On Yellow Barn's tribute to Mario Davidovsky

Monday, July 27, 2020

Kurt Gottschalk writes about Yellow Barn's tribute to Mario Davidovsky in Bachtrack, originally published on July 27, 2020. 

Seth Knopp performing Synchronisms No. 6 for piano and electronic sounds

While electronic music wasn’t Mario Davidovsky’s primary focus, it is arguably his legacy. The Argentinian-born composer studied with Milton Babbit and served as associate director of the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center from 1980 to 1994. His most popular compositions remain the twelve Synchronisms for electronic tape and soloist or ensemble, five of which were presented in a streamed concert from Vermont’s YellowBarn.

Davidovsky – who died on 23th August 2019 at the age of 85 – set out to treat electronics as an equal partner to acoustic instruments in the Synchronisms, and did so in varying ways, from integrating the sounds to amplifying them to employing a sort of disembodied counterpoint. The solo-plus-tape pieces would also seem to owe much to Luciano Berio’s roughly contemporaneous Sequenzas as efforts to chronicle instrumental capacities. But unlike the cold calculations of, say, Helmut Lachenmann, the end goal for both Berio and Davidovsky was still to give the instruments something to sing. The YellowBarn portrait stuck to Davidovsky’s social distancing-friendly pieces for solo instrumentalists, although the 1992 Synchronisms no. 10 for guitar and electronic sounds was sadly left out. 

Rather than a chronological presentation, the program was ordered giving the electronics a slow build from beginning to end. The sensation, especially in the first half, was often more of exploded solo than duet or accompaniment. The electronic sounds seemed to live within the instruments, sneaking out nonchalantly while other sounds were played or making a break for it and storming the gates. This, of course, had something to do with it being a stream – the acoustics of a physical space could make for a very different experience – but it was in the composition as well. During Seth Knopp’s wonderful performance of the 1970 Synchronisms no. 6 for piano and electronic sounds (for which Davidovsky won a Pulitzer Prize), the electronics worked like a reverse decay, echoing, building and stopping abruptly, mirroring and anticipating the soft percussive sounds of the clacking keys, making it almost violent, then recessing into something almost as gentle as a lamb’s dream, always in harmony. Knopp moved easily between extreme dynamics, soft and sensitive passages abutting abrupt, heavy sections. 

Lizzie Burns played the 2005 Synchronisms no. 11 for contrabass and electronic sounds in a strong embrace of her instrument, poised and exacting when it seemed she should be surprised by the sounds occasionally erupting around her. Yasmina Spiegelberg was animated, playing to the room (and only the room, one would guess, the nearly empty room) in her reading of the 2016 Synchronisms no.12 for clarinet and electronic sounds. Here the acoustic sound was invaded by less natural sounds: beeps and hums and digital crickets, as well as the mimicking of her own overtones. Her body language became part of the piece; she looked anticipatory, concerned, suggesting crescendo as she played the opposite, and stopping in mid-phrase. She seemed to be the first to outsmart the extraneous sounds. 

Synchronisms no. 3 for cello and electronic sounds (from 1964) toyed with the baroque (or maybe Bach has so engrained himself on the instrument that it only felt that way). It also seemed particularly demanding. Like Knopp’s execution of the piano piece, cellist Coleman Itzkoff rose to the dynamic demands well, the electronics here taking a percussive role. In the final Synchronisms no. 9 for violin and electronic sounds (1988), the electronics ran free, almost like a string quartet with Alice Ivy-Pemberton as the only string player, displaying focus and beautiful attention to detail.

The concert was presented on a simple stage in simple frames (two stationary cameras), not trying to create anything beyond the traditional concert experience, with the exception of prerecorded introductions and memorials. Soprano Susan Narucki’s touching reminiscences, for example, made for the rare occasion of a singer talking over her own performance. Davidovsky had a longstanding relationship with the Vermont venue, and had repeat residencies with the rural new music community. While the summer season was considerably, necessarily, stripped down, the organization decided to retain the planned composer portrait. Streamed performances continue through 8th August.