DSM: The New England Bassoon Quartet performance at The Boston Conservatory this afternoon was excellent. NEBQ was founded in May this year. The Quartet is comprised of Ardith Keef (University of Southern Maine, Portland Symphony, Maine Chamber Ensemble, Maine Baroque Ensemble, Isaac Ensemble), Suzanne Nelsen (Boston Conservatory and BSO), Margaret Phillips (Berklee College of Music, Boston Philharmonic, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Portland Symphony), and Janet Polk (University of New Hampshire and Dartmouth College, Vermont Symphony).
CMT: Besides the performance today, NEBQ will also be performing at University of New Hampshire on Saturday 22-SEP.
- Michel Corrette: Le Phenix
- Christopher Kies: Arietta in Memory of Francis Poulenc
- William Schuman: Quartettino
- Serge Prokofiev: Scherzo
- Vaclav Nelhybel: Concert Etudes
- Lowell Shaw: Fripperies Vol. 1
DSM: The Kies arietta was gorgeous. Kies is a pianist and composer at UNH. This arietta was composed earlier this year, expressly for NEBQ. According to Ardith Keef, Poulenc left an unfinished bassoon quartet, which he was writing about the time that he died. Kies’s arietta was composed with that in mind.
CMT: So we have New York Bassoon Quartet, South Minneapolis Bassoon Quartet, Caliban Quartet, and now NEBQ. Are there gender issues that dispose toward all-women bassoon quartets, do you think?
T o paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, ‘What is it with these all-girl bassoon quartets?’ ”
Jeff Lyman, International Double-Reed Society.
DSM: I don’t think so—nothing different from any other quartet type. No matter the gender of the players, bassoon ensembles can be especially beautiful when they achieve balance and stylistic unity, as the New England Bassoon Quartet members do. There’s superb music-making here, with solid musicianship powering it. Wonderfully lyrical, wonderfully ‘vocal’. Reminds me of Dunn’s and Jones’s ‘Embodied Voices’.
CMT: In Leslie Dunn’s and Nancy Jones’s book, I really admire the essays by Rebecca Pope (‘The diva doesn’t die: George Eliot’s Armgart’) and Elizabeth Tolbert (‘The voice of lament: Female vocality and performative efficacy in the Finnish-Karelian itkuvirsi’). Pope examines the female voice as a means of redress—for disparities and injustices of various kinds—and as instrumental in the exercise of freedom—singing as an act of full-fledged, independent personhood.
DSM: Pope’s diva revises the conceptions of women’s roles and voice—restores a mode and a metaphor of female empowerment. The NEBQ members are not divas per se, but they surely are empowered! And the baritone register of the bassoon suits each of them well.
M en did not say, when I had sung last night, ‘Twas good, nay, wonderful, considering she is a woman’—and then turn to add ‘A baritone would have sung her songs better of course.’ ”
Armgart, George Eliot, Middlemarch, p. 478.
CMT: Tolbert’s essay concerns women’s voices in a Finnish-Karelian idiom (itkuvirsi) that is historically women-only. The cultural function of the laments is iconic—it orchestrates the collective experience of sorrow and grief by the community. The style is also lyrical—emotional to the point of ecstasy; shamanic, even. The women lamenter vocalists serve as conduits to Tuonela, the Finnish-Karelian land of the dead. The singer ‘finds the words’ (löytää sanoja)—and the words gain power through performance. Much like lays and skaldic poetry in other Scandinavian cultures.
W omen cry with words, as opposed to men, who merely cry with the eyes.”
Elizabeth Tolbert, in Dunn & Jones, Embodied Voices, p. 180.
K laudia Rahikainen, while not a lamenter herself, heard lamenting in funeral contexts in her youth and is quite sensitive to the increasing decontextualization and aestheticization of Karelian traditional practices. She criticizes today’s lamenters who ‘lament for money and not for a real occasion ... Prasniekka is a church holiday, but it is also a general word for festival ... Before there weren't laments at prasniekkas, but now there are. It’s now a performance ... The prasniekkas now are lammitetty [‘warmed over’].’ ”
Elizabeth Tolbert in Dunn & Jones, Embodied Voices, p. 183.
DSM: It’s essential that there be genuine improvisation then—extemporaneity in the performance. The voices’ authenticity, living and breathing: the NEBQ are very spontaneous. Engaging interaction with the approximately 90 attendees at their Boston Conservatory recital, too.
CMT: What does it mean for a bassoon to be ‘vocal’ though? The term ‘vocal’ isn’t synonymous with ‘easy’, but, just the same, any song or part is ‘vocal’ if it can be readily sung—with effort but without strain—by the type of voice for which it’s written. This is true of a ‘vocal’ instrumental part as much as is of a ‘vocal’ vocal part.
DSM: Neither an uncomforably high nor an uncomfortably low tessitura, then.
CMT: Right. Vocality is something we’d ascribe to a part that is ‘in-character’, even when that part is recounting or mimicking the experiences of another character. Compositions that are truly ‘vocal’ have, I think, a unity of affect—a coherence of character—a recognizable and natural and stable embodiment of a character.
DSM: The Nelhybel Etudes were delicious. Difficult, the large-scale Allegro vivo forces the players through a long serpentine line. The second and third bassoonists’ music is ‘vocal’ but more angular—less like melody than a rebuttal. The other bassoonists antagonize the first bassoon; imparting a sensation of individual vs. imposter, of false-doubles and the anxiety they generate.
CMT: This sense of anxiety becomes more palpable in the slow third movement. This Canon moves with lyrical introspection and gaunt lines. The first bassoon transgresses reflective borders, from sparse soloistic dimensions into a chamber of throbbing, perseverative shadings. These aren’t saccharine-sweet Etudes to be played quietly on Mothers’ Day.
DSM: The Canon leads into an Allegro fourth movement, where the quartet’s intensity has full expression. The first bassoon spins a line of endless transformation, like a demented singer long having forgotten the actual melody. The other bassoons all the while grow—like an infestation—and eventually converge on the first bassoon. Through this proliferation of musical ideas—evocative of madness? fervor? euphoria?—the first bassoon never ceases. Iconic and shamanistic, a la Tolbert’s Finnish-Karelian lamenters. The four players’ songful convergence on the high unison—not so much an agreement as a fervent concession, don’t you think?
M usical melancholy arises when the protagonist of a work – be it the vocal character in a song or the ‘composer’s voice’ in an instrumental work – exhibits an ironic distance from his or her own pain. The musical dialectics in these works prompt listeners, for their part, to take a step back to contemplate the borders and limits of emotional experience and communication.”
Nancy November, 2007.
CMT: Jonathan Dunsby wrote several years ago that he was unhappy with Lawrence Kramer’s concept of ‘songfulness’ because it’s overly complex, not intuitive enough to adequately cover emotional extremes. The New England Bassoon Quartet’s performance today provides evidence to support Dunsby’s argument—their performance is surely amenable to analysis, but it’s more compelling and accessible and intuitive than would ever require any analysis. Their musical discourse is straightforward, immanent, and aesthetically transparent—not complex or scholarly. Nice!
W hat we hear in a performance of a song is also what we brought to that performance from our own experience, what we remember of it, and what it will become. This is actually the most obvious single challenge to music analysis, and even more of a challenge to that very poor relation of analysis, music criticism: How do you know what you will say about a piece of music tomorrow?”
Jonathan Dunsby, Making Words Sing, p. 140.
S uppose that a particular quality of ‘voice’ attracts your attention, one that is not captured precisely by another performer, or perhaps even by the same performer at another time (or in a different acoustic environment). A recognition of its individual quality implies that some compariston has informed your listening. That comparison can, however, remain entirely tacit until a moment of critical reflection, when it becomes more articulate.”
Naomi Cumming, The Sonic Self, p. 74.
S ongfulness is a fusion of vocal and musical utterance judged to be both pleasurable and suitable independent of verbal content. It is the positive quality of singing-in-itself: ‘just singing.’”
Lawrence Kramer, Beyond Words and Music, in Musical Meaning, p. 53.
A n expressivity of ‘voice’, or ‘singing’, is heard as **belonging** to a sound, not as something that can be separately known in all its specificity. It may well be termed ‘innocent’ in its purity or ‘warm’ in its broad timbral palette, leading to subsequent reflection on why sounds have been marked as conveying such qualities ... The capacity of some violin sounds to convey a quasi-vocal ‘innocence’ or ‘warmth’ as their embedded object is established within a community of discourse—one which habitually links ‘violin’ [or bassoon] with attributes of ‘vocality’.”
Naomi Cumming, The Sonic Self, p. 73.
- Boston Conservatory website
- American Composers’ Forum website and calendar
- University of New Hampshire Music Dept and calendar
- International Double-Reed Society website
- Hickey’s Music Center webpage of bassoon quartet sheetmusic
- Bassoon Quartet search on Accolade.de website
- Cumming N. The Sonic Self: Musical Subjectivity and Signification. Indiana Univ, 2001.
- Dunn L, Jones N, eds. Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture. Cambridge Univ, 1997.
- Dunsby J. Making Words Sing: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Song. Cambridge Univ, 2004.
- Frith S. Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music. Harvard Univ, 1996.
- Godlovitch S. Musical Performance: A Philosophical Study. Routledge, 1998.
- Grier J. Critical Editing of Music: History, Method, and Practice. Cambridge Univ, 1996.
- Hübner E, et al. Krommer: Bassoon Quartets. (CPO, 2006.)
- Kivy P. Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance. Cornell Univ, 1998.
- Kramer L. Musical Meaning: Toward a Critical History. Univ California, 2001.
- Lipori D. A Researcher's Guid to the Bassoon. Mellen, 2003.
- November N. Course Syllabus: Re-voicing the canon: ‘Voice’ in Eighteenth-Century musical thought. ASECS, Johns Hopkins Univ, 2003.
- November N. Haydn’s vocality and the ideal of ‘True’ string quartets. PhD Dissertation, Cornell University, 2003.
- November N. Haydn’s melancholy voice: Lost dialectics in his late chamber music and English songs. Eighteenth-Century Music 2007; 4:71-106.
- Nancy November, Conservatory, University of Auckland NZ
- Thompson R, et al. Danzi: Bassoon Quartets, Op. 40. (CRD, 1997.)
- William Schuman Trust: chamber music.
- CMT. Virtuosic Bassoon: Craving Irrational Exuberance. 21-NOV-2006.