Focused on New Music

Tonight Julia Den Boer gave a concert consisting of pieces by modern composers, three of whom have Columbia affiliation: Matthew Ricketts (DMA in Composition 2017), Ashkan Behzadi (pursuing a DMA in Composition), and Zosha Di Castri (Francis Goelet Assistant Professor of Composition). The performance was part of the Columbia Sounds concert series.


I appreciated Den Boer’s introductions. Before each piece she explained her own connection to the work, the composer’s thoughts, and what we were going to hear. Her educational talks allowed us to draw connections to what she played.


Melodia (2016) sprung forth from a conversation between Den Boer and Ricketts about the current usage of the piano in contemporary music. Nowadays composers often choose to explore the percussive nature of the piano. However, Ricketts decided to flip the script and instead focus on the melodic nature of the instrument.


The piece began with monophony, high in the right hand. It wandered and implored. Lines melted into each other, like smooth Swiss chocolate. Chordal textures sounded watery, like Debussy’s Jardins sous la Pluie. Volcanic bellows gurgled below. The drizzling rain poured down on this fire.


Because they overlapped, the melodies were not traditional in the singable sense. Just as you got used to one melodic idea, another entered, blurring the memory of the previous.


The one work without any Columbia ties on tonight’s program was Crimson, written by Rebecca Saunders in 2003-2005.


Den Boer explained that Crimson represented the ending sunset monologue of James Joyce’s Ulysses.* Saunders recreated the violent, enthusiastic empathy that the reader experiences via tone clusters. These are produced by striking several keys at the same time, usually with the fist, palm, or elbow. In succession, the clusters fashioned a musical line — a melody on fire.


Crimson explored the physicality of the piano. While executing a crazed, primal dance on the uppermost keys, Den Boer had to slap the side of the instrument with accented fervor. The juxtaposition created a timbral contrast. The incisive, manic dancing reminded me of Stravinsky’s Rite.


Den Boer said that she recently heard Saunders music described as “explosive meditation.” I thought the portrayal fit particularly well in the middle of the work. The combination of energetic, yet serene textures sounded like wind chimes tolling over a snow-covered yard.


Den Boer recounted that Behzadi conceived of his Three Nocturnes (2008, 2009, 2014) as “glimpses and memories of other nocturnes.” Den Boer thought Ligeti has a strong influence. Behzadi leaned more toward Debussy. After hearing the nocturnes, I’d say that they’re both right. The first sounded like it was influenced by Debussy, especially in its contrast of ranges. The second had a Ligeti flare. The texture was sparse and pointed, ripe with tension.


The last nocturne featured a repeated tone. Clusters sparkled above and below, changing the repeated note’s quality; it became a friend who you no longer recognized. I find the previous “explosive meditation” description apt. Through repetition and re-presentation, the piece became a meditation session.


To conclude the program, Den Boer performed Di Castri’s DUX (2017). Before the piece began, I felt as if the atmosphere in the room had changed. Ambient chattering quickly extinguished and audience members sat with more attention. I had the impression that the concert built up toward this moment.


DUX was commissioned by the Yvar Mikhashoff trust. Den Boer premiered it at the Banff Center for the Arts in 2016.


Den Boer explained that DUX investigates how a composer can reconcile different, contradicting cells. The cells accelerated, toppled over each other, and suddenly vanished. These units embodied different characters, some stubborn, others sympathetic.


The cells created what we all love as concertgoers: familiarity in sections of change. Like sonata form, which presents similar material in different guises, the re-presentation of these cells constructed an engaged narrative.


Di Castri explored timbral differences. Before the performance, Den Boer inserted a small muffling device in the upper range of the piano. When struck, it had the same sound quality as a slapstick. Di Castri set this wooden timbre against a misty murmur in the middle range. She melded cells together to create amalgamated textures.


Since each cell had a distinctive character, it had to be performed with precision. Den Boer executed with confidence. She maintained each unit’s personality even while performing two at the same time. She displayed intense focus throughout, a physical sign of her passion and commitment for modern music. It’s exactly her diligence that this music earnestly deserves.


* The ending passage: O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down Jo me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

** Photo credit for featured image to Susan Boynton.