Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - May 22, 2009

A musical puzzle

Stanford composer's experimental score invites a world of interpretations

by Rebecca Wallace

Standing in the balcony overlooking the Cantor Arts Center lobby, Jane Rigler is lost in a most unusual musical score. She gazes at the 12 panels hanging at eye level, thinking of how she will play the music on her flute and piccolo.

No matter how she plays it, her interpretation will no doubt be very different from anyone else's. Experimental-music composer Mark Applebaum's score for "The Metaphysics of Notation," hand-drawn in pen and ink, is also a work of visual art.

Instead of featuring a staff and notes, the score is filled with designs, glyphs and what Applebaum calls "graphic oddities." There are lines and dots and curves, a tulip and a telephone, a heart inside an apple. Shield shapes overlap like a city of coats of arms. A circular shape seems to show the beginning and the end, but other than that a musician could play the panels in any order.

Applebaum, a Stanford University associate professor of composition and theory, has purposely left the images in "Metaphysics" undefined. It's like a puzzle that each listener and player must solve on his or her own.

That happens every Friday at the museum. The score will be up in the balcony through February of next year, with different visiting artists and Stanford students and faculty playing from it at noon each week. So far, their instruments have included horns, strings, percussion and cell phones.

On a recent Friday, Rigler, a New York musician who has known Applebaum since their graduate school days at U.C. San Diego, is the one poring over the score for clues about what sounds to play.

"You look at lines and shapes," she says. "And texture, what's rough and what's smooth." Repeating patterns also catch her eye, and with the symbols she's looking for images that have a meaning in her life.

A classically trained musician who now focuses on experimental music, Rigler is poised as she raises her piccolo. Her rendition of "Metaphysics" is layered and diverse. The first section features delicate runs of notes, while the second starts out hectic and jazzy, an urgent cityscape that gives way to long soft tones and whimpers like a hungry baby. Emotions continually shift and evolve.

Switching between piccolo and flute as she walks around the balcony, Rigler also alternates between using the instruments and her mouth, making clicking and swishing sounds. Applebaum slips into the balcony and listens intently, nodding from time to time. After Rigler completes an explosive passage of "hey" and "brr" and "ff," sounding like a person learning to speak, Applebaum mouths, "Wow."

One of the interesting aspects of the Cantor space is all the environmental noise and the way it mingles with the performance. Doors close, footfalls sound, and people murmur in the nearby exhibitions. School groups wander through, and the teachers' shushing becomes part of the music. Some museumgoers listen from benches; others pause for a few moments or just pass on by.

Afterwards, one listener says, "There's lots of ambient noise; it's like playing in a subway," but tells Rigler, "It was lovely."

The unusual space is part of the appeal, Applebaum says in a later interview. Like the score, the balcony is full of possibilities. Musicians can walk along it and play anywhere, and there's no one best place to listen, he says. The museum has also set aside a small gallery at one end of the balcony for the project; a computer plays recordings from past Friday performances, while the entire score hangs on one wall and also dangles from a ceiling mobile in fragments.

In addition, Applebaum was attracted to the Cantor because it's a public space, and not necessarily one that people associate with concerts. He likes it when people are quiet and listen to the performances; he's equally delighted when a group of kids comes in and challenges the "code of conduct" of enforced silence that exists in concert halls.

After all, couldn't it be said that the music is breaking the silence that someone might expect in a museum? "Who is the intruder?" he asks rhetorically, smiling.

Applebaum took months to draw the score for "Metaphysics" and is pleased to have a voice in the visual-arts world. Most of the time the piece exists as visual art; it's performed only for an hour once a week, he points out.

The project seems like part of a natural progression of Applebaum's career. While he still writes conventionally notated music for the concert stage, over the years he has also been creating scores that are increasingly idiosyncratic. Two years ago he wrote "Medium," the first piece he did all in graphic notation. "Metaphysics" followed.

Visual components of other sorts also abound in his work. On the evening of May 15, the same day that Rigler played "Metaphysics," performance florist James DelPrince built seven large sculptures while Rigler and other musicians performed Applebaum's "Concerto for Florist and Ensemble" in the Cantor's Inner Courtyard.

Also incorporated was "sound-sculpture" by Applebaum; he has built many unique instruments that are played with the hands and with chopsticks and other "strikers." The Stanford Lively Arts free concert was packed — some 200 people had to be turned away.

Both the concerto and "Metaphysics" are classic Applebaum compositions: They challenge people's conventional ideas about music. But there's no confrontation intended. Rather, Applebaum wants people to see the humor in his complex work, and he's always happy to give a pre-concert talk to help audiences make personal connections with his unorthodox compositions.

"I've decided finally that there are two questions that I like to ask that sum up my aesthetic," he says. "My works are successes if audience members ask: 'What the hell was that?' and 'Can I hear more?'

"I'm really interested in provoking curiosity. I'm not trying to make the perfect masterpiece for our times. I'm trying to create a set of stimuli for consideration."

Info: Various musicians are giving free performances of "The Metaphysics of Notation" at noon every Friday through February 2010 in the front balcony at the Cantor Arts Center, 328 Lomita Drive, Stanford. To apply to perform, go to museum.stanford.edu and search under "Metaphysics" for the application.

Recordings of past Friday concerts can be heard on a computer in the exhibit, and a CD is set to be released at the end of the project. For more about Mark Applebaum's music, go to markapplebaum.com.

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