When Harrison Birtwistle died Monday at 87, he became the sixth pioneering composer who came to prominence in the 1960s that we lost in less than nine months. This uncompromising British modernist, along with Holland’s most important composer, Louis Andriessen, and Americans Frederic Rzewski, George Crumb, Alvin Lucier and William Kraft, helped to bring about revolutionary ways in which music could be made, performed, distributed and considered.
They are far from the last of their post-World War II generation of rebels. In America, we still have Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Joan Tower, Wadada Leo Smith, Morton Subotnick, William Bolcom, Adolphus Hailstork, La Monte Young and several others — all in their 80s and indispensable.
Even so, the consequence of the current loss is enormous and hard to process because little of their music is part of the regular performing, recording or broadcasting diet, with the exception of Birtwistle in Britain. Nor has there been, outside of local memorials, widespread acknowledgment of, let alone tribute to, their significance. The exception is L.A.
Here, we’ve have had an illuminating paying of attention that culminated Tuesday in Los Angeles Philharmonic principal timpanist Joseph Pereira’s splendid performance of Kraft’s solo percussion piece “Encounters I: Soliloquy” at Walt Disney Concert Hall. “Encounters” was added to the Green Umbrella concert by the L.A. Phil New Music Group, which Kraft founded.
Three days earlier, across the street at the Colburn School, Piano Spheres, with the services of 18 pianists, held a six-hour appreciation of Rzewski, a spectacular composer, pianist and improviser who revolutionized contemporary piano practice. A week before that, the L.A. Phil’s “Noon to Midnight” new music festival at Disney included a mesmerizing set of the first volume of Crumb’s celestial “Makrokosmos” series played by pianist Nic Gerpe, as well as a stunning performance of Andriessen’s “De Staat,” a majestically aggressive orchestral shoutout to the place of music in society ardently led by John Adams.
Last month, Monday Evening Concerts attended to Lucier in an evening-length remembrance of a composer who looked inside the quotidian for sound and meaning. He turned to tables, chairs, teapots and the guts of a piano to unlock acoustic secrets. More startlingly, he turned to the inside of his brain to share the sound of its waves, which can do a thing or two to a listener’s brain.
Putting all this together is a brain drain of its own.
The Green Umbrella memoriam to Kraft reminded us that he was not only a wonderful composer, whose music is rarely heard, but also the most important member of his generation to follow John Cage’s edict: “Percussion is revolution!” Kraft’s percussive revolution has been astonishingly widespread. As the L.A. Phil’s legendary principal percussionist and timpanist, he championed new music and had an outsize influence on making the modern orchestra matter, of reminding us that all great music is the product of its time and place.
Kraft’s “Contextures: Riots — Decade ’60,” written for the L.A. Phil in 1967 and reflecting the Watts uprising two years earlier, began the orchestra’s purpose of acting as an agent of social activism, for which the L.A. Phil is now a celebrated international leader. The piece also follows in the noble example of Beethoven.
There is no better example of the kinds of resonance Kraft’s promotion of percussion (now a given in modern music) has had than Ellen Reid’s senses-filling “Fear l Release” for four percussions placed around the hall for Tuesday’s program. Reid, who has become a leading voice of her millennial generation, happened to be co-curator of the program with violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who opened it with a stunning premiere of Reid’s “Desiderium” for solo violin.
Like Kraft, Rzewski insisted on political necessity. Piano was revolution. His most famous piece, an hourlong set of variations on “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!,” used compositional and keyboard techniques from Bach to the present to create such excitement that little contemporary music has.
The Piano Spheres occasion was a sad, but rousing, Rzewski appreciation. The series had invited the composer to perform and arranged for him the commission of a new piece, which he finished shortly before he died unexpectedly of heart failure in June. The first part featured a varied collection of 14 Rzewski works played by mostly young pianists in the Colburn courtyard, which was turned into a beer garden on a chilly, windy afternoon. The performances I heard included Daniel Newman-Lessler’s luxuriant theatricality in “Rubinstein in Berlin,” in which the performer narrates a shocking incident from Arthur Rubinstein‘s memoirs while illustrating it on the piano, and Andreas Foivos Apostolou’s exploration of the perturbed interiority of a Rzewski nocturne.
Besides the premiere of the pleasingly quirky (conventionally so for Rzewski, and unconventionally so for everyone else) new suite in four movements, each played by a different Piano Spheres pianist (Vicki Ray, Gerpe, Aron Kallay and Gloria Cheng), two guest pianists were on hand with works written for them in 2020. Rzewski cultivated the reputation of a curmudgeon, but as Lisa Moore showed in “Amoramaro” and Ursula Oppens in “Friendship,” the composer lovingly captured feistiness in the former and profound strength and musicality in the latter. A longtime champion of Rzewski, Oppens made the classic first recording of “People United.”
“I don’t think there is a serious pianist around who hasn’t played Rzewski,” Moore said to the audience, describing her devotion to the composer. As a former pianist of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, she was also well qualified to speak about the impact Andriessen had on contemporary music. The iconoclast Dutch composer, who proudly chose to work outside the traditional musical institutions (and who was friends with Rzewski), proved an inimitable musical and entrepreneurial influence on Bang on a Can founders David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon. You had to look no further for this than in the lustrous, spiky instrumental sound of Lang’s arrangement of Meredith Monk’s “Double Fiesta” at Tuesday’s Green Umbrella.
Like Andriessen, Crumb, too, had an imperturbable sway on young composers. Gerpe’s magical “Makrokosmos” was a repeat of the Crumb tribute he organized in March at Monk Space. In that, a dozen composers contributed new solo piano pieces to be played alongside Crumb’s dozen zodiac-inspired “fantasy-pieces.”
Lucier has become a magnet for the hippest young composers interested in interiority of sound. Hildur Guðnadóttir included Lucier’s triangle solo, “Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra,” in her L.A. Phil film music program 12 days before the 90-year-old composer died in December. “Silver Streetcar” happened as well at the Monday Evening Concerts tribute before a full house at 2220 Arts + Archives in L.A.’s Historic Filipinotown.
The main piece was the West Coast premiere of “Palimpsest.” Written in 2014, it featured soprano Joan La Barbara (for whom it was written) reading an anecdote over and over as it got slowly distorted by electronic feedback. At first you think, “Enough is enough, it can’t go on.” But if you know Lucier’s celebrated “I Am Sitting in a Room,” you know it will go on — and hope you will too. You do. It begins a journey in which sonic distortion leads at first to perceptual distortion, then, after about an hour, mental clarity.
But who’s wild about Harry? That is how Birtwistle was fondly known in Britain, although the fondness didn’t always go much beyond that with a general public who often found his scores impenetrable. His thorny operas, his greatest works, are heavy lifting but worth the effort in their translation of harsh reality into primal mythic import.
Tributes in Britain are expectedly pouring in. America, on the other hand, has shown little appetite for Birtwistle despite some powerful proponents. The late Los Angeles patron Betty Freeman called him the greatest composer of the 20th century and commissioned “The Last Supper,” Birtwistle’s last opera, which had its premiere in Berlin in 2000. Christopher Koelsch, the head of Los Angeles Opera, has expressed tremendous admiration for Birtwistle. But don’t expect to see “The Last Supper” here or any Birtwistle opera in America anytime soon. They’re expensive and difficult to produce and not exactly good box office. Freeman, who died in 2009, is no longer around to foot the bill.
She commissioned Birtwistle’s ferocious yet sonically overflowing piano concerto “Antiphonies” for the L.A. Phil. The stellar 1996 premiere, conducted by Pierre Boulez and featuring Mitsuko Uchida as soloist, was coolly received at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. It is the last major Birtwistle work in L.A. I remember hearing.
Although the composer with the most institutional support (if mainly in Britain), Harry remains the outlier of the six. Young composers don’t follow his style. It takes special performers to make his music as palatable as Boulez, Uchida and Oliver Knussen have shown it can be. But I suspect the example of his fierce independence will make him grow in stature over time.
Not coincidentally, the L.A. Phil, which is embarking on a Gen X festival, is surely the only orchestra anywhere to have programmed all six of these great postwar composers — five of the six this very season — and to have had a long-term relationship with all but Lucier. For that legacy, thank you, Bill Kraft.
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