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Review: A Wolfgang von Schweinitz work mesmerizes at REDCAT

January 25, 2009 |  1:56 pm

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In the fall of 2007 and without fanfare, CalArts installed a German composer little known in American in the Roy E. Disney Family Chair in Music Composition.  This is one of the most prominent American academic American posts for a composer of experimental bent.

For a year and a half there was hardly a peep from Wolfgang von Schweinitz in the public sphere.  You certainly would not have known from the much-publicized Los Angeles Philharmonic announcement last week of its major festival of California music next season that perhaps the leading European figure to have embraced microtonality and other aspects of the West Coast scene is now in our midst.

But Saturday night at REDCAT there was, finally, a peep -- and very big peep at that.  A superb Norwegian violinist, Helge Slaatto, and an equally superb German double bass player, Frank Reinecke, gave the U.S debut of Von Schweinitz’ “Plainsound Glissando Modulation.”  The subtitle is “Raga in Just Intonation.”  It lasts 80 minutes.  It explores a wondrous sonic universe.  It is mesmeric music.

But boy, could Von Schweinitz use some kind of publicist-publisher-handler if he hopes to make an impact on these shores.  Nothing about this program looked particularly promising, nor did it begin well.  The piece’s title sounds like the results of a 1950s German electronic sound lab project.  Von Schweinitz’s program notes –- a series of old questions about the nature of microtonal music -- were of no help to the listener.

Onstage, the performers introduced the music by revealing the healthful aspects of exploring pitch intervals made up of tones that fit between the cracks of the piano and are based on the natural harmonics of string tones.  Such thinking is new to them, perhaps, but is as integral to West Coast music as local produce is to Alice Waters' cooking.

To open the program, cellist Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick played the U.S. premiere of Von Schweinitz’s “Plainsound Litany,” a series of microtonal intervals, one after the other.  The cellist made beautiful sounds, but the 16-minute work seemed little more than an exploratory worksheet for “Plainsound Glissando Modulation.”

Exactly what goes on in the latter, which was completed in 2007, is a mystery to me.  There was nothing especially raga-like and no indication whether the performers were improvising (they didn’t seem to be). Von Schweinitz has been called a neo-medieval avant-gardist, which this work sort of is, and he has been accused in the German press of being a neo-Romantic, which he hardly is although he does have a flair for creating rich swaths of string sound.  And REDCAT was certainly bathed in continuous sonic extravagance Saturday.

The so-called raga was in six regions, three played before intermission and three after.  By regions, Von Schweinitz means regions on the violin and double-bass finger boards.  The players keep their fingers put for long sections, yet through overtones and interesting bowing techniques create, within each region. an exciting full range of pitches from high to low. 

The score begins with drones of odd-tuned intervals that are like windows of pitch that open up ever more widely to let in an alternative harmonic universe.  At no point during these 80 minutes did I know where I was in the music or have any notion of what would come next.  With eyes closed it could even be impossible to tell which instrument was playing what.

High harmonics swirled around the room as hints of melodies seemed to come out and float back into the atmosphere like ghosts.  Occasionally, Von Schweinitz had the players produce pizzicato attacks for variety, but mainly they sawed and sawed exquisitely in perfect, if exceedingly odd, intonation.

Others have explored these realms, notably these days Terry Riley and LaMonte Young, and Von Schweinitz has paid homage to them in earlier compositions.  But he brings his own German flair to the microtonal table, one that finds roots in medieval music written before the modern tempered scale.  He then sexes up the old with string playing from the Romantic virtuoso tradition to which he adds a dose of Stockhausen’s outer-space sound spectrum.  All and all, this is heady, engrossing stuff and deserves much wider exposure.  The REDCAT crowd tuned in immediately and sat in a remarkable silence throughout.

A recording of “Plainsound Glissando Modulation” by the Slaatto/Reinecke duo is supposed to be released soon on Neos.  The Munich-based label puts out great-sounding and imaginative CDs but has inadequate U.S. distribution.  Somehow that’s seems sadly appropriate.

-- Mark Swed

Caption: Helge Slaatto on violin and Frank Reinecke on double bass perform Wolfgang von Schweinitz's "Plainsound Glissando Modulation" at REDCAT. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

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