Composer Dean Rosenthal shares two pivotal works at V.H. library: Modern classical music decoded

Composer Dean Rosenthal. —Photo by Sam Moore

Updated 1:30 pm, Dec. 17. A previous version of this article reported that Mr. Rosenthal played played an Aria from Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos for the reporter. The Aria was from Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Have you ever wondered how you might better equip yourself to appreciate avant-garde classical music, which we’ve come to associate with odd, dissonant chords in fits and starts? Or how about the piece by John Cage, 4’33,” when a pianist sits at his instrument for four minutes and thirty seconds while the audience listens to the wind in the trees and rain on the roof?

On Tuesday at the Vineyard Haven library, renowned experimental composer Dean Rosenthal explained it all with two of his recent works, both devoid of instrumental music.

In a prior visit to Mr. Rosenthal’s charming, slightly worn, and notably historic apartment overlooking a garden, the ferry terminal, and a sweeping view of the Vineyard Haven Harbor, the composer revealed his classical training as he sat down before his upright piano and played an Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations. But his passion lies elsewhere.

“What I’m doing now,” he explained, “Is dipping into a stream of contemporary music, a stream within lots of streams.” His own stream has been circulated in New York, London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Australia, and Poland, where his recent “Stones/Water/Time/Breath” piece will be played in an art museum for eight weeks.

Within this new tradition — one could call it, among other things, postminimalism — Mr. Rosenthal’s “Stones/Water/Time/Breath” project provides a score. One might also perceive it as a script, because it carries no musical notes, only directions. Once viewed and explicated, the piece gives us an idea of this brave new world in music.

This type of composition is called “site-specific.” Mr. Rosenthal hatched the idea one evening as he paced a dock on the Edgartown Great Pond, drawn back in memory to his wedding, where guests skipped stones. “I started tossing stones with intention,” he said, “and I heard rhythms. It was percussive and musical at the same time, and I wrote out a set of instructions. Anybody can play this piece. You just need to be open to it.”

In a nutshell, one arrives with an assortment of stones. Set a time, start. Play singly, together, rhythmically, in solos or tuplets. There can be pauses. No speaking — this is a big part of it. Come to think of it, postminimalist music embraces mindfulness. When it feels as if the piece has ended, end it.

On his website, Mr. Rosenthal invites people to record and send him the rendition. At the library, he played a three-part “Stones” presentation filmed by Russell Craig Richardson on Cooper Lake in Woodstock, N.Y. In Part I, black stones are skipped on white ice. In Part II, the angle has widened so that stones are flung across an expanse of ice to a nighttime pond beyond, where a few of the well-lofted stones splash in a black pool. In Part III, we watch and hear a hard, rhythmic pit-a-pat of black stones on gray ice.

Mr. Rosenthal’s second piece, “Island,” is a work in progress, one he calls a “love letter to the Island.” Now he offers words, ambient noises, and ocean sounds as music: He has spent untold hours in the field, in this case the human field, recording Vineyarders’ memories and insights about their Vineyard lives, their comments often overlapping, artfully blended with restless waves. The result is bewitching, and he’s only getting started.

“I’ve been coming here since I was a kid, and [my wife] Karin and I, after deliberating about Europe, instead moved here in 2012,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “There’s always been something about the Island in my ear. And then a gallery in Berlin requested a piece focusing on people I knew and local sounds.” Even though Mr. Rosenthal has miles to go before he sleeps with this piece, the Berlin gallery has already made an installation of “Island” in a huge room with big speakers.

“Island” carries sounds of bell buoys, steamship horns, lush fragments from the community chorus, tweets from the birds of Felix Neck, halyards slapping aboard sailboats, and in the near future, whatever else comes to hand from Mr. Rosenthal’s recordings in the field.

In case any of the bigger Philistines among us worry about how an experimental composer like Mr. Rosenthal earns a living, there is some income in this process: Mr. Rosenthal receives grants from the Martha’s Vineyard Cultural Council and Pathways Arts and Cultural Organization, and his many audio and video installations, played by galleries and museums, yield royalties and commissions. He’s also regularly asked to perform and teach at universities, helps local composers develop their projects, and will soon be working with the Bang Group.

Local pianist, composer, and piano teacher Brian Hughes helped me further understand Mr. Rosenthal’s compositions. “In every function of the artist, something is always boxing you in,” Mr. Hughes said. “Minimalism is a revolt against this. Strip everything down, make repetition normal, then add new elements. Very slowly.”

Does this help? After the library lecture, Mr. Rosenthal sent the audience away with the “Stones/Water/” score. Presumably everyone has a unique idea for a location to try it out. If you’re practical enough to bring a recorder — even one on your iPhone — send it immediately to