The effect of several centuries of collective ear-training in Western music has led us to expect a certain journey in sound: The basic idea is stated. It gets explored. It returns. But what happens when the composer's assignment is to write a piece only three or four minutes long? How much development is desired, or even possible?
It was perhaps not a question explicitly put to composers contributing to the Brass Project this past weekend. But two one-hour-long afternoon concerts Saturday and Sunday at the Philadelphia Art Alliance answered nonetheless - in turns tersely, monotonously, sweetly. Curtis Institute of Music composition student Nick DiBerardino curated the program, soliciting 30 works to be performed by six superb Curtis brass players in quartet, quintet, or sextet. Some composers developed their big idea. Others simply laid out an idea and then stopped writing.
Only 26 works (only!) actually made it to the two concerts, wedged into a tight, low-ceiling space on the third floor that left the booming sound nowhere to go but into overwhelmed eardrums. The volume of Saturday's concert was painful enough to make some listeners move back a few rows after the first piece, Aaron Jay Kernis' heraldic Fanfare After Color Wheel. Balm soon came in Matthew Levy's elegiac Diary, which ended on a tantalizing musical question mark.
If you had arrived at the concerts with no idea whether composition today had a prevailing style, you would have left thinking there is none. (You would be right.) One composer looked back longingly, as did Ian Gottlieb in Verses to the abiding tonal sensibilities of Richard Strauss. Another looked back ironically: The striptease triplets and twisty melodies of Ambulant Music by Jack Vees were great fun.
(Philadelphia) Sky Sketch by Chris Williams had no explicit connections to the city, but as the music changed color and players blew wind sounds through their instruments, the mood turned a lovely shade of wistful.
Limantour Spit by Gabriella Smith seemed but a single, slender sentence.
Paul Lansky's Holy Moly stretched out over a paragraph, unfurling its idea smoothly, smoothly soothing, a repeating fabric of legato textures easy on the dissonance, easy on the ears.
A few works sounded like half-thoughts.
But being limited to a small canvas turned out to be no limitation at all for Kinan Abou-afach, the Syrian-born composer/cellist and member of Philadelphia-based Al-Bustan Takht Ensemble. Using Eastern scales and repeated figures, he managed the best of both worlds - giving off a strong sense of structure while still moving through a series of ideas. The piece even lived up to its promise. Titled Exodus, it was a journey in sound.