Colin Davin, guitar - Thursday, June 6, 2019, at 7:30 p.m.

Colin Davin
Cleveland Institute of Music, Mixon Hall
Thursday, June 6, 2019, at 7:30 p.m.


Steve Reich (b. 1936)

Electric Counterpoint

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Violin Sonata no. 3, BWV 1005
    Allegro assai


David Crowell b. 1980)

Point Cloud (Cleveland Premiere)

Johann Sebastian Bach

Violin Partita no. 2, BWV 1004

The use of electronic devices such as cell phones, tablets, iPads, and lap top computers in Mixon Hall is prohibited at all times. Photography, video, or audio recording are also not permitted at any time.

In music history, there’s a tension between simple and complex. Each has advantages. Simplicity is direct and immediate. To enjoy it, one needn’t ponder. And let’s not look down our noses at it. Simple beauty—a sunset, for example—resonates profoundly. On the other hand, we don’t live on simplicity alone. When Thoreau said “simplify, simplify” he brushed off a crucial part of humanity’s rise. In deep antiquity, humans who relied solely on simplicity found themselves on a carnivore’s menu. We survived by mastering complexity, both social and technological. Complexity in the arts beckons by engaging our reasoning skills. Whodunnit novels thrive on our delight at solving the crime. Similarly, complex music beckons us to crack its hidden code.

In the early 1700s, musical complexity was at a zenith. European society was still rigidly stratified. For composers, the listeners who mattered were those of royal and aristocratic blood. They were connoisseurs—or at least fancied themselves so—and they set the standard for music. Composers either sated elevated tastes or went hungry.

Coming from a lineage of professional musicians, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) knew the drill. Thus, mastery of complexity was his maxim. He was the greatest keyboard player of his day. He was also a fine violinist, with an insider’s understanding of how to compose for it. His six sonatas and partitas for solo violin are today a cornerstone of the violin repertoire. (Concert violinist Julia Fischer asserts: “If you don’t like Bach’s solo violin music, it’s very hard to be a violinist.”) Bach completed these works at Cöthen, where he worked as kapellmeister for a Prussian prince. It was an ideal job for Bach, then in his mid 30s. His employer was himself a skilled musician who would often sit in during performances of the musicians in his employ, something others of his rank would find beneath their dignity. So it was here that Bach composed for someone of impeccable taste. Not surprisingly, his solo violin works dig deep. Their architecture is often arcane, fully comprehensible only to other musicians. They’re not for the faint of heart, nor do they tickle the casual ear. Of them, early music specialist John Holloway writes: “The Sonatas and Partitas are an encyclopedia of 18th-century violin techniques. For Bach, it was part of his ongoing exploration of what the possibilities were for the violin. And, of course, in teaching himself—for he probably played most of the music he wrote—he’s also teaching us.”

Historically, however, audiences tolerate musical lectures only to a point. When music demands too much, a pushback is inevitable. Even during Bach’s life, some were turning away from deeper musical waters. In 1737, critic Johann Adolph Scheibe wrote of Bach: “This great man would be the admiration of all nations if he had more amenity, and if his works were not made unnatural by their turgid and confused character, and their beauty obscured by too much artifice.” Indeed, Bach’s own sons—“composers all” he proudly noted—were among the vanguard of those who championed a leaner, more ingratiating style. By the early 18th century, Bach himself was increasingly dismissed as outmoded. His son Johann Christian reputedly called him “the old wig”—affectionately, one would hope.

Looking back to the 18th century offers a distant mirror to a time in more recent memory. The early 20th century triumvirate of Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg took music by storm. Atonality was in the air. And since composers often react to whatever dominates the spirit of their time, atonality became the obligatory language of new art music. Further, modern music seemed deliberately hostile to public taste, notoriously summarized by Milton Babbit’s 1958 essay “Who Cares if You Listen?” To be fair, Babbit himself didn’t write this title. And his essay scored good points, some of them ominously prescient to us today:

"It often has been remarked that only in politics and the 'arts' does the layman regard himself as an expert, with the right to have his opinion heard. In the realm of politics he knows that this right, in the form of a vote, is guaranteed by fiat. Comparably, in the realm of public music, the concertgoer is secure in the knowledge that the amenities of concert going protect his firmly stated 'I didn’t like it' from further scrutiny."

But modern music always faced a mass audience little persuaded by its idealism. Further, the heady excitement and innovations of atonality too often ossified into formulaic doctrinism. Its shock value waning, many listeners looked elsewhere.

One of the most obvious reactions was minimalism. Percolating up from pop music, minimalism melded simple gestures with relentless repetition, depending on slowly changing textures for hypnotic effect. Early examples inspired literary eyerolls—one critic called it “stuck in the groove music,” a witticism perhaps lost on those too young to remember turntable needles. To those who felt modern music had lost its way in arid complexity, however, minimalism seemed refreshingly inviting.

New York born and Pulitzer prize winning composer Steve Reich (b. 1936) is a pioneer of minimalism. Early on, he experimented with repeated loops of sound. “I discovered that the most interesting music of all was made by simply lining the loops in unison, and letting them slowly shift out of phase with other.” His Electric Counterpoint, premiered by Pat Metheny in 1987, grew from repeated requests by classical guitarists. But Reich was at first reluctant. “I felt like the guitar of our time is the electric guitar—it’s not the classical guitar.” Bob Hurwitz, president of Nonesuch Records, suggested that Pat Metheny might be interested. “In five minutes, the phone rang, and it was Pat. So we got together and I told him I don’t know how to write idiomatically for the guitar. Give me some advice. He said, ‘Write single lines. Stay away from a whole lot of chords.’ And that’s what I did.”

Brooklyn based composer David Crowell is a saxophonist and guitarist praised for his “singular vision that transcends genre.” He composed Point Cloud in 2018, describing it as “a musical response to the lush textures, rhythmic richness, and layered guitars of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint.” Writing about tonight’s Cleveland premiere, Crowell notes: “Since Point Cloud was conceived as a musical reaction to Electric Counterpoint, it will be exciting to hear the two paired together for the first time! I also feel very close to the Bach Partitas and Sonatas, having practiced them myself extensively.”

Though it may seem provocatively incongruous—some might say blasphemous—to link Bach and minimalism, all the works in this program share an intriguing affinity for interlocking layers of sound. Indeed, one might argue that the apparent simplicity of minimalism conceals an underlying complexity. And really, must we must prefer one over the other? A more ecumenical view is to see complexity and simplicity as coexisting on a spectrum.

After all, a spectrum with only one color is no spectrum at all.

- Tom Poore