Rockwell on 1980 New Music America

Music: Avant-Gardists Get a Chance to Roam

Special to The New York Times

MINNEAPOLIS, June 9 - There is a benignly brooding "video portrait" of John Cage greeting people in the lobby of the Walker Art Center here. That's only appropriate, because people are gathering for a nine-day festival called New Music America that began Saturday night. This is a followup to a similar festival held last June at The Kitchen in New York, and part of what is now hoped will be an annual event in different parts of the country, all devoted to the openly experimental spirit that Mr. Cage pioneered.

There are good reasons for this second festival to be in Minneapolis-St. Paul, but the reasons are more institutional than creative. As Roy M. Close, music critic of The Minneapolis Star, points out in the festival catalogue, the Twin Cities have never been the home of a particularly strong school of experimental composers. But local institutions, above all the Walker Art Center and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, have more than made up the slack, and the result is an active audience and support system for such music. The festival is being presented by the center and The Star, and the first evening's performances were by the chamber orchestra.

Judging from the first two days and from a look at the programs to come, the Minneapolis festival differs in several ways from its Kitchen prototype. The Kitchen festival was criticized for cramming too many short, insubstantial works  onto each program. Here, the evenmgs offer three or four composers instead of six, and allow them a greater length and breadth of forces.

This is not always an advantage. Some of the composers abused that generosity on the first two nights, and the concerts ran too long for comfort. The necessary inclusion of some local composers, plus a few misjudgments about out-of-town guests, has diffused the festival's conceptual focus. Still, the overall program seems genuinely representative of the variety of "new music" styles.

Perhaps the biggest difference from the Kitchen programs is the inclusion of a wide range of special events and "installations." The latter are musical compositions that in one way or another interact with their site, which by definition is not a conventional concert hall. New Music America has some rather silly, trendy (and worse, yesteryear's trends) examples of this genre, mostly by local composers. But there is a fine piece by Liz Phillips in the plaza outside the Minnesota Orchestra's concert hall - clever, entrancing and ingenious. There is a permanent installation of a subtly lively steady-state work for 64 speakers and small synthesizers by Max Neuhaus in Minnesota's largest greenhouse. Brian Eno's gentle "Music for Airports" is chiming away in the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and Alvin Lucier has an example of his thoughtprovoking minimalism in a large indoor courtyard.

Two of the three pieces on the chamber orchestra's opening-night concert were commissions. Unfortunately, the festival opened with one of those commissions, a weak, derivative and rather giddy piece by Minnesota's Homer Lambrecht called "Owl." But then there was Steve Reich's characteristically ingenious Octet, played brightly and industriously by a hardworking band of orchestra members.

The concert ended with the other commission, a 45-minute work for piano, orchestra and electronics by Alvin Curran. Mr. Curran, an American composer who lives in Rome, has heretofore been best known for his solo appearances, and in this piece's nine minute cadenza for himself at the piano, hammering out a frenzied ostinato, wailing away American Indian style into a sound system that "treated" his voice, and supported by two French horns, he achieved a compelling impact. But his orchestral writing which blended folk songs, Western kitsch and na'ive counterpoint, sounded amateurish.

Last night's second concert had editing troubles. A mixed-media piece by Charles Amirkhanian and Carol Law failed to present Mr. Amirkhanian's clever "text-sound" manipulations at their full aural potential, and Barbara Kolb's three works not only went on far too long, but also seemed curiously out of place in their sober, East Coast-formalistic way. A local group called Zeitgeist combined Reichian ostinatos with jazzy brass improvisations inoffensively but trivially. The evening was handily salvaged, however, by Robert Ashley at the end.

Mr. Ashley was at once old and new, an honored veteran of pioneering new music groups, and the purveyor, in collaboration with Blue Gene Tyranny, Peter Gordon and others of the rock-art vanguard, of about the freshest sound heard in recent months. This was another in-progress installment of his "Perfect Lives - Private Parts" series. But instead of the wonderful floating dreaminess of previously encountered parts, the latest section partook of the tension, energy and anger of new-wave rock. Yet it hardly "ripped off" rock; this was always Mr. Ashley's piece, and it earned him the most fervent ovation of the festival so far.


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