Matthew Welch, Borges and the Other, Roulette, 5/11/12
I went to this, as opposed to a hundred other new music events I know equally little about, because Karen Waltuch, our go-to violist for Poor Baby Bree projects, also plays in composer/conductor Matthew Welch’s ensemble Blarvuster, among many others; she had been playing some of the (audibly technically demanding) parts during the soundchecks for our April shows. The piece, a “modular dance opera” by description though the dance element was minimal, is, in essence, an elaborate setting of a couple of late Borges texts (in translation), related to but less celebrated than “Borges and I,” in which the poet, in 1969, encounters his younger self (or older self, depending on which Borges you take to be the really-real one), once in Cambridge and once in an atopian space; each Borges attempts to convince the other that he is not a dream. In the piece’s present incarnation, the sections written for “two Borges” (two male tenors in the first half, two female mezzo-sopranos in the second) alternate regularly with choral passages for an entire quartet of Borgeses – the text for these may have been original.
I can't speak to the fit between Welch’s compositional style and this material, but it’s distinctive and impressive in its own right, and more consonant and “followable” than I expected (whatever subtleties I might have been missing). One of the key “sounds” was a kind of cellular repeating line, too rapid to register as melody, played by the whole ensemble (2 guitars/bass/kit/piano/vibes/flute/viola), at once recalling Reichian minimalism (with gamelan in the background), math-rock, and Scottish reels – which I think would have registered even without knowing that Welch plays bagpipes with other versions of this group. Some of this was harmonically static, though something like “chord changes” were more evident in the second half of the piece (which, being me, I enjoyed more overall); there were also slower passages, less easily described. I might have taken it for the handiwork of a recovering rocker with some scoring skills, especially given the anchoring role of Ian Riggs’s electric bass, if not for the vocal writing -- most of all in the quartet sections, which began with individual voices intoning Borges’ key theme-words (“mirror,” “double,” and so on) before weaving together, quite gorgeously and, well, classically. Another intriguing device: cold stops in the rapid-fire sections, followed by silences and conducted re-entrances that simply picked up where the last bit had left off – this may be fanciful, but the effect was a little like the “black leader” sections of Celine and Julie Go Boating, another disorienting study of unreal space.
My only reservation about the music was that it could have used more textural variety; nearly the whole ensemble was playing, it seemed, 80% of the time, and only near the end were there some moments when enough of the musicians dropped out to create a contrast – more of this would have helped foreground the intensity of Welch’s musical signature. Some of the sung dialogue was lost for dynamic reasons as well, though the overall arc was clear enough. One moment – not overtly connected to the metaphysics that seem to be Welch’s main attraction to the text – stood out: in explaining the current political situation to Past Borges, Present Borges characterizes America as “hobbled by the superstition of democracy” and unwilling to own up to its imperial status. I think many of us would say that the second part of this is no longer true, at least in the corridors of power; the first comment, coming from one who suffered considerable indignities under the Peron regime, is sufficiently surprising that it makes me wonder what’s been written about Borges’s later politics.