The title of yesterday afternoon’s Noe Valley Chamber Music program at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church was Alone, Duets & Didjeridu: The Acoustic Works of Nils Bultmann. The adjective “acoustic” refers to the distinction from Bultmann’s work at the Center for New Music and Technology (CNMAT) at the University of California at Berkeley, where he is a doctoral candidate. His emphasis at CNMAT has been on multimedia with a particular interest in video. Yesterday, however, he performed only on his viola, joined by fellow violist Charlton Lee (of the Del Sol String Quartet) and Stephen Kent, performing on two didgeridoos. The event was described on the program page as a “neo@noe and Osher Inside-Out concert.”
Bultmann began the program with a series of four solos. The first, “Homage to Bach,” amounted to inventing a new viola line following the harmonic progression of one of the movements from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s solo cello suites. The specific movement was not immediately recognizable, but one could definitely detect familiarity of the underlying harmonic logic. Due to poor use of fonts on the program, the remaining three pieces, “Lucid,” “Welcome,” and “Primal” were easily confused as the three movements of “Homage to Bach;” and Bultmann did not resolve the confusion until he had completed “Welcome.” At least this explained why any effort to detect Bach in “Lucid” or “Welcome” was more frustrating.
Much of Bultmann’s work is based on improvisation. This is certainly consistent with the “Bach spirit,” particularly those pedagogical pieces that are intended to cultivate an improvisatory approach to invention (the cello suites being one set of examples). However, while Bach was a master at what I have called the “and another thing” technique, holding the listener in suspense while he spins out yet another inventive gambit before finally coming to a conclusion, Bultmann is less successful. While he made good use of Bach’s structural template in “Homage to Bach,” the remaining three solos labored under the problem of a composer who did not know when to stop.
This problem then continued into his “10 short viola duets,” performed with Lee. Each of these pieces displayed impressive virtuosity cast in the rich sonorities of a pair of violas. However, short they were not, at least not under the semantic interpretation that we can find in Bach, as well as any number of other composers, including Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, György Ligeti, and John Zorn.
The second half of the program was an extended improvisation, beginning with solo work from Bultmann, who was then joined by Kent. Kent made his first appearance in the balcony; and Bultmann headed up to join him, rather in the spatial style of Luigi Nono’s “La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura.” However, this session, too, had problems of duration, due in this case primarily to the limitations of Bultmann’s repertoire of tropes. Ironically, while Kent’s didgeridoos were far more limited in pitch, the diversity of his solo work was far more engaging, exploring a fascinating repertoire of rhythms reinforced by multi-tones and vocalizations enhancing the fundamental pitch of the instrument. The result was that Bach’s spirit of always coming up with “another new thing” thrived more through the limitations of the didgeridoo than through the richness of the viola. Perhaps that is what made this an “inside-out” concert.