MUSIC / Back to the future: David Patrick Stearns reports from New York on the state of new music

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The Independent Culture
Whether American composers are preoccupied with the end of the 20th century or just plain weary from decades of experimentation, even the most forward-looking ones are casting their gaze backward - or at least sideways. That's never been more apparent than in two major new music events: the premiere of Philip Glass's opera Orphee by the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 19 May and the cutting-edge 'Bang on a Can' festival in downtown Manhattan that concluded on Sunday.

In Orphee, Glass takes his libretto from the screenplay of Jean Cocteau's 1949 movie. Here, Orpheus is a poet too fashionable for his own good - a situation not dissimilar to Glass's - and the primary love relationship is with a princess who represents death and owns a mysterious Rolls-Royce with a poetry-spouting radio.

Though there's a certain amount of routine chugging and blipping in the score, Glass's style has undergone a gratifying transformation - nothing as lush as his Low Symphony, but with fuller Milhaud-influenced harmonies. After many unsuccessful tries, Glass now knows how to set dialogue in a natural, convincing style, and tells the story with surprising flashes of passion, spiced with Third World influences rendering all sorts of other-worldly effects.

Unfortunately, ideas that seemed fresh and riveting on screen - such as that ultra-literate radio - are ineffective on stage. Robert Israel's clumsy sets cramp director Francesca Zambello. And however well Eugene Perry sang the title role, we needed some close-ups to tell what was going on with his character.

The 'Bang on a Can' festival appeared to be more current than usual in its opening concert last week, offering a programme of newly composed political songs performed by a vocal / piano / bass trio known as Bermuda Triangle. There was Judith Weir's touching adaptation of a Croatian folk song, Donal Fox's harrowing textless Aids drama, Michael Daugherty's jazzy, sardonic setting of a Ku-Klux-Klan speech, and Frederic Rzewski's irony-steeped setting of a newspaper report about Germany's deportation of 30,000 Romanian gypsies.

Inevitably, the music was full of outrage, although often lacking originality. The concert offered a cross-section of styles from the angry 1960s and 1970s, with echoes of early Maxwell Davies in John Lindberg's The Terrace, and of George Crumb in Tan Dun's Memorial (a catalogue of synonyms for fornication). Even Webern, who cast such a shadow over the Sixties, made a phantom appearance in Ken Walitsky's So What, set to a poem about masochism by former punk star Lydia Lunch.

Walitsky's song typified the festival's appeal: its collision of the serious and vernacular. It's also the only festival I know of that encourages audiences to drink beer during performances.