If Schoenberg’s Pierrot was overtly referenced in Boston Musica Viva’s concert as an ascent to tradition, then Babbitt’s Philomel was alluded to as an aged artifact in Voi (Rex). Progressive programming cannot escape the past, but it attempts to better the tradition with pieces like Voi (Rex). There was a slow transformational process that disembodied Ashe’s voice while the smallish chamber ensemble seemed to disappear in the textures of the electronics. When Ashe’s voice came back in speech-like patterns it was quickly “regendered” from female to male through pitch shifts that acted as transitions to what I assumed was the voice of Leroux himself followed by a return to the opening proto-speech. This magical moment of literally giving the voice to the composer blurs the line of transactional duties of a performance. The mediated became the mediator. All the while, and almost forgotten, is the conducting style of Means. It is almost forgotten because the concert lacked that certain self-importance and navel-gazing when obsessed with canon and tradition.

Philippe Leroux - Photo by Pierre Raimbault

Philippe Leroux – Photo by Pierre Raimbault

The concert was an act of progressivistic curating in our post-modern age: A willful detachment from tradition and cultural norms through favoring newness not as novelty, but as essential representations of current musical thinking. This idea is earnestly presented to the audience with a gentle “take it or leave it” attitude. When the heaviness of the canon is removed from the picture, in its place rests the pure musical experience of hearing something fresh and uninhibited. It is this progressive ideal that will keep Sound Icon in the forefront of the Boston contemporary scene. Yet, despite its youthful vigor that celebrates European complexity and beauty, with programming that stretches the audience’s imaginations and players’ abilities, it has the potential to burst at the seams, being almost “too big for its britches.” How long can Sound Icon’s ambitious projects and programming progress until it needs to be maintained, or rather, preserved? It almost seems inevitable, and Boston Musica Viva—despite its role as a local contemporary music staple with its allusions to new and fresh exhibits within its self-created museum—simply lacks the ambitiously fresh spirit of Sound Icon. Yet, they do share a certain preservationist burden: with  Boston Musica Viva, it’s the preservation and advocacy of a certain classical canon of chamber music that seems to be easily forgotten, and with Sound Icon, it’s the preservation of progressive programming that may collapse under the weight of its own ambitions. Regardless of the outcomes, these two new music poles in “the hub” exemplify an idealism that remains consistent in musical concert history: carefully embracing the past, representing the now, while bracing for the future.

Christian Gentry is a composer, lecturer, sound collector, and writer in the Boston area. Follow him on twitter: @klangfarben.