Now. Let us explain, in just a few steps, the second movement, or "Reading," from Lukas Foss' "Paradigm," the climactic work of last night's tribute at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater to the composer-conductor.
You see, it's a kind of party game, for percussionist, electric guitar and three other instruments -- any three other instruments. Last night they were the violin, the flute and accordion. And the lyric idea is, as we read in the program notes, that the players "have notes to play and words to say, whisper and shout." Simple as that.
"Reading" ignored most organizational principles, such as harmony or counterpoint or any of those stuffy old things. It is a form of the music of chance. Just follow the chart that is provided, with six columns, with eight separate choices of words and phrases in each.
The players all start with the word "bury," with appropriate accompaniment, and then the percussionist, the first player, chooses from the eight terms in his column, such as "Your vulgar." Then the players are cued in sequence by the percussionist, choosing bizarre combinations. One sequence, for example, might by "your vulgar ornaments compounded fantasies ad nauseam."
Such sequences kept happening over and over until the numerical possibilities were exhausted. And, for a coda, one of the players blurted, "but is it art?" The aduience roared -- some of it, anyway.
Of course, this not the kind of chamber music Mozart wrote. But it does have a certain charm, in its little esthetic limbo somewhere between Scrabble and utter expressive anarchy.
Foss, who also is music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, sees "Paradigm" as a period piece. "Just think back to what we were doing in the '60s. Those happenings . . . So, well, no wonder this piece turned out this way!"
Foss has been working in these avant-garde forms for only about two decades, but it was two decades earlier when he first came to public attention.
The earliest of last night's four works, "Three Pieces for Violin and Piano," sounded a whole lot more like Copland, whom Foss worked with early in his career, than like what we have come to think of as Foss. Violinist Paul Zukofsky and pianist Foss gave it a loving performance. It was the only time in the evening that melody was an organizing element.
And there was a recent nostalgic piece, "Curriculum Vitae with Time Bomb" for accordion and percussion, full of bits of melodies -- like the "Beer Barrel Polka," the Nazi Anthem and the Mozart Turkish March, the first work Foss played as a pianist. But these fragments were used like scraps in a dense, incogruous collage... It was an evocation of Foss' childhood. And the pistol shot at the end represented the "Time Bomb," a clear reference to life in the Germany that Foss left as a child. In its terse, elliptical way, this was the most powerful work of the evening.
There also was an esoteric, sonically avant-garde setting of Wallace Stevens' famous poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird." Mezzo Kimball Wheeler had to declaim the poem more than she sang it.
Foss' work is not especially deep. But it is ingenious and daring and, like John Cage, the great pioneer in this area, Foss has the grace never to take himself too seriously.