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Present Music: Hartke, Ince, Gruber
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Program
Stephen Hartke: The King of the Sun (1988)
Kamran Ince: Hammer Music (1990)
H. K. Gruber: Frankenstein!!

Performers
H. K. Gruber, chansonnier
Present Music Ensemble

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Last year the Milwaukee-based ensemble Present Music seemed to be drifting: despite having first-rate musicians, their concerts in Madison were poorly prepared and far below the standard of their earlier work. I'm glad to report things seem to be back on track.

This well-attended program at the First Unitarian Society started auspiciously with Stephen Hartke's The King of the Sun (1988), a 24-minute suite of five whimsical tableaux inspired by paintings of Miró, scored for piano quartet. The writing is dense, subtle and elegant, balancing the often unusual sonorities of the strings and piano with great economy, yet without suggesting emotional constraint. To be cool and hot at the same time is no mean feat. The performance sounded very good to me, and it's a piece I would look forward to hearing again and knowing better.

Less so Kamran Ince's Hammer Music (1990), though it had more positive features than other works I've heard by this composer. One virtue was a successful blending of electronic (keyboard synthesizer) and acoustic sound. The hammers in question approximate the noise (minus the tone) of the piano, an exciting and aggressive element, used rather like a recitative contrasting with the more orchestral sound of the acoustic instruments. On the less wonderful side, Ince seems inclined to throw in the kitchen sink, leaving me to wonder what stretches of rather 50's-like movie music and a major section of ersatz Philip Glass were doing in there. Present Music plays Ince often, so they clearly see more in him than I do.

The evening's major work featured composer and chansonnier H.K. Gruber in his own Frankenstein!!, based on childrens' rhymes by H. C. Artmann, in English translation. The texts, like so much verse for children, are surreal, both shockingly cruel and violent. According to Gruber's program notes, the deceptively naive and innocent-sounding nonsensical rhymes are in fact serious political statements, an ambiguity heightened by the addition of various musical toys to the regular instrumental ensemble. The composer's heavy Austrian accent added a phantasmagoric element to the cabaret-style music, recitation and singing in the half-hour work, long stretches of it influenced by Kurt Weill. The piece sounds funny and cute, but the actual meaning of the words serves as a pointedly ironic trope for the insanity of so much of our modern life. In the end, of course, this is a fairly upsetting thing to experience, something like nasty-tasting medicine.

Isthmus, January, 2001
Copyright 2001 Jess Anderson




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