When the Empyrean Ensemble performed its annual concert of compositions by UC Davis graduate students on Wednesday, May 30, the Mondavi Center's Studio Theater was sparsely occupied and the excitement came mostly from students. Contemporary music has a limited audience among the general public. I myself listen, marvel at the musicians, and mostly learn. Someday I expect to listen, learn and thoroughly enjoy.
The music involved quick shifts from one volume, istrument, instrumental sound, or theme to another. The music seemed jumpy and lacking in flow; it occasionally assaulted the eardrums by its volume. But what might/should I have gained from attending this concert? The question needed pondering, even a little historical thought.
This contemporary music is not attached to religious ritual or to dances or other celebrations. For the most part, it is not attached to song, although a vocal part might have a role equal to other instruments. Some segments might suggest a dance but only briefly; there could bed hints of bird calls or street sounds. But the music is far removed from that of 20th century composers, for whom these sounds were still---as in earlier music---embellishments. Today, discrete sounds are not ornaments: they ARE the music. Aha!
From composers' advance comments, I knew there were themes. But I heard fragments of themes, as through a briefly opened window or a radio with stations being skimmed over. I could not decide whether these sounds were inspired by real life or by web-surfing experiences. Yes, life has changed, and certainly differs greatly between generations.
So what did this 21st century music attempt? I waited for it to carry me along, as by a melody or a steady beat. There must have been some tempo: conductor George Thomson conducted the six musicians who played Nathan Davis's `After Joyce' and Jonathan Wilkes's `Inner Movement'. And flutist Stacey Pelinka---for Ching-Yi Wang's `Strain, Strive, Struggle'---took the lead, nodding to keep violist Ellen Ruth Rose and Leighton Fong together on their entrances.
But rather than continuity, I experienced different kinds of change: from soft and smooth to loud and abrupt, a theme cut off only to be resumed some time later, and certainly many unexpected and unfamiliar sounds from the instruments. Would the piccolo shriek or play a light quick melody? Would a cello sound as low as thunder with a drum enhancing its growl? I concluded that I was to enjoy this variety---that these sounds, discrete as they seemed to me, comprised the music.
Pelinka's flute and Peter Josheff's clarinet seemed to be joined by electronics in Stuart Miller's opening `Zephyr'. From soft and distinguishable voices, the music came to sound garbled before it returned to lovely, assured solos.
Sue-Hye Kim's `Trio' featured Pelinka, Anna Pressler on violin and Michael Seth Orland, piano. At first I could not hear anything but the piano, but when its discordant chords became soothing and calm, the other instruments, with their changeable tones, were clearly audible. There were constrasts, as in leaps from low to high pitches, a pattern of sound that seemed weird, inventive---from frantic screeches to bright, light passages that seemed attenuated echoes of what had gone before.
Wang's `Strain, Strive, Struggle' is a long, impressive piece that begins in abrupt staccato and softens to a smooth cello solo. The second part opened with those abrupt leaps, and then veered between softness and agitation. The plucks and puffs of the third part made for exciting listening; contrasted with sustained passages they were quite thrilling. The startle effects of part four were followed by soothing sounds, as of woodland with birds, in what could have been a sustained farewell. But that would not do, not these days. The last movement was strident and abrupt, ending suddenly.
Davis's `After Joyce' was played by Fong and Josheff, and by Tod Brody, flute; Terrie Baune, violin; Chris Froh, percussion; and Karen Rosenak, piano. In two parts, sustained is not a word one could often apply to the music; I'd choose fragmented and errant. Also sometimes distressingly loud. Drums blasted and piano banged. The winds play melody, as do violin and clarinet. Grand variety for percussion. Allthough there are quiet bits, the closing volume makes it difficult to decide whether to return after intemission. ''Pretty awesome'' was a congratulatory phrase I heard being offered to the composer. Wish I could have felt that enthusiastic.
Karen Sunabacka's `Tecla for clarinet, violin, piano and percussion' had a discernible 4-note theme echoed and extended with repeats, in a performance by Josheff, Pressler, Rosenak abd Froh that found me writing underlined in my notebook, ''VERY nice.”
Carolyn O'Brien's 'Electrum for violin, cello and piano' had Pressler, Fong and Orland returning to perform unusual music: sustained notes would fall gradually giving an eerie quality; the piano had a dramatic quality. I found myself wondering not so much where music was going as how it was getting there. Perhaps that is the point!
Wilkes's `Inner Movement' featured Brody, Josheff, Baune, Froh, Fong and Rosenak. After an opening piano trill, the theme is introduced. To reveal my age, it sounds every bit like that 4-note 'Here comes Cantor' theme from old radio days. Amid the rapid shifts and changes, the great variety in percussion especially it gave me a baseline, almost the only one of the whole evening. The shrill trills and clashes were not easy to take. My ears were aided by a melodic piano at the end,
-- Marilyn Mantay