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Review: Echoes of history play behind 'Schweinitz and Schoenberg' program

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There are different kinds of resonance. The resonance of history adds interest to any enterprise. Music that resonates in special ways that cause the brain to enter into enhanced new states of awareness, well, that's something you've got to experience for yourself.

Neither resonance is a common concert hall experience. For both to occur, as they did at the Monday Evening Concerts program at the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall, hardly ever happens.

The program was titled "Schweinitz and Schoenberg," which sounds like the name of German engineering firm. But the situation and sensations were very L.A. and told a story about music as we know and experience it today that has never been illuminated quite like this.

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The main point of the program was to experience new forms of tuning through the U.S. premiere of Wolfgang von Schweinitz's "Plainsound String Trio 'KLANG auf Schön Berg La Monte Young,'" Opus 39. What a title! And what a string trio, played by members of the L.A.-based Formalist Quartet, which ran through (or more accurately deliberately glided through) a series of chords taken from Schoenberg's textbook, "Structural Functions of Harmony."

Because of the odd tuning — Schweinitz uses pure intervals that require mathematical explanation beyond the patience of most listeners — funny things start occurring with high frequencies that lie somewhere between what would get the attention of a dog and those audible to a concertgoer. Everything in our bodies and this world vibrates, and when you mess with the essence of vibration, you mess with perception. I would not recommend driving under the mind-blowing influence of Schweinitz.

Here, though, is where the context gets really wild. Schweinitz, who teaches at CalArts, is a German émigré to L.A., as was Schoenberg last century. The 63-year-old took his cue not only from Schoenberg (in the trio's punning title "Schön Berg" means beautiful mountain) but also La Monte Young. Young is best known for his experiments with pure tuning and was, while a graduate student at UC Berkeley in the late '50s, an inspiration for the Minimalist movement in music. 

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But before that, Young studied in Los Angeles with pianist Leonard Stein, the teaching assistant for Schoenberg's classes at UCLA.

There is much more, though. Monday Evening Concerts also programmed Schoenberg's String Trio Monday, written in 1946 following an asthma attack that caused the 72-year-old Schoenberg's heart to go into sudden arrest.

Stein rushed to the composer's home in Brentwood with a doctor who gave Schoenberg a shot of Dilaudid. Schoenberg immediately went into a state of delirium but recovered and began writing the trio during his convalescence. It was given its West Coast premiere a year later by the Monday Evening Concerts. 

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Stein, who died 10 years ago, described the String Trio as containing a hidden chronicle of Schoenberg's near-death experience. The score begins with radically agitated, fragmented music, an unprecedented opening in a classical chamber music piece. A sharp pizzicato accent represents the prick of the injection, and the music turns dreamy. Waltz fragments swirl amid all else.

For the ending, Schoenberg violated his longstanding prohibition against repetition. The first section returns, but the agitation is now a memory and the music sounds new.

Everything is connected. Schoenberg's atonal and 12-tone music became the academic orthodoxy in the 1950s and 1960s, against which the founders of American Minimalism (Young and his Berkeley classmate Terry Riley, who then influenced Philip Glass and Steve Reich) rebelled. A line is thus traced that requires the rewriting of history books. 

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Back to tuning. Three Formalists began Monday's program with the fugue from Bach's "Musical Offering" played with the strings tuned to what are known as Pythagorean fifths (the frequencies at the ratio of 3:2). Pure Bach thus sounds like Stockhausen. This version by Schweinitz and Marc Sabat has another impossible title: "Johann Sebastian Bach RICERCAR Muskalisches Opfer 1 INTONATION."

The full quartet only appeared in "Two Small Quartets" by the group's violist, Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, one chord progressing naturally and engrossingly to the next. The other Formalist members are violinists Mark Menzies and Andrew Tholl and cellist Ashley Walters.

Their "KLANG" performance, with the purest of tones and no vibrato serving as effective means for speeding music to the brain, was recorded in hi-def sound. May its clanging overtones soon start mutating the vibrations of cyberspace.

mark.swed@latimes.com 

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