Contemporary Classics July 2, 2019 - Contemporary Classical Music at the Spoleto Festival

Tonight is the first of three shows featuring contemporary classical music which I heard at this year’s Spoleto festival in Charleston South Carolina which ran from May 24 until June 9. We will be doing these three shows over several weeks.  There are two principal series that have contemporary classical music: Music in Time and the Chamber Music series.  In addition there are several additional concerts which feature contemporary classical music.  Now this does not include dance or drama, which may feature some music.

Michael Gordon - Dystopia

Lets open tonight’s second of three shows with Michael Gordon’s Dystopia.   This work was part of a program called City Symphonies on May 26th in Memminger Auditorium featuring the Spoleto Festival Orchestra conducted by John Kennedy.  This work is one of many collaborative projects between Michael Gordon and filmmaker Bill Morrison. Three where shown on this particular evening.  Dystopia encapsulates the aura of Los Angeles.  In Dystopia, as in all of these works, the music is composed first and the film is conceptualized to fit the score. Bill Morrison’s video combines new and old footage from the streets of Los Angeles, as far back as some 1898 footage by Thomas Edison!  There are also many scenes of trash and the sorting of trash.   Unfortunately on the radio you cannot see the films.   

Ian Clarke  - Zoom Tube

Zoom Tube by Ian Clarke was performed at the Spoleto Festival by Tara Helen O’Connor on May 27th & 28th in the Dock Street Theater as part of the Chamber Music Series.  This is a delightful encore style piece for solo flute.


Paul Wiancko: Cello Quartet When the Night        

Paul Wiancko wrote this piece last year for the Boston Cello Quartet.  He was stuck on the piece until he heard a rendition of “Stand By Me” and used a three note phrase from the song when the lyric is “When the night” and hence the name of the piece “When the Night”.  I have had a recent interview with Paul describe a few pieces.  So here is  Paul Wiancko describing this work.  At the Spoleto Festival Chamber music series this work was performed by Paul Wiancko, Joshua Roman, Christopher Constanza and Nina Lee.  


Disco-Toccata         2:05         Ensemble Artefact         Contredanses         Ensemble Artefact        


Georg Friedrich Haas : in vain   

The whole second hour of today’s show is dedicated to Georg Friedrich Haas : in vain.  This work was performed by players from the Spoleto Festival Orchestra conducted by John Kennedy at the Spoteto Festival at a concert of the Music in Time series called “In Vain” on June 3rd in the Simon Center Recital Hall of the College of Charleston. 

Georg Friedrich Haas’ “in vain” is an hour-long, twenty-four player piece.  Its movements are “staged” within a complex tonal structure woven out of tempered intonation and microtonality. Gerhard Rohde  writes that “It then increases in tempo and spirals turning in on themselves back towards the beginning, “racing to stand still”, as if holding up time. This is composed and organised in a highly refined way, with great tension and energy of movement, and an enormous density of sound.”

To approach Georg Friedrich Haas’ composition in vain, one can begin directly with concert hall lighting. The light intensity in the concert hall is annotated in the score and ranges from “concertlighting as for podium and lectern” to complete darkness at the back. It is the music, to be played in complete darkness according to the score annotations, that puts not only the audience and the performer in an unaccustomed position, but above all the composer himself. Firstly, the vocals should be easy to memorize, secondly everything that is played must be controllable by ear, and thirdly it is futile to expect an invisible conductor to perform his usual tasks. When the light gradually fades, only minutes after in vain begins, the quick, interlaced downward lines starting from the outset cease, while soft, lying tones remain, dodging each other by way of quarter-tone intervals. This peculiar “sound without light” is not only easily made out on the radio, but, theoretically, is much more easily wrapped by the darkness of a living room, as originally intended, than in the concert hall with its required emergency lighting. The music dips into the pitch-black darkness of the night, finds its bearings anew, and gropes its way forward.


Georg Friedrich Haas  has written “Microtonal music has no tradition. Until late in the 20th century, all composers writing microtonal music had to begin anew every time. Even today, using microtones is considered out of the ordinary. You need to justify the use of tones from outside the tempered system.”

This lack of familiarity is often the starting point for compositions by Georg Friedrich Haas. Not that he purports to having reinvented microtonality; quite the contrary: He allows the concepts of his predicessors in microtonaity to flow into his compositions. However, His music expands upon those concepts often turning to make hearable the differences between the usual and the possible, moving what is buried below our listening habits into the focus of attention. The ear often discerns in the music of Georg Friedrich Haas – the absence of ordinary melodies, the melting away of rhythm in acceleration and deceleration, the limitation to only a few pitch levels and modes of articulation – unfailingly refers listeners to the sound and the form, allowing in-between tones to become heard once again.  His music has been compared to Escher lithographs which combine the upper and lower ends of a staircase and thus presents a microcosm of aimlessness.  But there is so much more depth here in Haas’ music.  I challenge you to listen for structure, a path, a direction.

Here is a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas : in vain         1:03:11         by the Klangforum Wien conducted by Sylvain Cambreling         from the album Haas: in vain         Kairos


  • 8:03pm Michael Gordon: Dystopia by Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted David Robertson on Michael Gordon: Dystopia (Live) (Cantaloupe Music)
  • 8:37pm Ian Clarke: Zoom Tube by Ian Clarke on Within (IC Music)
  • 8:43pm Paul Wiancko: Cello Quartet When the Night by Boston Cello Quartet on Live premiere performance on January 22, 2018 (no label)
  • 8:56pm Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain by Klangforum Wien conducted by Sylvain Cambreling on Haas: in vain (Kairos)
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