Spending a day at the Carlsbad Music Festival reminds the followers of new music that there is no right way to do or to define contemporary music. Like visiting that ice cream emporium chain that advertises 33 flavors, at Carlsbad you are likely to discover a flavor you haven’t yet tried.
Whether it’s Isaac Schankler’s fusion of digital sounds with his accordion, or members of the Hausmann Quartet scraping their bows over the strings without producing a specific pitch, or Tasha Smith Godinez slapping the low strings of her harp with the flat of her hand, or Matt McBane’s cellist rasping the longest chaconne you’ve ever experienced, or Stephanie Richards torturing arcane sounds from an ordinary trumpet—the cheeky Carlsbad late summer festival has discovery in its DNA, and has worked miraculously at this compulsion for the last 15 years.
The Hausmann Quartet’s Saturday (August 25) afternoon program demonstrated how contemporary American composers both retain and expand the rich string quartet vocabulary. Starting with a simple short progression that could have stumbled out of a Haydn string quartet, Caroline Shaw in her 2011 “Entr’acte” played with this phrase, dissecting it, revoicing it in bright harmonic tones, and decking it out in a flash of pizzicatos. Missy Mazzoli’s “Quartet for Queen Mab” from 2015, which I interpreted as a clever technicolor Expressionist nightmare, offered attractive solos that unexpectedly expanded into pulsing, brazen chords that just as unpredictably fell apart into simpering snippets or tangles of buzzing Baroque ornaments.
Rhiannon Giddens’ “At the Purchaser’s Option” was inspired by a chilling historical footnote, a line in a slave advertisement that described a black woman’s young child as a possible joint purchase “at the purchaser’s option.” Giddens’ musical themes, first developed jointly by the violins, suggested the ominous overtones of a pleading spiritual as they traveled from one voice to the other, with stark pizzicato accompaniments underscoring the gravity of the work.
On a much lighter note, Tina Tallin’s 2017 “selective defrosting” described—in a way that surely would have tickled that master of the tone poem Richard Strauss—an ice cube melting. You will not be surprised to learn that the cube’s solid state was depicted in frosty, sustained pianissimo chords, while breaking down into its liquid state involved raucous pizzicatos and gruff, pitchless bowing followed by a dissonant cluster and then furious bowing. Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s “Five Pieces” from 1923 belongs to a culture remote from today’s American avant-garde scene, but his spare, Expressionist counterpoint held up well in the company of works by Shaw, Taylor, Giddens, and Mazzoli.
Hausmann performed in St. Michael’s Chapel, an historic structure on the campus of St. Michael’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Carlsbad, where most of the Carlsbad Music Festival activities were held. The intimate chapel with its wooden walls and ceiling gently cradled the quartet’s warm sound and made the extended instrumental techniques sound more playful than abrasive. As Hausmann has amply demonstrated in its long-running project to play all of the Haydn string quartets at the San Diego Maritime Museum, these musicians matched enviable technical prowess with ardent conviction.
Los Angeles-based composer Isaac Schankler offered his “Repeat Substance” in St. Michael’s Church, a spacious modernist sanctuary with a large altar space that easily doubled as a stage for music performance. Lasting just under half an hour, Schankler’s slowly unfolding static meditation was constructed of electronic sounds—a gentle drone visited by occasional pinging motifs—that the composer controlled by a computer adjacent to his right hand when it was not holding wide-spaced but quiet clusters on the accordion keyboard.
Harpist Tasha Smith Godinez chose two recent but rather conventional virtuoso works for her solo recital at the Carlsbad Inn’s Village Terrace, two blocks south of the St. Michael’s campus, but blessedly air conditioned and insulated from the traffic noise on Carlsbad Boulevard. Michael Byron’s 2013 “In the Village of Hope,” written for the performer, struck me as another extended mediation, a minimalist cloud of constant arpeggiation from which modal themes occasionally surfaced, not unlike migrating pods of whales in whale-watching season.
The three contrasting movements of Argentine composer Andres Martin’s “Postales del Alma” offered welcome drama after the Byron, especially the furious final movement with its vigorous rhythms and wild pounding of the lower harp strings with the flat of the hand, an effect called “thunder,” according to the harpist. Martin’s agitated opening movement contrasted agreeably with the poignant dolor of the middle movement. Smith Godinez’s graceful, polished performance of both works made a strong case for her choices.
At the other side of downtown Carlsbad at The Mission Church, the music of the Stephanie Richards and Andrew Munsey Quintet fused contemporary extended instrumental techniques with straight ahead jazz. Richards, a member of the UC San Diego music faculty, functions as the group’s primary soloist, constantly adapting and bending the sonic properties of her instrument with an array of mutes, trills, double-tonguing, and sometimes just blowing air through the instrument while noisily manipulating the valves. When coaxing traditional tone from the trumpet, she tends to choose a moderate, mid-range timbre that comes closer to the rounded sound of the flugelhorn than the typical, piercing trumpet color.
The Quintet’s program included Richards’ “Sea Legs” and an extended improvisation on Igor Stravinsky’s short piano piece “Les Cinq Doigts,” No. 6. In standard jazz manner, in every piece a virtuoso solo was offered by each player: bass clarinet Brian Walsh, pianist Joshua White, upright bass Dave Trachina, and Andrew Munsey, percussion. Each proved impressive, but kudos to White, whose elegantly shaped and blistering riffs were nothing short of breathtaking.
Outdoor festival events included the New Orleans style Crew d’Etat Brass Band, which played while marching up Carlsbad Boulevard and on the St. Michael’s lawn in the center of the campus. From that stage, festival visitors on Saturday (August 25) also heard the Nathan Hubbard Trio, jazz icon Peter Sprague, Clinton Davis, members of the Carlsbad High School Orchestra, and festival founder and Artistic Director Matt McBane with his ensemble.
The performances I attended on Sunday, August 26, 2018, will appear in a second review.
The Carlsbad Music Festival, presented August 24-26, 2018, is centered on the campus of St. Michael’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in downtown Carlsbad and presents in other venues around the city center. This review included festival events featured on August 25, 2018.