Applebaum’s wit infects chamber music series


Geoff Nuttall and his chamber music colleagues who’ve taken up daytime residence at the Dock Street Theatre have done us all a marvelous service. They have added three new works by guest artist-composer Mark Appelbaum to the vast and growing chamber music repertoire, works that are, well, not very orthodox.

Appelbaum, a California composer with a mop of dark curly hair on his head, blue-framed eyeglasses and a self-deprecating, slightly warped sense of humor, is the sort of fellow who likes to disassemble music before it’s written, or forgo writing it down altogether, or write it down in order to make fun of it.

Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet works with Applebaum at Stanford University, so these early chamber music shenanigans were purposeful and provocative, an effort to challenge loyal listeners to reconsider what music can be.

As a result, the first three programs of the series, each featuring an Applebaum work, were among the breeziest, light-hearted performances the chamber gang has offered in recent years. Patrons were invited — indeed, expected — to reach their conclusions freely.

Which is not to say that Nuttall and Applebaum did not employ some subtle preparatory verbiage to get everyone in the mood, lest they react, well, badly. Nuttall asked during the first program: What is music after all? Does it include the “singing” of birds? And Applebaum himself took the stage partly to perform and partly to lecture, seizing the opportunity before a friendly audience to explain (defend) himself, often employing humor at his own expense.

And it was funny, witty, entertaining. First was “Aphasia,” a work that emphasized gesture. He recorded a singer making all sorts of sounds that were subsequently manipulated and set in sequence with the use of a computer, creating a linear, if disjointed and amusing sonic sweep to which Applebaum, seated in a chair, put his hands and arms to work.

In time with the “music,” he slapped his shoulder or fluttered his fingers, often performing two motions simultaneously and in quick succession. Was he “conducting” the recording or accompanying it? Was this music or a sort of dance? That was for the spectator to decide. Whatever the case, it was a nifty example of some pretty odd choreography that matched, precisely, an even odder soundtrack.

In Program II, Applebaum played a (relatively straightforward) jazz improvisation after describing what goes on in an improviser’s head, then presented his work “Pre-composition” for eight-channel tape. In essence, this was meta-music, an amusing artifice, another window into Applebaum’s twisted mind.

For this occasion, just seven of the eight prerecorded parts issued from a set of speakers distributed around the theater. Applebaum performed Voice One live from the stage, “reacting” to the other voices (all his own, assuming different characters such as the intellectual, the cynic, the spiritual one, the droll jokester, etc.)

The composition was about composition — specifically, the thinking that goes into writing a multi-channel electronic piece. It was therefore a self-referential critique of this technique (and the way composers think) even as it worked (surprisingly well) as a legitimate composition in its own right.

In Program III, Applebaum presented a new work receiving its world premiere called “Control Freak” for improvising singer and instrumental septet. He was joined on stage by seven chamber series regulars and by the baritone Tyler Duncan. For those whose minds had not quite been blown by the previous works, this one surely finished them off, making of them eternal devotees of Applebaum or utterly reaffirming their preferences for Beethoven and Brahms.

Either way, the California composer did us all a favor by reminding us that, at one time, all music was new and all composers alive.

“Control Freak” was another strange concoction. Shakespeare sonnets had been converted into anagrams recited (creatively, with lots of vocal variation) by Duncan as the instrumentalists behind him, conducted by Applebaum, improvised all sorts of sounds (including some vocally produced) in response to the poetry. It was the best of the excellent works Applebaum presented, and a clear example of his subversive musical temperament.

One could write a treatise on his postmodern irreverence and the way it is manifested in his compositions, but I suppose there is no great need to do so: Applebaum would probably take the manuscript and devise some new perverted piece of “music” based on its intellectual pretense and artifice.

Really the best way to enjoy these works is to listen with open ears and accept that the definition of music is now, and always has been, evolving.

Speaking of Tyler Duncan, he’s in Charleston for the rest of the series. His auspicious festival debut on Monday, at which he sang Schumann’s glorious Dichterliebe, was just the beginning. More on that soon.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at