counter)induction ~ {group theory}

What does it mean to be unapologetically modern(ist) as a performer today? There is no doubt that the climate for Modernism, as harsh as it may seem at times, is just as profitable as it was about a century ago; it is nonetheless one of the great questions of the history of music that the public at large cannot yet bear the not-so-subtle revelations of atonality as well as it can look at an abstract painting and say ‘I like it’. And yet, it’s never been a matter of taste but of life, and the failure of the modernist adventure is best chronicled in the music of the last hundred years or so, every great catastrophe driving both composers and performers further into the warm embrace of the closed circuits of academia. In it, music becomes a ‘natural’ flirtation with science, a science that is, however, still in dangerous league with Pythagorean principles, a kind of knowledge that was rendered illegitimate not too long ago. This new scientist then played with the occult as much as with the consented procedures of current mathematics, and do we need further evidence than Milton Babbitt’s “Who Cares if You Listen?” to make a point of this ‘occultation’?

{group theory} emerges here and now as a beacon of that development, explaining the ensemble’s praxis as the form of an ultimately symmetrical endeavor in the very same way in which a twelve-tone piece has its grounds on an egalitarian principle. Virtue is emphasized, not in the romantic sense of transcendental genius or the heroism of one, but as a property of collective action that flows from intimacy, of knowing each other’s role not as an essential division of labor but as the functioning of an organism, like composer Kyle Bartlett’s notes for “Bas Relief” make explicit: ‘With this presentation of small cells in various combinations I created not an army of cloned modules, but a natural collection of brothers and sisters with a family resemblance.’

Each piece becomes, in this way, apparently like a reflection of the group’s ties to a way of thinking that frames the world as an embodiment of numbers in motion, of music as primordial stardust, permanently driven forward by the maxim of ‘making it new’. “Ciao Manhattan” becomes the perfect opening, as its expansion from a narrow set of sounds forcibly opens the way onwards, perhaps far from the historical pressure of one of the acknowledged epicenters of modernity and into the much less constrained outside limits of individual experience and the part of academia that is closer to the ideas taking off in popular mediums. Lee Hyla is, after all, one of those composers that is far enough from the limelights enjoyed by a part of the American avant-garde but is no stranger to being published by Tzadik, and the rest of the pieces, except one, were composed by members of the ensemble or ‘close relatives’ whose work in {group theory} is dated no further than 2007. The exception is Salvatore Sciarrino’s “Centauro Marino” from 1984, the axis of the album (it is placed right in the middle of it all), a piece that flourishes among the ideas represented as the issue of collective performance explored to its last consequences, and which, regardless of its age, sounds as fresh as ever.

Where “Ciao Manhattan” places a space, “Bas Relief” configures it as a structure upon which the ensemble can act and trace a living history of such action. It is followed by Erich Stem’s “Fleeting Thoughts”, a kind of experiment in sound that aims at reproducing the functioning of the mind, establishing a fluent and chaotic exchange that breaks minimalism apart… like a revenge of the modernist ideal, it dissolves the wide consensus of unitary direction, and the wound is further opened by the aftermath that is “Centauro Marino”. “Today [the] will to form has been overthrown”, says Sciarrino in the notes, and artworks reveal their own monstrosity, their imaginative artifice, their processes of continual re-creation by the hands of the performers as much as by the eyes and ears of the composer and the listeners. In montage there is no unity, no consensus, only an absolute distrust of unity’s tendency to tyrannize. The analysis, the breaking apart into observable bits, of the music, continues with “Deixo / Sonata” as a kind of meditation on the ‘natural’ rhetoric of the classical form and how it provides a context for the gestures and movements of the performers, playing upon reception and form as the possible basis of the dissolution of authorship. “Partita” and “Dead Cat Bounce” round off these ideas, the first by bordering the New Complexity realm of utter fragmentation, of hints at alternate takes that happen only in our minds, and the second by the sheer uncertainty that comes from the total montage of elements based only on the playfulness of the composer.

The music is complex and cannot be easily described, which is why I’ve tried to draw several points of departure for our dear readers to take into account when listening. However, the initial question kept bouncing around as the album played, and it is only fitting to end this review by making it once again: what does it mean to be modern, in ideological terms, as a performer today? Not only does it superficially mean the endorsement of ‘new music’ under the historical umbrella of modernism in music (for it did not start dissolving with ’68 much like its visual counterpart did), it involves a whole mindset that takes the question of simply how to play together, as an ensemble, without recurring to the clichés of the classical (whether they’re out for money or out to hypocritically enlighten the masses) or the rockstar-like heavy personality of the (famous) modern. counter)induction has, here, perhaps enunciated its manifesto, and in my limited understanding of it I take that to be modern is to have a convicted certainty about the music played: this ensemble is not here to entertain or make passing salutes at cultural milestones, it is here, under an absolute commitment, to philosophize with a hammer. (David Murrieta)

Available here (with stream)

One comment

  1. Pingback: Red Light New Music ~ Barbary Coast | a closer listen

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