Thursday, June 14, 2007 | June 13: Opening night for soundOn, a festival of new music that continues for the next three days from the Athenaeum and NOISE, which is the resident ensemble for San Diego New Music.

Too many concert-goers flee from new music, ducking out the door when it appears on a program, say, after a Beethoven piano concerto. So am I looking for punishment, with dozens of hours of the stuff?

For one thing, the Athenaeum’s music room makes listening to new music easy. You can’t escape from this place, can’t duck out the door when the new music comes after say, a Beethoven concerto. It’s about the size of a large living room, and when it’s not set up for concerts, you can settle into a sofa and comfortable chairs. Shelves of books and LPs that line the walls — and CDs in another room — beckon. For concerts, the sofas and chairs are pushed against the back of the room, and mesh chairs are set in rows, and you’re close to the action.

For me, this festival is a ride through the musical thinking and feeling of our time, with a minimum of external distractions from musicologists. That’s not punishment. Still, if you want to talk about the music, drop by the Athenaeum today (Thursday), at 1 p.m., when the composers will discuss the challenging social, political and practical issues that they face.

The opening night concert is titled “Homage,” and some of the cognoscenti might grasp all the allusions to the currents of modern music. For now, I stroll around the performance space, where the Athenaeum’s Steinway grand joins a collection of different instruments not always found on a concert stage.

About 35 people are here, no surprise, because this music attracts only the adventurous and the curious. The youngest is a 3-year-old boy in the front row who makes several appearances throughout the evening, randomly becoming part of the sonic environment. Some in the audience are the composers, their name tags hanging around their necks. Most of them are kids — OK, in their 30s.


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Guitarist Colin McAllister, NOISE’s executive director, introduces the festival. The members of NOISE don’t look like mavericks on the cutting edge. No weird torn, chain-encrusted costumes, long stringy dirty hair, or combat boots. The men — McAllister, percussionist Morris Palter and pianist Christopher Adler — are wearing ties, for heaven’s sake! Flutist Lisa Cella is lithe and elegant in gray and black. Only the guest performers look rehearsal-casual: violinist Mark Menzies in an open-collar shirt and cellist Franklin (Frank) Cox in a turtleneck.

Lights down. First up is Adler’s “Petit Hommage à Jehan Alain.” Written for cello and flute, the work is a salute to the French composer who died at the age of 18 on a battlefield during the opening days of WW II — just ten years into his work. Opening with a violent outburst, “Hommage” is like a boxing match, with two concurrent themes and emotional passages sparring. The flute draws this seven-minute work to a tender end.

Adler bounces out to the front for a bow. He started out as a mathematician at MIT and detoured into composition with a doctorate in music from Duke. Adler spent a decade researching the music of Thailand and Laos, and now he composes and performs at places like Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall and the Bang on a Can Marathon; he also teaches at USD.

Iannis Xenakis (d. 2001) never quite recovered from a bad case of PTSD. Born in Rumania of Greek heritage, he was badly wounded in the Greek resistance and following the Greek civil war fled to Paris, making it his home after the Greek government sentenced him to death in absentia.

Menzies and Cox give us “Hunem-Iduhey, a piece Xenakis wrote in 1996. Dedicated to Yehudi Menuhin, the work takes its title from Menuhin’s name spelled backward. Xenakis poured the chaos and pain of his war experiences into his music. Witness the jagged rhythms and sustained cries of this caustic piece. It lasts about three minutes, and we might not be able to take any more; somewhere, sometime, it has to rest. It does, with an abrupt stop.

Moiya Callahan was one of four winners of NOISE’s “call for scores” competition, which drew about 200 responses from around the world. Adler and Palter perform “Magnify,” a work for percussion and piano filled with anticipation that pulses throughout the piece.

Palter’s “toolbox” has various wood blocks, drums and a small circular saw (available from Home Depot, he tells me later). The 14-minute piece starts with the gentle sound of thin wooden blocks clicking, then the piano enters with a clinking in the upper registers; then silence; then more sticks and piano in lower registers and more silences.

Callahan exploits the piano’s percussive nature, which, combined with Palter’s instruments, gives us a song of sorts. She starts with small motif that is indeed magnified into a complex texture.

Still, where is this going? I’m in the back row, so I stand to see Palter better. It doesn’t take long before “Magnify’s” pulse takes over, and I’m swaying and bouncing in place. But I seem to be one of the few in the audience so moved. The pulse remains even as “Magnify” the work fades and then ends. This is one of those pieces I value intellectually, but I’m not moved beyond the pulse.

In his program notes, Harvey Sollberger explains that title for his “Met Him Pike Hoses” comes from the word “metempsychosis,” which Mollie Bloom uses in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” The word refers to the transfer of souls from one body to another.

In this musical duo, the flute and violin transfer their individual musical material to the other. They play two different pieces, with the flute starting at a faster tempo than the violin. Over the next seven minutes, they move closer and closer until at midpoint, they are playing in the same tempo, and then the violin takes up the faster tempo, while the flute slows down. Charles Ives did something like this in “Three Places in New England,” with a sharper wit.

Certainly, the central work in this first soundON concert was “Blurred,” from Bill Ryan, another “call for scores” winner. The piece is a game that the audience follows.

The piano has the only notated music. All the other players — NOISE, Menzies, Cox, with Sidney Marquez Boquiren on the celesta — enter at any time with pitches of their own choice. Rhythm and tempo, however, must match the pianos — not quite improvisation. In his notes, Ryan says the result should be a “blur” of sound.

The piano begins with a “chopsticks” motif. As all the instruments join the piano, however, vying for their places, the piece swells. The result is not a blur but an intensely textured, joyous, and passionate chorus that finally quiets as the instruments retreat, one by one, leaving just a tone lingering from the piano.

Following this six-minute journey is exhausting, so I’m ready for intermission. As we assemble once more, the three-year-old in the front row is already commenting. Flutist Lisa Cella chuckles, “We like unbridled enthusiasm.”

In “Stride” kicks up the concert by Jerod Sommerfeldt pays homage to stride piano music, a jazz style developed in Harlem during WW I, out of ragtime, swing, blues. It’s tough, because the pianist must master the tension between the strictly disciplined playing in the left hand and the freer playing in the right.

Sommerfeldt adds flute and percussion to the piano. Intense rhythmic episodes alternate with long, languid lines from the flute and piano, replicating the tension in a single stride piece. It’s just five minutes long, and, like “Blurred,” it’s an “up” experience.

Joseph Waters is one of a few composers who grew up playing in rock bands, so it’s hard to understand the super-intellectualized explanation he offers in his program notes for “Ghosts of the Evening Tides.” Something about sea gulls as “prophets” and “critics of the musicians;” musicians as “magicians;” and both as “declaimers of secret knowledge.”

You can set that aside and just listen to a wonderful dialogue between cawing and laughing gulls — surely you’ve seen them on the beach — and the musicians. The nine-minute conversation starts with recordings of gulls screeching and the ocean quietly ebbing and flowing in the background. The instruments enter and while the recording lasts a bit longer, the instruments ultimately take over. They alternate playing prickly, rapid lines (like the gulls) and languorous, sweeping motifs (the ocean).

“Ghosts” is a marvelously emotional piece that engages the heart as well as the head — despite Waters’ intellectualization.

The final homage is to George Hamilton Green, one of the world’s greatest xylophonists, who wrote a seminal book on the instrument. Even kids know the “xylophone,” because it’s one of those rare words beginning with “x,” so it’s ubiquitous in their alphabet books. Few know that the instrument originated in eastern Asia, maybe 2000 years ago, and began appearing in western orchestras about 100 years ago.

With everyone dancing off their WWI hangovers, Green and others were using the xylophone in their dance music recordings and especially ragtime. Lionel Hampton became the first musician to embrace the vibraphone (which uses metal rather than wooden bars) as a jazz instrument. The Beach Boys, Frank Zappa and Pink Floyd liked it too.

So NOISE selected to close this first concert with about 15 minutes of three ragtime pieces by Green. Palter didn’t just play the xylophone, he wailed. On electric guitar, providing some counterpoint and rhythm, was McAllister, emerging occasionally from Palter’s virtuoso performance to give us a riff.

We were dancin’ out the door to a wine and cookies reception in the lobby.

I’ll be reporting from the entire festival. On Thursday (today), the festival goes from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Performers’ forums, the composers’ roundtable, an open rehearsal, and a “Chill-Out” concert fill out the second day of the festival.

Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos),” to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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