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Scratching the Surface

State of the Arts


Published January 11, 2006 at 5:00 p.m.

How do you make classical music play to the next generation of listeners? If you're the programmer at the Hopkins Center, you book the Kronos Quartet -- hip stringsters whose 40-plus contemporary classical recordings feature works by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Astor Piazzolla and Philip Glass. If you're Kronos, you commission a piece by a twentysomething composer. And if you're Dan Visconti, the 23-year-old Yale grad student who bested 500 other contenders in the third annual "Kronos Under 30" competition co-sponsored by the Hop, you share your musical musings on a blog.

"When I was growing up," Visconti reveals on his website, "I became absorbed in the Kronos Quartet's visceral and adventurous recordings in much the same way that many adolescents obsess over the albums of the great, iconic rock bands."

The connection between classical and popular music carries over into his commissioned piece, "Love Bleeds Radiant." In it, the musicians on stage play in reaction to what sounds like a scratchy 78 rpm blues record -- really a 30-second segment Kronos pre-recorded and Visconti electronically altered to simulate the static pops and surface hiss of old vinyl on a turntable.

"As a composer I envision the audience hearing the quartet playing along with a beat-up old record," Visconti explains on the phone from New Haven, Connecticut. "The literal experience of finding an old album and the sense of distortion and decay is very moving metaphorically."

The piece was "informed by my experience as an electric guitarist as much as my background as a classically trained violinist," he elaborates in his program notes. "Amplification, distortion and other live electronics have been utilized in order to evoke the gritty, raw emotion that permeates the language of the blues."

Those program notes are posted on Visconti's December blog, in which he also offers a detailed deconstruction of his own words. "Although the song I've based the piece upon is, of course, wordless, I can't help imagining that through its own muteness the music sings of a terrible and resplendent love: a love that burns wild without fading, searches ardently without ceasing, and -- ultimately -- one that outshines its own darkness," he gushes in his notes.

Visconti is also willing to make fun of himself. In the annotation that follows, he refers to the over-wrought passage above as "the real wanking paragraph." Elsewhere, he describes a boilerplate listing of sponsors as "the obligatory and carefully worded thanks, whose . . . clunky legalese fits kind of unhappily with my writing style, and I decided to separate it wholesale from the rest of the note, like that black sheep Uncle Reginald who defected in Hanoi and we never talk about, no, not ever."

It's an entertaining ramble, but the point is to coax readers away from their computers and into the auditorium. Will it work? If Visconti's electronics aren't sufficiently enticing, maybe cinematic chic can score additional listeners. The Kronos Quartet's January 14 program also features Bollywood film music and a suite from the haunting 2000 drug flick, Requiem for a Dream.

Vermont Stage Company's next play, Copenhagen, requires your full attention. Based on the mysterious 1941 meeting between physicists Niels Bohr, a Dane, and his protege Werner Heisenberg, who was then working for the Nazis, it considers the moral struggles of the nuclear physicists behind the A-bomb.

British playwright Michael Frayn's 2000 Tony Award-winning script was inspired by Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb by South Royalton resident Thomas Powers, a founder of Steerforth Press. A sub-theme in the play is Powers' thesis that Heisenberg may have chosen to stay with the Germans in order to keep Hitler from getting the bomb. His dilemma: By helping the allies, he puts his own family at risk. In the play, Heisenberg defends himself by pointing out that at least he's conflicted -- his competitors at Los Alamos never stopped to think at all.

This assessment is accurate, according to Stephan Golux of East Middlebury, who's directing the show for Vermont Stage. He's uniquely qualified to navigate Copenhagen and the conflict it dramatizes between scientific inquiry and nationalism. Before turning to theater, Golux studied astronautical engineering and philosophy at MIT, where many of the scientists from the Manhattan Project were then teaching.

At a symposium on the bomb's 40th anniversary, he heard the scientists reflect "with amusement and horror" on what it was like to be young and brilliant and working at Los Alamos, Golux says. "They were kids at the time. They reflected on a seduction of trying to crack the code, solve the puzzle. They really felt as if they were making war obsolete."