3:04 PM EST, January 8, 2013
The walls separating jazz, classical and contemporary music have been porous for some time now, but they were blown down once and for all at the Chicago Cultural Center.
Or at least it seemed that way for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon, as a capacity audience packed Preston Bradley Hall, with listeners spilling into adjacent hallways and stairwells.
What drew everyone was a characteristically bold concert staged by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), which is in the midst of celebrating its 10th anniversary season. ICE always has been fearless in ignoring conventional boundaries of style and genre, but this time it may have outdone itself, raising important questions about the way we listen to music and the way it ought to be played.
As its title proclaimed, "Shadowgraph: Octets by George Lewis and Franz Schubert" dared to focus on two major musical figures ostensibly separated by epochs, geography, style and much more.
Lewis, after all, ranks as a leading composer-performer-theorist of the 21st century, his work in intertwining, jazz, classical and other languages having earned him a MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," in 2002. As a longtime member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and the author of a definitive history of the organization, Lewis has thrived at the vanguard of thought on the how music is composed, improvised and received.
Schubert stands as a giant of early 19th century Austrian romanticism, his lieder, symphonies and chamber works played and admired around the world to this day. Though his compositions span many idioms, an urgent lyricism radiates from the core of all of them. In many ways, his work might be considered the antithesis of music of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, an era in which the melodic directness and formal conventions of Schubert's day are often regarded as merely historic.
As if twinning Lewis and Schubert on a single program weren't cheeky enough, ICE went a step further, placing the music of the two composers in closer proximity than one had expected. For though the anchor of the program was Schubert's great Octet of 1824 (D. 803), the musicians of ICE did not play the hour-long piece straight through. Instead, listeners heard the Octet two movements at a time, in alternation with segments of works by Lewis.
In effect, a dialogue took place between the two composers, a few minutes of Lewis answered by extended passages of Schubert, and vice versa.
Moreover, the musicians of ICE scattered to various spots in Preston Bradley Hall – amid the audience – during some portions of Lewis' scores. For the rest of the Lewis works and all the Schubert, they huddled on a stage placed in the center of the room, performing in the round.
The constant shifting between Lewis and Schubert, and between music emanating from the crowd at one point, from the stage at another, shattered conventions of concert-going from both the 19th and 21st centuries. Listener expectations regarding music from both eras were rattled, which was exactly the idea.
The result was an afternoon that gave at least one member of the audience a new understanding of Lewis' work.
In his "Shadowgraph, 5" (1977) and "Artificial Life 2007," Lewis invents sounds that utterly ignore traditional harmony, melody and meter. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that the musicians playing Lewis' scores do so, for the composer also avoids traditional musical notation. Instead, these works offer instructions for group improvisation and a kind of road map for musical events.
Not surprisingly, these scores not only sound different from one performance to the next but can seem ethereal and elusive to the casual listener. Those who demand a traditional kind of melodic progress are bound to be disappointed.
When members of ICE performed the Chicago premiere of "Artificial Life 2007" last February at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the piece sounded utterly abstract and nearly anarchic – though fascinatingly so.
But this time, "Artificial Life" – as well as "Shadowgraph, 5" – seemed practically an off-shoot of the Schubert. Not chordal or tuneful, of course, but imbued with real melodic contours and moments of instrumental virtuosity, as well.
In effect, listeners were beholding Lewis through the looking glass, his work sounding that much more "romantic" – if we dare use the word – in juxtaposition with Schubert. What had seemed on paper to be such a vast gulf between two composers shrank considerably in concert.
Yes, it may be true that the performers themselves, having taken on one of Schubert's most extended and ambitious chamber pieces, consciously or unconsciously brought some of the sensibility of his music to Lewis'. But I prefer to believe that they did something much more important: They found the connective tissue between the two, the gestures and tone colors and phrasings that Lewis and Schubert shared, the musicians soft-pedaling the obvious differences between them.
So what does all this tell us? That the distinctions between music of 19th century Europe and 20th and 21st centuries America are not as great as we have been led to believe by the ways in which music typically is presented, taught and marketed today.
Lewis' supposedly avant-garde music, this concert seemed to be saying, is borne of a language that Schubert helped create – even if that language inevitably has evolved. We still can approach Lewis' music through the narrow lens of 21st century American life, if we choose to.
But we can hear so much more in it if we open our ears to what came before, from somewhere very far away.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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