By Scott MacClelland
CARMEL NATIVE SON Ned McGowan brought his contrabass flute and his talented pianist partner (and wife) Keiko Shichijo to perform a homecoming concert at Erdman Chapel on the campus of Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, his high school alma mater. His appearance Monday drew an enthusiastic crowd that included fellow former Stevenson graduates and his music teachers stretching all the way back to his elementary school days.
Safe to say, nothing on the program, including three pieces by McGowan himself, had ever been heard here before. His virtuosity as performer and composer were irrepressible. He began with a short improvisation on the contrabass followed directly by The Singing Wall (2016) for six contrabass flutes, all directed through his iPad perched on a music stand. The low register of the contrabass flute sounds like a tuba but with a finer point amid all the resonating overtones. Rising through the registers its timbre changed. In the alto range it took on the colors of woodwinds. The Singing Wall began in the depths, very much like the low brass at the start of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, a sonic image depicting the beginning of the world.
Then it was Shichijo’s turn, playing Six Dances from the turn of the 20th century by the Armenian composer/musicologist Soghomon Soghomonian, best known as Komitas, an ordained monk and director of a famous choir that toured Europe to acclaim. Shichijo recorded the 20-minute work on a CD and told me she plans to redo it with the rest of Komitas’ piano music in the future. Komitas’ research into Armenian modal music and rhythms reveals many startling features, nearly all of which echo in the music by the American composer of Armenian descent, Alan Hovhaness.
McGowan then returned for Workshop (2004) for soprano flute and tape, an extremely clever and often amusing juxtaposition of industrial construction sounds and composed music for his instrument. He explained that, while living in a narrow street in Amsterdam, lined with five story buildings, he endured two years of renovations, one building after another, the sounds of heavy equipment concentrated and amplified, starting every day at 7am. He probably spent more time editing the recorded noises, the source of rhythm patterns for the piece, than composing the flute part. Titters ran through the crowd.
Salvatore Sciarrino’s Come vengono prodotti gli incantesimi? (1985) for solo flute displayed everything possible to do on a flute except play characteristic melodies. McGowan said the title roughly meant ‘how can we produce incantations’ and began with what on a string instrument would be called pizzicato, achieved here by percussively shutting the keys with just enough breath to amplify the sound. A few shrieks and other mechanical effects, like flutterings on the keys, sustained the piece for eight minutes in a perverse denial of what flutes are famous for but with a whole other range of performance demands.
Shichijo than introduced and performed Sonata No. 13 (2011) by Belgian composer Frank Nuyts (misspelled in the program handout) who grew up in rock and pop, became a percussionist, dwelt in the avant-garde then finally found his voice in tonal music. This is a full-out three-movement piece lasting 25 minutes that exhibits the romantic pull of turn-of-the-20th-century appeal. It shows the influence of Debussy but to a limited degree. Instead, it carries flavors of the Russian school, notably Rachmaninoff, with its ringing bells and ostinato references to particular notes in the scale. What it doesn’t have are conventional cadences that punctuate the unfolding melodies and harmonies, thereby giving the piece a rhapsodic character. The music was alternately deeply personal, almost private, and then ecstatically triumphant. It ended in whispered reflection. Shichijo gave it a tour-de-force performance, rife with brilliance and unassailable authority.
Finally the two artists played together in a short piece McGowan composed for an international high school flute convention, Cleveland Times (2016). Once again, the range of flute writing seemed to be limitless in its imagination and technical requirements. There were even bent notes, perhaps in deference to Shichijo’s Japanese heritage. And through it all, McGowan’s mastery of form made a crystal-clear coherency to the whole of this miniature world.
As an encore, well-known local jazz flutist Kenny Stahl joined McGowan and his contrabass in a charming call-and-response improv.