Michael Macrone
Press Music
In Concert

Cafeteria of the Unexpected
(East Bay Express, March 10, 1989)

At Crowden School, Berkeley, Saturday, February 25.
By Sarah Cahill

East Bay Express A little less than a year ago I took part in a composition by James Jacobs entitled Dan the Man. First the audience sang 19th century white Baptist spirituals which had been passed out to them. Then Dan Plonsey improvised a saxophone solo. That was followed by a recorder and voice duet. Plonsey played another solo. A trombone and French horn came in with a duet that Jacobs wrote at the age of eight. Then another solo by Dan. Then a quartet of sitar, tambura, tabla, and violin. Then a small chorus led the audience in another hymn. Then a string quartet, followed by a return of the chorus. Jacobs talked briefly to the audience, and fortunes from fortune cookies were read. After that, an organ solo, followed by my piano solo. Then I played three chords and a trill which led in the chorus. Jacobs left the stage. The string quartet began improvising. The chorus walked through the audience singing. Musicians strolled through the audience improvising on flutes, violins, guitars. I continued my three chords. This went on for a while. We were waiting for Jacobs to come back on stage and finish the piece, but he had vanished. Ten minutes went by. The audience was confused, and so were we. I stuck to my three chords and, like the other performers, kept an expectant eye on the door backstage. Was he ever going to come back? At last he reappeared, almost unrecognizable; he had gone out with shoulder-length thick hair and a full beard, and came back closely clipped and clean-shaven. He cued in a final organ solo, and played a cello solo himself, followed by a woman singing “God Bless the Child” and a final wild and stunning sax solo by Plonsey. The piece ended with us all delivering our fortune cookies to Plonsey’s feet while he played inside a shrine-like sculpture.

Not your usual concert hall experience, but fairly typical of a concert by Composers’ Cafeteria, a group of composer/performers who believe in the eclecticism and unpredictability of music, and in engaging everyone in the room in the musical moment. Although some people had problems with Dan the Man, it was a performance that worked on many levels: as an experiment, as a tribute to a friendship, as a statement about the performer/conductor relationship (the conductor abandons the performers: will they take matters into their own hands or let things fall apart?), as an exercise in patience, as a look at performance practice (how do you get a pianist who refuses to improvise to improvise?), as a nod to religion (hymns, a shrine, a church organ).

Jacobs and the other thirty-odd Cafeteria members seem mainly interested in exploring issues about music and performance that interest them, rather than the creation of a particular “piece.” Jennifer Plonsey, one of the founding members along with her husband Dan, explains that “the basic impulse of the group was that performers should be composers and composers should be performers, so that music is a creative act for everyone involved. We try to be inclusive rather than exclusive.” The resolutely democratic philosophy means, of course, that pieces will be of varying quality and not all performers will be of the same caliber; on the other hand, at a time when new music is rarely all that “new,” when performances of contemporary works are hindered by the same sense of stuffiness and elitism that so often and unnecessarily burdens classical music, and when the concert setting is as predictable as the music played in it, Composers’ Cafeteria offers some novel, if uneven, alternatives.

Twenty minutes before Saturday’s concert I parked my car up the block from the Crowden School, and heard faint strains of saxophone and accordion. A half dozen musicians were roaming the immediate vicini. ty of the concert site. On the corner I bumped into a trio of accordion, banjo, and berimbau, the latter player sporting a toy elephant nose. Others wore masks and wandered like traveling troubadours below the cherry blossoms lining the street. This, I found out, was part of a piece by Dan Plonsey and Stephen Mays called Matterhorn in which each part is independent but players will come together in duets and trios. The musicians, who alternate playing and singing, can repeat certain sections any number of times and in any order. “The address of the building,” explained Dan, “is different from the entrance. It was a utilitarian beginning; we had to point the audience in the right direction.”

The piece which opened the program, Dan Plonsey’s Dreams More Easily Forgotten than an Arena for Political Change, is a kind of structured improvisation based on a series of ten chords which repeats ten times. The score calls for the six performers to pair off and play each chord together. For each chord, a musician catches the eye of one or two other designated musicians, and they join in the chord. If a player is left out, he or she improvises (using all six pitches of the moment’s chord) until the next opportunity to connect with another player. The repetitions of the ten-chord se quence are, of course, unrecognizable: the music is constantly in flux. What we heard were extraordinary pairings of timbres-English horn and oboe, bass clarinet and trombone-and many styles of improvisation. Carol Adee experimented with quarter tones on her flute while trombonist Jonathan Elmer held his note for the length of one long breath. This was a highly interactive piece, and the performers, their eyes constantly moving, elicited responses from each other: when trombonist Elmer slid down one step, English hornist Kathy Geisler joined him in unison. Dreams More Easily Forgotten conveyed a Cafeterian ideal: the musicians were as important to the success of the piece as the composition itself.

Another work which, in a different sense, gave the performer an especially responsible role was Harald Dunnebier’s Ladlavunage, which sets phrases from five Emily Dickinson poems. Carol Adee used a wide range of vocal effects for the solo part and brought many melodramatic and funny touches to the piece—closing her eyes and tilting her head, throwing back her hands in a chanteuse-like pose, unbuttoning one button of her dress with ecstatic abandon. Anne Pagliarulo accompanied her in the ghostly, impressionistic piano part which perfectly suited the fragmentation of the sung text.

Jennifer Plonsey’s two-movement Tenderness of Mind Slope, scored for pairs of oboes, horns, violas, and cellos, begins with a highly rhythmic dance-like movement entitled “Gravity” which is followed by a lengthy, slower, more abstract movement, “Particle and Wave.” Here Plonsey showed an impressive talent for contrapuntal writing, for humorous touches like insistent repeated chords a la Rite of Spring, for developing musical elements (intervals, three note motifs), and, like her husband, for achieving wonderful noises in a blend of wind instruments.

Typical of the Composers’ Cafeteria aesthetic is that there really is no unifying aesthetic.

Typical of the Composers’ Cafeteria aesthetic is that there really is no common unifying aesthetic; you can’t sum up the members’ compositional styles in any pat description. It’s typical, also, that the composers continue to outguess their audiences. Randy Porter, for example, presented a collaborative piece with Kathy Geisler on the program I played in last year which combined instruments and electronics. For Saturday’s concert his contribution was quite different: he had composed, with Michael Macrone, a collaborative string quartet. Quartet 11:11 (named for the phenomenon of digital clocks) is outrageously traditional, a kind of sendup of the quartets of Shostakovich and Dvorak and others. The three movements contained some lovely melodies passed back and forth as well as a great deal of wit-everyone getting stuck on one note in the first movement, goofy slides rising and falling in the third.

A wide variety of musicians took part in Tenderness of Mind Slope and Quartet 11:11. Some were professionals—Paul Hale, for example, plays cello in the Oakland East Bay Symphony and numerous other groups, and violist Shira Kammen is a member of Ensemble Alcatraz and Project Ars Nova, two early music ensembles. Others were less experienced, and it showed; both pieces deserved better, tighter performances. Plonsey has clearly marked dynamics in her score, and despite James Jacobs’ careful and energetic conducting, many dynamic changes didn’t come through. The triplets of the last movement of the quartet were often uneven.

But if a few of the musicians aren’t up to contributing to a polished performance, that is probably partly intentional; I think in some ways the group prefers a rough, handmade quality to a finished presentation. This is only one of many ways in which a Cafeteria concert differs from the conventional concert hall experience. Of course the composers want the best possible performance of their pieces, and the fact that none of the musicians is paid imposes its own limitations. But the occasionally unsteady performance, which would be so out of place in most concerts, seems to fit the Cafeteria atmosphere, in which musicians pick up instruments they’ve never played before, and everyone is encouraged to perform, and composers play each other’s works whether or not they can do it perfectly. And then of course there’s a big difference between professional players doing a mediocre job and amateurs making every effort to be musical.

Candles were set around the stage for the last piece, Where Boundaries Blur There Grow Stars by Johanna Johnson (who for this concert used the name Flynn Fahey McCarthy) which incorporates “Tixo,” an arrangement by Johnson of a Ukrainian folk tune. Two women wearing long white gowns walked slowly toward each other in the candlelight accompanied by music improvised by Jacobson cello, Jay Stebley on cimbalom (a dulcimer-like instrument used by Hungarian gypsies), and Johnson playing chimes, cymbals, and other percussion. When the two women met, they began to dance and broke into the slow, haunting “Tixo” (the two singers, Bonnie Brown and Mantra Ben-Ya’akova, are members of the Bulgarian group Kitka, for which Johnson arranges folk tunes). The singing was impressive and very moving-at one point they demonstrated the close vibrating minor seconds prevalent in Bulgarian vocal music-and the song was made more melancholy, more poignant, by the unusual combination of instruments, the nostalgic tone of the cimbalom paired with the soulful cello, punctuated by chimes and gongs. Johnson, like the Plonseys, has an ear for uncommon and mysterious sonorities.

It’s very difficult to judge Composers’ Cafeteria concerts by the same standards with which one judges more conventional concerts, or even other contemporary music concerts. Rather than going by the book, they go by trial and error, realizing that some things will work and others won’t. If occasionally the Cafeteria’s antics seem a tad anarchic, enough of the music comes across as an expression of rigorous thinking and dedicated work. Even if you don’t love a piece it will more often than not set questions about music and performance resonating in your head. Concerts are relaxed and friendly, and you’re not expected to like everything. It’s all in the name, says Jennifer Plonsey: “You walk into a cafeteria and there’s a lot of food presented to you, and you won’t like everything but you’ll like something.” “That’s right,” adds Jacobs,” you’re going to get lasagna, but you’re also going to get the Jello mold.” “There’ll be a terrible Boston cream pie,” continued Plonsey, “but also some great vegetables.” You always have the option, of course, to go somewhere where it’s a safe bet you’ll like everything, but where’s the fun in that?

– 30 –

First published in the East Bay Express (March 10, 1989, pp. 22–23)

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