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Music Review

'Cezanne's Doubt' Creates Hypnotic Strokes

April 15, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD

It's a big week in the Southland for new music non-operas, between the local premiere of the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson multi-sensory extravaganza, opening tonight, and this week's Monday Evening Concert presentation of Daniel Rothman's "Cezanne's Doubt," a mesmerizing short work performed, fittingly enough, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

But where the Glass-Wilson event is reportedly grandiose in its effects, Rothman's invention is more of a spartan rumination on the nature of art. The piece, premiered in Austria in 1996, is minimal, but hardly Minimalist, a mind opera in which the drama is sublimated and narrative is moot.

Cezanne's role, such as it is, was sung with a dry, unforced eloquence by Thomas Buckner, the baritone of choice for many contemporary composers (including Robert Ashley, whose brilliant "When Famous Last Words Fail You" was sung by Buckner at CalArts recently).

Buckner's part, with a text drawn from Cezanne's letters and a Baudelaire poem, is set into a bed of instrumental music of deliberately slow and soft ghost tones. Often, the sounds assiduously produced by cellist Ted Mook, clarinetist David Smeyers and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith basked in sonic ambiguity, between multi-phonics, glassy harmonics and, in Smith's case, murmurs with a jazz underpinning.

Other parties contributed to the sensory whole: Elliot Anderson and Jim Campbell concocted a video projection composed of static--snow--into which the faintest hints of linear activity drifted, suggesting microorganisms or other life forms, never quite materializing. Kent Clelland controlled the subtle electronic processing, adding to the dreamlike textural palette.

One could quibble with the relationship of the musical language to the artist in question: Rothman's luminous drones and languid pacing would seem to reflect more the art of, say, Mark Rothko's mystical abstractions than Cezanne's faceted, pre-Cubist paintings.

But music-to-art correlation isn't necessarily the point here. Rothman has created an introspective piece with its own agenda, concerning the persistence and importance of doubt and questioning in all art. Call it an elongated, ornate musical question mark.

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