Ostrava Days 2009

It is truly amazing after all these years, over a hundred of them, how fresh and new Ives’ The Unanswered Question still sounds. At the 2009 Ostrava Days festival, this piece was performed as perfectly as one could ask for, leaving only the one question, perhaps unanswerable, of why a piece over a hundred years old can sound more fresh and new than pieces written in the last few years. And later in the festival, they played Varese’s Ameriques, and that too sounded fresh and new, more so than many of the more recent pieces. Of course, a good piece will always sound good and perhaps even fresh. But it might seem a bit alarming that two of the newest sounding pieces in a new music festival, should be from so long ago. As if in 1909 Beethoven’s string quartet no. 10 should sound newer than Schoenberg’s Five pieces for orchestra.

This is generally true all over, but not in every instance. The first set I caught (and for which I have no program) was an improvisation with Robin Hayward, tuba, and several other fine musicians. Since Robin was part of a group, this set gave me no idea what to expect from his solo set from later in the festival, but it was a nice first concert for me.

By all reports, I missed one of the coolest sets, a big, noisy piece by Phill Niblock out at some factory or other. But I did get to see Phill’s Disseminate, in which Robin Hayward sat on the little “stage” in a club and did his wizardry with his tuba, while Daniel Costello, French Horn, and Daniel Ploeger, trombone, wandered about the club. All the sounds were also being sent to various speakers around the room. At the second pass of the trombone past me, the sound coming out of the speaker nearest me was from the French Horn. (The clip is from before the Daniels began their wanderings.)

Also pretty splendid was Joseph Kudirka’s Renascence for voice and instruments. The vocal part (sung by Thomas Buckner) is a fairly simple line that just goes on over and over. The instruments do whatever. So simple, so effective And more than effective, magical. The incantatory repetition of the voice against the the total freedom of the instruments worked perfectly. This was one of the brightest moments of the festival for me.

Also magical was Christian Wolff’s For 1,2, and 3 People from 1964. In case we’d forgotten just how cool the 60’s were. The three people were Thomas Buckner, voice, Christian Wolff, piano, and Julio Laitinen, cello.

Tom and Christian were also part of an improvisation set (with nine other people as the OD Improvisation Ensemble). This one included some wandering around (by Tom Buckner and Daniel Ploeger) which was part of the music, and which included dragging some chairs out onto the stage. At the very end, after everyone had finished playing, Daniel, who had been the most peripatetic, walked over and sat down in one of them. Nice ending!

More Wolff for the closing concert, his Rhapsody for 3 Orchestras, part of Petr Kotick’s project to get people who don’t ordinarily write for orchestra, like Alvin Lucier and Elliott Sharp, to do big orchestral pieces. I know this is a favorite project of Petr’s, and I’m sure that these composers welcome the chance to write for this instrument, though I have noticed that very few orchestral pieces nowadays manage to sound like anything but just another big orchestral piece. Some strings, then some brass, them some percussion. Then the winds. All familiar sounds. We’ve heard it all before. But Wolff’s piece was pretty interesting. Each group gets a conductor, and there are many unconducted bits. Some of the conducted bits sounded random; some of the unconducted bits sounded coordinated. (Only some.) And some times one conductor’s gestures seemed coordinated with what players were doing in another group.

There were many smaller ensembles throughout the festival, of course. Elliott Sharp and Robin Hayward had some solo sets that were to die for. Very few people have Sharp’s chops on electric guitar, which is saying a lot as everyone and his mother play electric guitar. Fewer people play tuba, it’s true, but Hayward would still be among the best, no matter what. This is as good as it gets.

First set
Second set

Hayward set

Only remains to mention that the performance of Varese’s Ameriques (the original version, I’m pretty sure) was spectacular. I would’t mind hearing this live more than once. Probably this will have been the only time, however. At least it was played as well as could be possibly imagined. And there was an evening of the Amandinda Percussion Group, whose recordings of Cage’s percussion pieces have been delighting me for many years. Their performance of Four4 was to all intents and purposes a genuinely spiritual experience. They played it in almost complete darkness and with love and passion for each sound.

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