An uncoventional approach

To hear one towering figure of avant-garde music play his own music is uncommon enough, but the chan

To hear one towering figure of avant-garde music play his own music is uncommon enough, but the chance to hear two such composers/performers is even rarer.

On Saturday at RPI’s Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, pianist Frederic Rzewski will make his debut. The following Saturday, March 27, it will be the debut of pianist Helmut Lachenmann, who will bring the Signal Ensemble and Jack Quartet.

Rzewski (born in Massachusetts in 1938) will play Books 3-7 of his “Nanosonatas” (2006-2010), a work comprising seven books of solos with each book containing seven small works.

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For Gazette classical music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

Rzewski is a prolific composer known for incorporating mathematical schemes and 12-tone techniques into his music. His work is considered experimental yet eclectic with occasional excursions into the Romantic realm. His work has been recorded by such piano stars as Ursula Oppens and Marc-Andre Hamelin, and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Rzewski himself has recorded many of his own works (“Rzewski Plays Rzewski,” Nonesuch, 2002).

His “Nanosonatas,” however, have mixed inspirations. The idea for a “nanosonata” came from an article that a scientist friend wrote about their discussions on nanomolecular motors. In appreciation for crediting him in the story, Rzewski decided to write a two-minute piece that was technically demanding but would not take a lot of practice and sent it to him. A commission later came along and Rzewski got another idea.

“I liked the first nanosonata, so I thought if I strung together, say, seven of them, it would fill the bill,” he said in an e-mail.

“The basic idea is a form in which different elements come together . . . but do not develop. They are left hanging, something like the characters that frequently appear in Tolstoy. A nanosonata seems to be going somewhere, but . . . it stops. It is just a record of a fugitive moment.”

Within a short time and another commission, Rzewski composed 14 pieces or two books. Book three’s backdrop was the war in Iraq, which resulted in a series of warlike explosions and sober reflections on classical tradition. One sonata also quotes Mozart and Haydn, another tries to re-create a group of magpies who were singing outside his window.

Book 4 is “Peace Dances.” Book 5 was inspired by the spirit of Shostakovich, his favorite composer. Book 6 is a tribute to each of Rzewski’s seven children. Book 7 fuses the banal with the enigmatic.

“None of these sonatas succeed in doing what they set out to do. They are all imperfect. In the end, everything becomes melody,” Rzewski said, adding that each book’s form was abstract and any unity was illusory.

Not about melody

Lachenmann’s music, however, is not about melody.

Related story

For Gazette classical music writer Geraldine Freedman’s review of this show, click here.

“It is unlike anything you’ve heard before,” said Brad Lubman, who will conduct the 20-piece Signal. “There is some pitched material, but that realm is secondary to the other sounds.”

Lachenmann, who turns 75 this year, and who will also play “Wiegenmusik” (1963) and “Ein Kinderspiel” (1980), creates his own soundscape. This requires traditional instruments to play in nontraditional ways to create sounds like a forest, crowds murmuring or an old car’s engine cooling down.

“There are some pitches but no melodies. There is a lot of rhythm,” said Signal co-founder and cellist Lauren Radnofsky, who will solo in “Pression” (1969). “You bow with the wood of the bow, or you play under the strings, or you slap the instrument or bow vertically.”

Lachenmann also invented different clefs, and instruments are tuned in nontraditional pitches. These extended techniques had to be learned, Radnofsky said, so she and the rest of the ensemble had special hour-long lessons with Lachenmann.

Having to learn such techniques is part of the reason Lachenmann’s music is not played often in this country, although in Europe his music often receives awards, she said. But at U.S. universities, including Harvard University, where Lachenmann was a visiting professor in 2008, musicians have become familiar with his special demands. It was at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester where the Jack Quartet was introduced to Lachenmann’s music.

“His music is actually what inspired us to get together,” said violinist Ari Streisfeld. “We were intrigued with his sound world, especially with how he puts it in context. He never uses an ugly sound.”

The Jack, which is an acronym of the first name of the quartet’s players: violist John Richards, Streisfeld, violinist Christopher Otto, and cellist Kevin McFarland, will play the Second String Quartet (1989) and with Signal play “Zwei Gefuehle” (1992).

Hard to learn

Like Radnofsky, Jack had to learn how to play their instruments in an unconventional way, which makes the music very difficult to learn.

“I love the standard repertoire, especially Brahms,” Streisfeld said. “But I’ve come to have a real understanding of the sounds Lachenmann wants. Contemporary music can be a wonderful experience, but you must be open-minded.”

For Lubman, Lachenmann’s music is surprisingly traditional in that the conducting gestures, metered time and notation are the same. The music though is evolutionary.

“It’s about atmosphere, mood and change of motion. I don’t know if the music will catch on. But there is room for it at any concert hall,” Lubman said.

Signal and Jack also plan to record Lachenmann’s music on Mode Records later this year.

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