Pierre Jalbert Wants You to Forget Everything You've Learned and Just Listen

Jalbert: Don't listen "with Mozart ears."
Jalbert: Don't listen "with Mozart ears."
Courtesy of Pierre Jalbert

After spending a year studying in Italy, Pierre Jalbert had a tough time ridding himself of all that ringing in his head. "Rome has over 900 churches," says the associate professor at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. He wrote the first two movements of Visual Abstract based on Roman cathedrals: their bells, architecture. Now, a decade after recording his initial inspirations, the piece will be played Saturday night at Zilkha Hall in collaboration with visual art by the Canadian filmmaker Jean Detheux as part of the show Real and Imagined.

In what Jalbert calls a "sound envelope," a sharp attack is followed by a long subtler sound, almost like an audible tail that disappears gradually. Hear it? That's the bell: CLANG! The reverse crescendo is the backwards bell. "With the invention of electronic music we've been able to dissect sounds." Leave it to an avant-garde musician to translate the clamor of church bells into music, not just by imitating their natural sound, but by imagining and composing what they'd sound like backward. And you thought experimentation was just for teenagers.

Welcome to avant-garde music, in this case, a tighter segment often referred to with the painfully wordy "contemporary classical composition." To grasp it, you have to come at it from the right angle---which is to say no angle at all, or, an open angle, one that is, shall we say, gaping open more than a measly ninety degrees. "I think if one listens to this music not with Mozart ears but with open ears" he or she can start to appreciate it, says Jalbert, who co-founded the non-profit group Musiqa, that attempts to explore music in its most modern manifestations. But what does that even mean really---to appreciate it? What's the intention of all of this? And how do you take in an unfamiliar art form and internalize it, make it your own, chew it up and really gauge the artistic flavor of it all?

A big hunk of starting a dialogue with "contemporary classical," or what is also called modern classical music, starts with dismissing context. In other words, when you sit in a hall and prepare to listen to the music, it's important not to conjure up a bunch of preconceived notions about what you're about to listen to. Try not to grade the performance on a scale of one to Beethoven, "just like you wouldn't pick up a book written by James Joyce and expect to read Dickens," Jalbert explains. Those capable of listening with fresh ears can be reached, Jalbert thinks, "especially young people and those into indie and more experimental pop."

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According to Anthony Brandt, also a Musiqa co-founder and an associate professor at the Shepherd School, it's likely that in the earliest times, music was purposed as a means of "binding together" whether it was for harvest or ritual or worship. Thus, he says, "it became a shared language." Yet, in 20th century music there's no shared language. Brandt likens the experience of a new concertgoer to immersion in a miniature foreign country without first speaking the language. But, he says, "You only have to go downtown and you don't need a passport."

A lack of commercial appeal for this brand of music likely stems from exactly what drives it: the lack of comfort it extends and its challenging, radical nature. Creating community without a shared language is "what keeps people away," Brandt contends. Ironically, he says that's exactly the right place to be. "In a world without a common practice, knowing something isn't that helpful."

Bringing the repurposing of music to light is appropriate in a time when neuroscientists like Dr. Aniruddh Patel are studying the possibility that music is more than just "auditory cheesecake." He contends that the art should be considered more like technology: it transforms and evolves over time. In a sense, music undergoes evolution in terms of change, not age, making it a much more pertinent piece of the human puzzle than previously thought.

Along with Jalbert's work on Saturday night, Musiqa, a non-profit organization that sponsors modern contemporary classical music, and Aurora Picture Show, will host Theo Loevendie's Six Turkish Folk Poems, plus music by Eve Beglarian, Paul Frehner and Evan Chambers, along with two films curated by Aurora Picture Show--Takashi Ishida's Film of the Sea and Diego Maclean's The Art of Drowning, based on a poem by Billy Collins.

Pierre Jalbert Sonata for cello and piano, David Finckel and Wu Han from David Finckel and Wu Han on Vimeo.

Visual Abstract (1st movement) from Jean Detheux on Vimeo.

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