John Kennedy is a modern music champion.
Every year, the director of Spoleto’s Music in Time series, a high-quality and low-profile affair, combs the landscape for the best and most remarkable of what’s out there. And with more composers alive and working now than have lived throughout all of humankind’s recorded history, that means a lot of music to sift through.
Even so, Kennedy is a superb guide.
Music in Time opens with a promising pair of American premieres, both based on ancient themes. We’ll get Cruel Sister, a more rhythm-driven (a la rock) piece for strings by Bang on a Can co-founder Julia Wolfe; It’s based on an old English folk ballad. By contrast, you’ll also hear The Bulls of Bashan, a sort of violin concerto (with string orchestra) by Gavin Bryars, a young composer who, Kennedy says, is among today’s hot British imports.
“I hear it as a sort of contemporary update of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending,” Kennedy says.
Next up is an interlude with composer Michael Harrison, who’s been exploring alternative instrumental tuning systems, as well as the outer limits of minimalist style, for quite some time. Kennedy says his Revelation for just-tuned piano (a phrase meaning there is emphasis on natural harmonics and overtones) is a “shimmering and sensual sonic experience.”
It takes the perceptive listener into reflective and emotionally pregnant new sound-worlds, Kennedy says. It’s like “a modern follow-up to Bach’s great Well-Tempered Clavier, which explored a new tuning system in its day.”
I’m particularly looking forward to hearing the work of Yumiko Tanaka, a virtuoso of the shamisen: a three-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music that’s always struck me as Japan’s answer to the banjo. She’ll present a trio of new works for her instrument by Yuji Takahashi (a premiere performance), Michio Mamiya, and Sachio Tsurumi. Tanaka further provides a frame of reference with some traditional music for her instrument.
The final program will offer what composer Phillip Bimstein calls oral histories, interweaving live instruments with all kinds of sampled sounds: the voices of humans and animals as well as other sonic reflections of our everyday lives. Aside from his Garland Hirschi’s Cows (a cult classic), we’ll hear his other recent works that stretch the technological boundaries of new music.