Viet Cuong, Moth

For at least a few more days you can stream Moth, by classical composer Viet Cuong, performed, at the Midwest Band Clinic, by the Brooklyn Wind Symphony conducted by Jeff Ball, on Performance Today.  It is also available, probably more permanently, at his website and on his Soundcloud page.  I like the piece a lot.  The performance is excellent, really remarkable for an all-volunteer ensemble.  The style is fairly modern for PT, which is to say it is, roughly, in the idiom of tonal Western classical music from the 1920s and 1930s, with perhaps a smidgin of minimalism.  At first listen I thought it made clear use of the language of Stravinksy, especially Petrouchka and Le Sacre du Printemps, as well as of something resembling the post-Stravinsky and neoclassical phase of the 1930s, say, Milhaud, Poulenc, Constant Lambert, but without descending into pastiche.  On my second listen, with better sound, I was a bit taken aback by what I perceive as strong influence from Le Sacre, both in form and in content.   I am less startled by that after further listens.  Form-wise, it intersperses sections with ostinato, theme repetition (certainly key ingredients of Sacre), and other tension building devices (like modulation, especially stepwise upward modulation, which I don't think are found much in Sacre), with more pensive interludes, often tinged with a minor feel.  Just that kind of alternation is a main structural principal of Sacre.  As my references to neoclassicism and modulation above might suggest, there's somewhat more standard tonal content in Cuong's piece, thought it also has very strong Stravinsky-like "modal" or scalar elements, and occasional vaguely Iberian-sounding moments.  (As an aside, just thinking about harmony in Le Sacre makes me wonder if there is any standard dominant-to-tonic resolution at all in the piece---I think not, or not much.)

Cuong knows how to recombine and play with motives, scales, harmonic tropes and other elements to create interest, unify the piece and move things along in a satisfying way.  He shows this from the outset, with a clever motive consisting of a rising and descending scalar figure, played against a similar but inverted figure (or perhaps they are both fragments of the same extended figure that they evolve into, running up and down on flute, changing direction at different pitches), then relaxing into some Iberian-ish sounds.  At 1:30 we get melodic material very reminiscent of Le Sacre, and around 2:10, I think, the first hint of a four-note figure, which one might notate 3 4 2 1 in minor, also very reminiscent of Sacre (indeed it is very close---and would be identical if the last two notes were interchanged---to the initial four notes of a motive, 3 4 1 2 3 1 in minor with the last two notes twice as long as the preceding four, found in Sacre) that will become increasingly important.  Much of this material is developed and cleverly  combined through what sound to me like various key changes.  Around 3:30 things get more urgent, drums, with ostinato and repetition, especially of the four-note theme, and rising modulation.  (I wonder if there is some influence of John Adams' Harmonielehre here; I am reminded of it, but haven't listened to the Adams piece recently enough to tell.  Or maybe I should just can the speculation about influence.)  Around 4:10, quickly peak tension gives way to a mellow contrapuntal woodwind interlude, and there follows a long stretch with some alternation of faster and more complex passages, building a bit more each time, with pullbacks to this sort of mellowness.  Around 6:30 things seem to get more organized for a final buildup.  The ending, with an upward brass gliss emerging out of the ensemble to a momentarily held note, and then a sudden drop to tympani-punctuated chord, reminds me a little bit of Le Sacre too.

The program for this piece seems to be the gyrating flight of a moth before, and eventual immolation in, a flame, which is also in obvious parallel with Le Sacre's program, of a virgin obliged to dance herself to death in a pagan rite.  So I suspect the structural and idiomatic parallels to Le Sacre are no accident, although the overall tone is much lighter, and at 8'38 in this performance, the piece is of course much shorter.  I interpret these parallels, especially as dextrously integrated with harmonic movement at times quite uncharacteristic of Le Sacre, as a bit of a cheeky and light-hearted tour-de-force of compositional virtuosity.  The thematic material does have interest, but might be a little more on the generic side than ideal in places.  That is not really a problem in this piece.   I enjoyed some of the other pieces on his site but did find some of them a bit lacking in gripping melody.  Sound and Smoke I and II sound tailor-made for something like a fantasy movie soundtrack, and are extremely well done.  Part I sounds just as you might think from the subtitle "feudal castle lights", while Part II I found more distinctive.  I have a feeling that with some even stronger melodic material, perhaps some passages with some longer more sustained lines, Cuong could be really dangerous.  Hopefully Cuong will come up with more gripping melodic material in whatever way is necessary, whether from moments of personal inspiration or by ripping it off with exquisite taste à la Stravinsky if necessary.  (I exaggerate, Stravinsky fans... peace, I am one of you.)  Some of Cuong's other pieces show ability in more contemporary idioms.  He is only 24, a graduate student in composition at Princeton.  He is clearly getting a lot of recognition, as the list of awards, commissions, and performances on his webpage shows.  So he probably has a good career assured.  I hope he has his sights fixed on greatness; I'll be very interested to see what comes next.

Bonus:  On that December 12 PT stream, available for a few more days, the Brahms serenade (end of the 2nd hour) performed by the Sinfonia da Camera, if played on a good stereo, is magic.  (On first hearing through a cheap radio I was unimpressed.  Maybe it is all about the bass, although I think an undistorted treble helps too.)