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Off the charts
Bang the violin, beat the piano—and lose the cowbell
At the end of a rehearsal for a December 10 concert in Gasson 100, conductor Stephen Drury nodded toward the 11 players—a mix of Boston College students and professional musicians—and declared, “That was a noisy, chaotic mess.” Coming from Drury, one of the foremost practitioners of avant-garde classical music, it was a compliment.
The students were practicing with members of the Callithumpian Consort, a group that Drury founded and directs. Drury and the Consort are artists-in-residence at the University this academic year. The Callithumpians play what is often labeled 20th-century music, which springs from the classical tradition and explores the limits of tonality and instrumental technique. With Drury conducting, the music roams well beyond those limits.
During nine rehearsals beginning in early December, varied combinations of players (violinists, percussionists, flutists, a harpist, a clarinetist, a double-bassist, and others) collaborated in preparing five pieces. They played—intentionally—off key. They composed on the spot. They used their instruments in unorthodox ways: touching metal objects to the strings of an open-top piano, for example. Altogether, 14 student musicians joined with 10 Callithumpians.
As the players began their second rehearsal on the night of December 2, a Sunday, 10 instrumentalists (including three Callithumpians and one faculty member, Junko Fujiwara, on cello) sat in a semicircle without music stands or the security of sheet music, wending through Cobra (1984), a largely improvisational piece by composer John Zorn. In the score, there are guidelines for a prompter (i.e., conductor) and players, but no prescribed notes or pitches. Drury stood facing the musicians from behind a rectangular table upon which were rows of cue cards. These were pieces of colored paper on cardboard with thickly marked lettering.
As prompter, he held up, for example, an “S” for “substitute.” That led all those playing to stop, and those not playing to commence making sounds. Musicians also initiated cues. At one point, Jonathan Mott ’14, tambourine in hand, held up two fingers, impelling Drury to flash the “T” card calling for “trades.” Mott riffed, making eye contact with a cellist who responded with his own licks and likewise signaled to the piano player. A chain of music continued from one player to another.
Drury stressed eye contact. “You’re always looking to see who’s playing and who you’re going to pass the music to,” he told the students. Then he introduced a subversive concept. He grabbed a stash of white headbands and tossed them out to the musicians, explaining that, at any time, any player could put one on and become what Zorn designated as a “guerilla” soloist. “You can play anything you want, as long as it’s cool,” said Drury, who has a mussy head of salt-and-pepper hair and wore old blue jeans for the rehearsals and on concert night. He later defined “cool” as “extreme.”
There were no immediate student takers. “Let’s concentrate on learning the guerilla operation next week,” he suggested.
After a chocolate break around 9:30, a slightly different configuration of students and Callithumpians rehearsed Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958) by John Cage. Drury gestured toward Mott and announced, “Meet your conductor. The conductor is a clock.”
He was alluding to a visually striking aspect of that number: the way Mott, as conductor, is obliged to establish the duration of each line of music by means of slow clock-like movements of his arms. Mott, a music major whose principal instrument is voice and who has been taking conducting lessons in the music department, noted afterward in an interview, “My concern was with evenly spacing the time. . . . I’ve never been a clock before.”
The Cage piece also calls for what are known in contemporary classical music as “extended techniques.” On string instruments, these may include tapping the wood in different places to produce lower or higher percussive pitches. Obeying an instruction in the middle of the score, Serena Lofftus ’13, a music and biochemistry major, struggled to instantly re-tune the A string of her violin down to an A-flat. Callithumpian viola player Mary Ferrillo took notice a few seats away and called out softly to the student—”It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Rehearsal for the concert’s opening piece, “. . . ni bruit ni vitesse . . .” (c. 1970) by Lukas Foss, took place on the fourth floor of Lyons Hall, in a small rehearsal room with bare white walls, a tiny window, and a grand piano. Studio art major Olivia Natale ’14 and Callithumpian percussionist Jeffrey Means sized up their section of the piece, which calls for two pairings of piano player and percussionist. Means was hunched over the belly of the piano with its lid wide open, hammering the strings with two metal beaters normally used to play a musical triangle.
Natale’s part seemed to call for training in gymnastics. At several points, she was playing a chord with one hand and working the foot pedals with her right foot while rising out of her seat to drop a cowbell or a round-bottom metal bowl with her other hand onto the strings of the chord she was striking. “It’s hard to get the timing right,” she said with understatement.
Sunday, December 9, the day before the concert, was a rehearsal day for all players, in Gasson and Lyons.
In one piece, Kaitlin Trefcer ’13 was trying to find her footing, literally. Standing with her piccolo on a wood-paneled ledge about four feet above the floor on the left side of Gasson 100, she was treading through songbirdsongs (1974–80) by John Luther Adams, a piece that evokes birds in a forest. There’s a spatial effect—achieved in Gasson with Trefcer on the ledge, two percussionists in opposite corners at the front, and another piccolo perched in the right-rear balcony. Trefcer, an elementary education major, was the quartet’s only student.
Shuffling over to Lyons for another ensemble practice a little while later, Drury pointed out that the music chosen for the December 10 concert would be “adventuresome even at a conservatory.”
On Monday December 10 in Gasson, as the musicians gathered two hours before concert time, Drury demonstrated to Natale an extended technique that was new to her. It involved rubbing the steel bar of a thick triangle against the piano strings. Natale tried it and made a sliding, slurring, bending sound reminiscent of a steel guitar, but harsher. Drury was pleased, and Natale seemed to take in stride the last-minute decision to ditch the cowbell for the triangle. “Steve felt that the cowbell was too screechy,” she reported.
During the 90-minute performance, the students looked more confident and appeared to enjoy themselves more than at any time before. Friends and fellow music students made up most of the nearly 70 concertgoers.
Early in Cobra, the concert finale, Lofftus donned a headband, leading Drury to do the same at the conductor’s table, which alerts the full ensemble that someone is going guerrilla. She proceeded to attack the neck of her violin, bowing down hard on two strings at a time, striking double notes at full speed up and down the fingerboard. “I was a little extreme,” she said with a smile afterward. The applause—which had evolved from polite to enthusiastic during the four previous numbers—gave way to whistling and foot stomping at the conclusion of the piece.
The student performers agreed this is one kind of music that has to be seen. “I don’t know if I’ll go around listening to a lot of this,” Mott said, “but it’s sure fun to play.” Mott is president of the University’s Madrigal Singers; he intends to pursue graduate studies in music and was quick to underscore the “academic worthiness,” as he put it, of 20th-century forms and their importance in the still-developing classical tradition. Music lecturer Sandra Hebert, who coordinates the residency and directs the University’s Chamber Music Society, which includes most of the student performers, said the collaboration with the Consort has already improved students’ ability to heed fellow ensemble players, a skill that spills into their playing of the old masters, too.
The Callithumpian Consort gave its own concert in Gasson Hall on October 22, launching the residency funded by the University’s Institute for the Liberal Arts and music department. This spring, the artists-in-residence will work with students one-on-one and help them get ready as a group to deliver an evening of mostly student dissonance on April 22.
Read more by William Bole