Does the word “modernism” still mean anything? The Uptown-Downtown wars of the Eighties are fast fading into memory. The days when Stravinsky’s disciples were tarred with the brush of reaction might as well be ancient history. A John Adams admits grudging respect for Pierrot Lunaire. And not even the most hardened innovators take the imperatives of “historical necessity” seriously anymore. The experimenters and mavericks used to have the aspect of crusaders, as if they had somehow staked a claim to the high moral ground. But “modernism” circa 2014 doesn’t even rise above the level of fashion, style, mannerism. “It’s all relative,” everyone declares, which is tantamount to saying there’s no philosophical or cognitive justification for complexity. Assuming music is a commodity like any other, whose exchange is governed by the laws of the free market, why bother with gnarly sounds? Who needs the headache? Of course, the new music scene isn’t a free market, even in the U.S., but mere cultural capital is still a paltry reward. In this paradigmless, traditionless musical age, where each piece is a desperate wrestling match with the blank page, an endlessly repeated tabula rasa, it’s a wonder any young composer would still lay claim to the “modernist” mantle.
Leaf Metal, Tzadik’s new disc of music by Adam Roberts (1980- ), suggests some explanations. Take Strange Loops, a work for fifteen-piece sinfonietta and prerecorded backtrack inspired by beats from classic hip hop groups like The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest. “Unthinkable,” you say, “for a hoity-toity ‘modernist’ to touch rap grooves.” And to be fair, Strange Loops sounds nothing like hip hop, or pulsed minimalism, for that matter. (The kooky investigations of a Bernhard Lang would make for a more appropriate comparison.) But the point is that “modernism” no longer stays holed up in ivory towers. It can now muck about a bit and get a sense of what the rest of the world is up to. True, it’s not entirely clear Roberts likes what he hears. He speaks of the “joy” of a really kinetic beat, yet Strange Loops is all oppression, unease, dread. That’s no small achievement for today’s listeners, for whom even the most knotted Stockhausen might as well be Muzak for ashrams. Roberts plays the mad scientist, pseudo-spectral slabs of resonance in his Petri dish, into which he injects alien DNA, the shards and shreds of 4/4-time beats. Like some unstoppable Frankenstein monster, the loops gradually take on a life of their own, but the instrumentalists ensure that the end result is less robotic than “industrially bionic,” as Roberts puts it in his apt liner note. For all that, the emotion of “joy” may still be antithetical to today’s “modernists”: Strange Loops mines the sonic underbelly of global capitalism, the over-and-over voices of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber that exhort us to buy, have sex, and buy some more. Still, the composition is a real accomplishment – urgently dynamic, well-made, and strangely moving.
The title work, written for wind band, is representative of another archetypical “modernist” impulse, innovation. Except that in 2014, innovation is a bit more humble than it once was, so that we’re not talking about the search for new sounds per se. Instead, Leaf Metal is concerned with the refurbishment of an oft-maligned genre – “band music” – for a generation inured to the visceral thrill of Ives and Merzbow alike. The standard rules of blending, the foreground-background conception of wind sonority, all the accumulated band clichés from Grainger to Persichetti, Roberts chucks them right out the window. He exploits precisely those characteristics lacking in the orchestra: the clarinet choir’s organ tones, the saxes’ metallic timbres, the expanded brass section’s sheer volume. With the result that some of the mixtures sound for all the world like they’ve been electronically processed. Leaf Metal builds up an impressive brutalism not wholly unrelated to the “saturation” of Raphaël Cendo and Franck Bedrossian. Unlike those composers, however, Roberts is still attentive to pitch – see the nods to sleazy big band writing and flighty, angular bebop. So I’m not sold on the prominent amplified harps, and Leaf Metal’s episodic structure doesn’t seem wholly earned. It’s an impactful, if exhausting, statement all the same. Maybe it’s the association of testosterone with saxes and brass, but there’s something pugilistic about the music.
Yet another favorite “modernist” pursuit: pushing performers to the limit. But Roberts is an eminently practical composer, and he’s not interested in being unplayable. Anakhtara, a substantial showpiece for unaccompanied cello, exemplifies his approach, which draws from the well of a Nomos Alpha while fighting shy of its unidiomatic extremes. Working within the parameters of the reasonable, Roberts constructs a satisfying narrative of wails, groans, and hollers with some of the flair – to say nothing of the vibrant folk flavor – of Kodály’s famous Sonata. Even at its most taxing (the high parallel fifths trills about a third of the way in), the music has the air of effortless virtuosity. For that very reason, it’s the type of composition you could envision nonspecialist performers luxuriating in. That Anakhtara breaks little new ground is of no consequence. Roberts aims for more than unassimilated noises and novelty at all costs. The “modernists” of our age no longer place their faith in the “practicability of the impossible.”
Also included are two lesser works, Sinews for solo violin and the string quartet Tangled Symmetries. In the case of the former, it’s not that the craftsmanship is of a noticeably lower standard. Sinews is a rather slight utterance, that’s all – though like Anakhtara, it convincingly musicalizes ideas first proposed in pieces like Xenakis’ Mikka and Lachenmann’s Toccatina. As for the dense, difficult Tangled Symmetries, shaped with a veritable sculptor’s attention to weight and volume, the music ticks all the boxes, sure, but the final product is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Does the composition really justify its existence?
Roberts has marshaled a smorgasbord of ace instrumentalists to his cause, with the Arditti Quartet (Symmetries) and Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne (Loops) performing with their customary proficiency. Also more than up to the challenge are Gabriela Díaz (Sinews) and Benjamin Schwartz (Anakhtara), both well-respected standbys of Boston’s new music scene. But it’s the Boston Conservatory Wind Ensemble (Leaf) that makes the biggest impression. This is tough, taxing repertoire, and under the direction of Eric Hewitt they rise to the occasion with great panache. As for Roberts himself, he’s an Eastman School and Harvard graduate with a formidable ear, possessed of a compositional toolbox that would be the envy of any of his contemporaries. A bit more seasoning and a willingness to really let himself go, and Roberts will be a vital new “modern” voice.
Il faut être absolument moderne, declared a French libertine nearly 150 years ago. Does that mean it’s old-fashioned to be “modern” today? Or perhaps it’s a case of what’s old is new again?
Adam Roberts, Leaf Metal (Tzadik #9004, 2014)