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Speculum Musicae Still Shows Skill in Complex

Commentary: The composers have changed, but music it plays remains mostly for the intellectually curious.

July 16, 1996|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

LONG BEACH — There was a time, in the early '70s, when it was actually considered cool to attend a Speculum Musicae concert, the same way it was cool to check out the latest Godard flick, catch avant-garde jazz from players like Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, or read Thomas Pynchon.

The music played by Speculum, an ensemble of some half-dozen of the best and most feisty young new music specialists in New York, may not have been particularly intelligible to anyone but university-trained composers or theorists, and probably not always to them. Nor did Speculum draw big crowds. But it was the new music of the time, and it could draw the intellectually curious at a time when art didn't always have to be easy and immediate to spark curiosity.

Speculum is still around. It's still, even with new membership, an absolutely riveting ensemble of virtuosos who seem able to play anything, no matter how complex, with aplomb. And it's still devoted to the same kind of academic music. But what's cool in modern music has changed, and radically. So it was hardly surprising that the three Speculum concerts at Cal State Long Beach, given in conjunction with a composers' workshop over the last two weeks, was witnessed by seemingly few outside of the program itself.

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There is an important reason for this, and it has to do with the necessary but too often uncomfortable relationship between classical music and academic life. No topic is more highly charged in classical music today than that of music education. Right now, it is common to blame just about all the ills in classical music, and especially the difficulty of building young audiences, to the cutbacks in music education at all levels of schooling.

In the '50s and '60s, however, it was possible to blame all the ills in modern music on too much education, particularly the American obsession to teach a kind of higher-education form of composition that seemed to have little to do with appealing to the untrained ear. Minimalism and the influence of pop and Asian music, a new interest in tonality and Romantic expression all eventually made academic complexity and atonality utterly marginal.

That it has survived another quarter-century is now a matter of weird curiosity. The feeling of the composers' workshop at Cal State Long Beach, led by Richard Festinger and featuring the participation of two senior academic composers--Mario Davidovsky and Andrew Imbrie, from the East and West coasts, respectively--is that time has simply stood still in the halls of ivy.

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The music heard by these composers or emerging composers--either accomplished students or young professionals--connects little with our time, except in a few ways. Academic composers are no longer almost exclusively white European males. Women and composers from Asia and South America are just as common. And there is an increasing effort to fit national styles into the rigors of complicated academic music, although it usually is stiff and unconvincing.

There was one exception, a solo flute piece by Adriana Verdie de Vas-Romero, who is from Argentina and is a student at Long Beach. Her six-minute "3.2.4" is for solo flute but the listener is convinced that two flutists are playing the dancing lines that draw on her native rhythms. Here a sense of the intellect, moving feet and good old-fashioned virtuosity, astonishing realized by flutist Rachel Rudich, all combine into something both compelling and original.

Otherwise the best came from the old masters. Neither Davidovsky's "Synchronisms No. 9" for solo violin and tape (given a sensational performance by Curtis Macomber) nor Imbrie's "Pilgrimage" for the full ensemble, have anything new to say, but they are so well wrought and, particularly in Imbrie's case, so alluring in the use of sonority and serious in purpose that, when played with the skill that Speculum brings to them, they can be effective. The revolution in Populist, accessible and experimental new music, nonetheless, makes it harder with every passing day to look back.

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