Less Gives More 

Concerts at Blair feature the high energy and vivid colors of composer Michael Torke

Concerts at Blair feature the high energy and vivid colors of composer Michael Torke

In the dark ages of the middle 20th century, classical composition meant atonal works based on esoteric musical principles unintelligible to the naked ear. At the time, modern composition seemed to offer too little to listeners—no extended melodies, no familiar chords and consonances, and jagged sequences of notes that showed no clear rhythmic pulse.

Around 1980, composers started breaking ranks, and now we hear pieces with a wide range of tonality and much greater willingness to ingratiate themselves with audiences. Michael Torke contributed to this trend early on, getting noticed while still a student in 1985 for a style that took characteristics of Minimalists like Steve Reich and used them in more traditional structures that offered a new connection with listeners. Torke is the BMI Composer-in-Residence at the Blair School of Music this fall, and two programs at the Ingram Center there will feature his music on the weekend of Nov. 5-7. The first, which takes place at 8 p.m. Nov. 5 and 6, is a concert featuring the Nashville Ballet that pairs four sets of choreographers and composers. The second, which follows at 2 p.m. Nov. 7, consists of a recital of Torke's works by Blair faculty and students.

The impenetrability of 20th century music may have had more to do with offering too much, not too little. In a way, the 12-tone compositional system includes all key signatures simultaneously, and the difficult rhythms tried to place notes at every point in the time continuum. You hear in Torke's work a simplification of musical language that retreats on some fronts to build complexity in fewer areas. He typically uses a small number of short themes, maybe six or seven notes that fit a major or minor scale and have few large intervals. Most of his pieces keep a consistent and constant 16th-note unit of time. Your average 20th century score changed time signature and tempo prodigiously, and broke phrases into every possible number of notes within beats. Torke usually sticks with a single time signature for a whole movement, and while he syncopates accents and shifts the combinations of 16th notes, the underlying 16th-note pulse is sacrosanct.

Torke focuses on the organization of this simple material, recombining and sequencing it to create variations and rhythms of tonal colors. In this way, he's like an abstract painter who creates a canvas by modulating the tonalities of a few related colors. Take, for example, "Telephone Book," a work for clarinet, flute, violin, cello and piano on the Nov. 7 program. In addition to five separate instruments, the piece gives Torke three families of sonorities to work with: winds, strings and the multi-voiced and more percussive piano. The progress of the piece depends on establishing new combinations of voices to provide forward momentum and discovery. In one early passage, the winds and strings play a running series of 16th-note figures with the piano hitting accented notes along the way. This section stops on a dime and shifts suddenly to one in which the same figures appear but the voices are completely reversed: the piano plays the 16th notes accompanied by the other instruments striking staccato accents as an ensemble. You can hear the continuity—it's the same figures in both cases—but the contrast is complete.

Torke's music tends to play as a run-on sentence, rarely slowing down or stopping. It has an urbanity that one may associate with French music, and it also hints at jazz; it doesn't go far into the Romantic Era emotional expressiveness that lay behind the tortured lines of the Vienna School serialists. The pieces sound and look like they would be fun to play, and establishing a romping spirit seems to be Torke's main goal.

The Nashville Ballet program, titled "Emergence!!," is a result of the Ballet's collaboration with the Blair School. In addition to a Paul Vasterling work set to Torke's "Adjustable Wrench," the concert includes music from three Blair faculty composers who happen to be named Michael: Michaels Kurek, Slayton and Rose. The works on this concert include Pas de Deux, by Kurek (choreography by Sarah Slipper), a piano trio in a high Romantic tonal style; Slayton's piece for a section of choreographer Abdel Salaam's "Eclipse: Visions of the Crescent Cross," which mixes Irish and African elements in the service of a story about the influence of the Moors on Ireland; and Rose's "The Apparition," a sophisticated piano-violin duo based on a scene from Swann's Way by Proust, choreographed by Molly Lynch.

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