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Puccini & Experimental Legacy

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Fri Aug 12th, 2016

Have you been to Bard College’s Spiegeltent, a tent with a chandelier, air-conditioning, bar service, and a sizeable bandstand? All summer long it’s usually cabaret, yet for one night it became part of Bard’s Summerscape celebration of Puccini and his world under the rubric of “Spaghetti Western.”

The rather slim connection is that after the death of Puccini, there was no opera heir or viable scenario for musicians to make a living at opera, so composers turned to film. The most successful Italian film scores were written by the former trumpet player Ennio Morricone. Morricone, who began composing at the age of six, is considered the most experimental writer of film scores; he has scored over seventy award-wining films, the most popular being the so-called Spaghetti Westerns, the most successful of which was The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1969). His biggest selling film soundtrack remains Once upon a Time in the West (1968), which has sold over ten million copies, yet most of Morricone’s prolific avant-guard compositions have never been recorded. Unlike most composers, Morricone has never used a piano; he just sits down and writes an orchestrated composition. While it is no surprise that he has worked with artists like Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma, yet there is hardly a reggae, hip-hop singer, or rapper, or contemporary rock band in America that Morricone has not worked with.

Three Morricone film pieces were played by Contemporaneous whose horns were outstanding. The rest of the night might be described as Post-Cage compositions and complications. David Lang, who cofounded the avant-guard ensemble Bang the Can, had worked with the English film maker Peter Greenway on several films. Lang requested a libretto from Greenway on an Old Testament theme. Greenway sent ark luggage (2012), a list of 92 items left out from the children’s story, “Noah’s Ark”—like underwear, denatured alcohol, and boot laces, my favorite not only for its open vowel sound, but I could visualize two cartoon bootlaces standing side by side and boarding the ark. Ninety-two items because (I presume) 9+2=11, the image of pairs walking side by side. It was a cute gimmick, a pleasant party piece.

Lang’s Simple Song #3 from the film Youth (2015) received an Academy Award Nomination for Best Original Song. A quirky time capsule that buzzes and winds from youth to old age, it sounds like an exotic insect trapped in a five-foot grandfather clock.

Invoking the unpredictability of memory, Clara Iannotta’s 2012 D’apres (According to…) created enchanting tempos and hills with rhythmical, crossing carillons. There was energy in the piece.

Andrew Norman’s Music in Circles (2012) created suspense with soundless pauses and sudden re-starts. There was giddiness in the tension of silences.

Yotam Haber’s New Ghetto Music (2011) melded a jazzy New Orleans patina glow with Sardinian folk tunes. While I thought the libretto might have been stronger, the music was seductively eclectic.

Bard Summerscape continues over the next three days with an array of inventive programming of both singing and music, culminating with a new full production of Turandot on Sunday. For more information see http://fishercenter.bard.edu/summerscape/