Quatour Diotima presented the contemporary side of their Washington double bill at the French embassy Thursday night (the "hits" side took place at the LoC last night, though I was not in attendance). The evening featured very recent works by Oscar Bianchi, Ramon Lazkano, and Ana Lara, capped by Ligeti's second string quartet.
The Bianchi and Lazkano works which comprised the first half had much in common--use of microtones, raspy harmonics produced by playing near the bridge of the instruments and high up on the strings, and, oh, just about any other sound effect a hollow wood box strung with steel can produce. I won't claim I could pick them out of a lineup on a second hearing, but the Bianchi seemed the more compelling at the time, providing a structure which allowed one clearer insight into the formal program. The Lazkano was deliberately less structured, seeking to describe, in the composer's words "...a flat and plane map surface, a motionless time, fluid and stagnant routes and transitions associted with eroded, crumbly and unsteady sounds..." Fair enough.
If I sound a bit standoffish, its because I find works like this highlight what seems to be a particularly troubled thrust in contemporary music: these are not works of music so much as they are aural conceptual art pieces. They appeal almost exclusively to the listener's analytic faculties, and not at all to the visceral responses (in all their ecstatic and subtle forms) which constitute our experience of music as commonly understood. And yet, unlike the art movement with which they align, they are limited in both their mode of presentation and materials by the fairly narrow parameters of the inherited tradition of western classical music. It begs the question, what profit is there in this line of composition? Does the musical frontier really lie in the abuse of instruments thought up in the 16th century to produce something which, more than anything, evokes the common horror movie soundtrack?
The Lara work which opened the second half largely played on the same harmonics textures, though to greater musical effect. A meditation on friends that have died, the piece opens with sonic chaos resolving to a throbbing drone, punctuated here and there by piercing overtones.
And then we had the Ligeti second string quartet, composed more than 40 years prior. Here we got clear, powerful gestures: the study of different tempi in pizzicati, the variation in timbre on the same pitch, akin, the quartet suggested, to painting black on black. Without the diminishing returns of the more recent works, Ligeti seemed to cover many of their most important points, leaving one somewhat skeptical about where this branch of the musical avant garde goes from here.