Despite frequent public resistance, composers can still be heard exploring what music hasn't been in the past and what it could be in the future - if you're willing to hunt a bit.
In the unofficial contemporary music festival that has been Philadelphia over the last week, the American Composers Orchestra Sunday at the Annenberg Center and Michael Hersch's gargantuan unaccompanied cello sonatas Monday at the Philadelphia Art Alliance were so overwhelming in their density of musical information that you could leave them wondering if you took in even a tenth of the totality. The reward was relief in knowing serious music has a serious future.
However unfathomable some pieces seem at first, audiences at the premiere of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge no doubt felt the same way - without realizing that time is on everybody's side. The longer we know a composer's voice, the better we understand his or her language.
Music played by the American Composers Orchestra - which is now in the second year of Philadelphia residency with funding secured for a third - had its share of references to the past. Harold Meltzer, for one, was represented by Virginal, a concerto for that Elizabethan-era cousin to the harpsichord. Hitting a broader frame of reference was Deal, a Jimi Hendrix-influence electric guitar concerto by Princeton-based Steve Mackey. Such familiarity, however, didn't always guide you into the piece.
Mackey's extended, ambitious work initially splinters everything you thought you knew about music. Composers can get away with casting their net this wide if the piece's framework has momentum; Mackey even did without that. Having unmoored your ears from conventional music, the piece was a pointillistic landscape of everyday sounds (dog barking, phones ringing) that asked you to find the music in them.
The other piece that immediately proclaimed its importance was Interventions, the first orchestral work of New York-based, world-music-influenced Vijay Iyer. There, you had tangible references to American jazz - imagine Thelonious Monk in an anti-gravity chamber - in an episodic series of sound worlds (musicians snap their fingers at one point) within a clear frame of electronic sound.
So much else was featured - like a solo performance by pipa virtuoso Min Xiao-Fen - that the 21/2-hour concert (valiantly conducted by Dennis Russell Davies) felt like a tenacious succubus. But if you thought the Hersch concert would be an easy ride with a single cellist playing two sonatas, you were wrong.
Comparisons with Bach's unaccompanied cello works are inevitable. But while Bach created a tour de force, sketching huge musical constructions with this predominantly linear instrument, Hersch did more than sketch. Though the second sonata makes passing references to Bach's dance-based movements (though in its own exploded manner), the cello was like an orchestra unto itself - it rants, pants, screams and cowers - particularly as played by the remarkable Daniel Gaisford, who may be America's greatest unknown cellist.
There's a backstory there. With a slew of A-list credits, Gaisford retreated to the Colorado Rockies when he heard one of his radio performances and wasn't happy. Having stumbled upon the 1994 Sonata No. 1, written when Hersch was 23, Gaisford spent a cabin-bound winter near Basalt, Colo., working for the U.S. Forest Service and playing the explosive piece.
By coincidence, he was later hired to premiere another Hersch chamber work at Carnegie Hall. The cellist, now based in Harrisburg, surprised the composer with the unaccompanied sonata memorized and understood with a depth of insight that prompted the creation of the second sonata in 2001.
Together, the pieces are a crunchy, overstimulating evening - in a good way. Though cunningly constructed, the youthful first sonata is like an extended theatrical monologue whose content is simultaneously focused and incredibly wide-ranging - not unlike some of Ezra Pound's angrier, sometimes opaque cantos.
The more controlled, accomplished second sonata could use a little editing. Its most basic gesture is a cello drone with simultaneous voices fanning out in unexpectedly disturbing ways, now and then morphing from a religious chant to something resembling radio static. Too often, though, the piece returns to ghostly whispers that don't accommodate the music's innately tumultuous narrative.
Almost paradoxically, the most obvious repetitions yielded some of the sonata's best, haikulike effects: The third and sixth movements are the same music, based on a terse, bowed gesture, contrasted with the eerie tapping sound of the bow lightly hitting the strings. Both specific in its manner but so open-ended in its meaning, such a gesture could say radically different things to the same ears on consecutive days. And that's what I call music.