Author: AndrewSigler

The Soundbridge Project: Classical Music Out Of the Halls

Look, there are plenty of lovely places to hear folks play their fiddles, trumpets, and Macbooks. Concert halls abound, and many of these have been around fuh-ev-uh. For the most part they are thoughtfully designed and perfectly suited for soaking up all the sonic goodness on display, all from the comfort of a relatively plush chair and with just the right amount of attitude adjustment that a frighteningly overpriced glass of chardonnay has to offer.

So why are we always trying to pry classical music out of those cold, dead hands [1] ?

Probably because there is a large contingent of folks out there who would like to hear these pieces sans just about all the stuff above. I do, on occasion, enjoy putting on a coordinated outfit and drinking from something with a stem prior to my fiddle intake, but for me this is more of a Thanksgiving/Presidents’ Day once-a-year deal than a monthly water bill situation. For my regular listening, I prefer smaller, less formal venues, and fortunately I’m not alone.

P. Kellach Waddle has established himself as a composer, bassist, and local impresario (not necessarily in that order), and over the last few decades he has had a hand in a wide variety of multidisciplinary projects involving all sorts of Austin institutions. Live music with film at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, music about wine with Grapevine Market, and Banned Books at Book People are just a few of the projects that Waddle has directed and performed in over the years. His latest is “The Soundbridge Project,” which he developed with flutist Lauryn Gould at Cherrywood Coffeehouse.

The most recent Soundbridge show started with Waddle (Gould could not participate in this particular event) introducing the first of three sets of music. Each set featured something old and something new, and in the case of set one all the new music was written within the last 20 years and some “as recently as eleven days ago.” A few short works for bass were followed by several classical duets for horn performed by Jenni Wieland and Leah Morgan Durrett.

P.K. Waddle and Elaine Martin Barber

P.K. Waddle and Elaine Martin Barber.

After a short break, Waddle returned to perform music featuring bass and harp. The first work, Waddle’s Abandoning The Edge of The San Antonio Sunrise: Impression-Satz for bass and harp made a somewhat disconnected and blurred impression. Ostinati in the bass would form and disappear quickly, while long gestures in the harp performed by Austin Symphony Principal Harpist Elaine Martin Barber would lead to brief moments of consensus between the instruments before they went their separate ways. The whimsically titled (a descriptor which could describe virtually any Waddle tune; the guy does not simply write “Sonata for Bass”) Cereal Music: Sonatina in Three Movements after K. Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions made a play on serialism/cerealism with very subtle nods towards Arnie’s school in the harmonic content and a few towards Kellogg’s camp in the movement titles. Movement one, “Blueberry Morning,” featured driving arpeggios in the bass trading with bright chords in the harp. The multi-stops in the second movement, “Frosted Flakes,” played nicely against the loping arpeggios in the harp, and the hidden gigue in the third movement, “Lucky Charms,” was quite attractive, though both were hidden at times in the rise and fall of the sounds surrounding the performers. This conflict was an issue from time to time throughout the show. The performance space at Cherrywood is located on one side of a large rectangular room and is separated by a low wall which reads a bit like a long breakfast bar. While this provides a great physical separation for the performance space, it does little to facilitate the separation necessary to hear music with a wide dynamic range; a characteristic that describes most “classical” music. I was torn at times between the charm of the venue and its patrons and the combined volume of the two.

Seetha Shivaswamy, P.K. Waddle, and Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins. Photo by Chris Bieter

Seetha Shivaswamy, P.K. Waddle, and Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins. Photo by Chris Bieter.

The last set for flute, oboe, and bass featured Waddle joined by flutist Seetha Shivaswamy and oboist Rebecca Marie Fairweather Haskins in the world premiere performance of Waddle’s KaffeeTraumen; Dreams of Coffee: Trio in forma di 6 Impression – bagatelles for Flute, Oboe, Bass, an ode to the black stuff, as well as a variety of trio music by L. Mozart, W. A. Mozart , and Stamitz. KaffeTraumen was in six movements, the first moody and shifty with subtle interplay in the winds and with the bass in its traditional role, the second peppered with quasi-neoclassical quirks—rhythmically engaging and harmonically inviting. The fourth movement loosely described the nightmare of a house without coffee and was followed by the relief of coffee returned. In the final movement, Shivaswamy and Fairweather Haskins ran a relay race in slow motion, trading lengthy lines back and forth while Waddle maintained his supporting position.

It was a well portioned show with sets of a length (approximately 15, 30, and 30 minutes respectively) that held the audience’s attention while providing the occasional break. The traditional 60 minute first set, 15-20 minute intermission, and 45 minute second set that you often find in concert settings has never sat well with me. I always feel like the long intermission takes me too far out of the experience. The set organization for this show shared a certain kinship with the pacing of television (gasp!) with the shorter breaks reading more like commercials. I’ve lately been of the opinion that one long set is the way to go, but the shorter multi-set arrangement allows for breaks and shorter concentrated shots of music while also giving the audience an opportunity to show up after the first set or leave before the last set. And while presenters naturally want the audience to stay for the whole show, the multi-set concept does perhaps take the pressure off someone whose dance card might be a bit full that night and who would otherwise have to bow out altogether. Of course, this isn’t really an option in the larger and more opulent halls, but venues like Cherrywood are more flexible. As long as Waddle and Company continue presenting compelling shows that combine music with the character of the venue, I suspect people will keep coming out to check out the performances.

Beer Concerto anyone?

1. Their hands are neither cold nor dead, so lighten up people.

Vessel and Ceremony: Convergence Vocal Ensemble

Cultures throughout recorded history have used rituals in countless different ways. At its essence, a ritual or ceremony is a Vessel, and each participant is free to fill that vessel with as much or as little significance as she or he chooses.

The above quote was taken from the program notes for Vessel, a recent concert presented by the Convergence Vocal Ensemble. This evening of commissions was the result of a collaborative effort shared by Convergence and a number of composers, and facilitated by the Austin New Music Coop and a number of sponsors including New Music USA. Composers were commissioned to write pieces for four voices combined with a variety of instrumental combinations, including new instruments created specifically for this event. Prior to the concert, we got the lowdown on the conception and creation of these new instruments by Norma Yancey and Travis Weller. Dubbed “Skiffs,” they were built from (among other things) repurposed organ pipes scavenged from an organ repairman who, upon announcing his retirement, was descended upon by a variety of Austin new music folk, every one eager to lay hands on these dormant parts and give them new life.

“Skiffs”

“Skiffs” built from (among other things) repurposed organ pipes.

Andrew Stolz’s Nomad Unraveling featured members of Convergence (present this evening as a quartet) joined by the composer on harmonium and Travis Weller on the Owl. A sawing, keening sweep recalling the harmonics of an electric guitar cut through the slow rise and fall of the harmonium as the four vocalists shushed and hissed within the texture.  Occasional strums acted as section markers as quarter tones were passed from tenor and bass to soprano and mezzo until all fell silent. Spoken text culled from the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe and a number of articles on “Generation X” provided fodder for the subsequent chant-like section which felt at some points serene and at others like a bizarre church service. The Owl/harmonium combination in this section sounded like a giant, solemn harmonica, fifths and octaves dominating the overtones that echoed through the space. A return to the smaller intervals harkened a final move to consonance, beaters keeping slow time on the Owl as the piece came to its end.

Sarah Dutcher’s Sleep was the only a cappella offering of the evening. Starting with a simple melody performed by Gitanjali Mathur, a polyphony developed, delivered as a closed-mouth hum among the players. Sleep drifted quietly through the hall, vowels morphing from one to the next in a slow six; a soft, short, drifting lullaby. The Water Bowl for vocalists, percussion, horn, and trombone by Brent Fariss circled conceptually around the constant and repeated rituals practiced by those afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and physically around an actual water bowl which took center stage. Divided into sections loosely demarked by Convergence bass and artistic director Cameron Beauchamp’s heads-up conducting (he was performing as well, and would on occasion make his way into the other performers’ lines of sight to indicate section changes), the piece began peacefully with the singers breathing in and out, sometimes together, sometimes subtly affecting the breathing. Laura Mercado-Wright counted out loud in groups of eight and thirteen, a feature which became central to the piece and occurred in the other players’ parts as well. Hornist Mikal Hart joined trombonist Steve Parker in exploring the low range of their instruments; low guttural moans mixed with Nick Hennies’s bass drums scrapes to complete a compelling sound world.

Laura Mercado Wright, Gitanjali Mathur, Paul D'Arcy, and Cameron Beauchamp

Laura Mercado Wright, Gitanjali Mathur, Paul D’Arcy, and Cameron Beauchamp
Photo by Alan Kahler

In Travis Weller’s Hear Rightly, a trio of skiffs joined Convergence in a setting of 95c, an “erasure” by Dorothy Meiburg. Derived from the 1978 edition of “Lutheran Church Worship,” Meiburgs’s text was created (one might say “sculpted”) by removing all but a few words of the existing page to create a new text. For example, a portion of the text came from the prayer “Thanksgiving For Light II” which, when subjected to Meiburg’s sculpting, became simply “Light II.” Screeching drones produced by bows drawn across the skiff’s strings set the stage for vocal lines which began in the tenor and bass and made their way to the soprano and mezzo. Small dowels drawn across strings created a sound like insane wine goblet music, all jagged overtones and a beautiful ending of each attack that recalled the slightest jaw-harp vibe. Hand-held piano hammers replaced the dowels to create a koto-like impression, and the resulting effect was that of a music box. A slightly creepy dollhouse atmosphere coalesced before forming up with solo voice, then duo, all long melodies, wandering. From this, a single angular vocal line staggered about as the skiffs mimicked sitars.

I should back up here. An intermission preceded Hear Rightly, and I took the opportunity to step outside. On my way back in, I saw Travis beneath a lamp in the parking lot manipulating a large air compressor.

“Whatcha doin’ Travis?”

“…You’ll see.”

Whatcha doin’ Travis?

Whatcha doin’ Travis?

From seemingly out of nowhere, the air compressor began to feed the pipes, but instead of blasting their way through in true church organ fashion, they filled the space and gave body and depth to the prevailing texture. Appropriating these found objects, as removed and repurposed as the text they supported, was as contextually compelling and unifying as it was musically satisfying.

Keith Manlove’s into memory, through ritual featured Convergence’s vocals run through a variety of processing, all accompanied by a video presentation. The video featured two alternating vignettes; the first was of a trio sitting at a coffee table and the second was of a lone dancer whose dance was periodically interrupted by other actors covering her with cloths, blankets, and blindfolds. This sort of thing can get derailed quickly if the video is either too abstract (why are we watching this?) or too narrative (wait, is she supposed to be the french horn or the trumpet?), but here the “story” of the video had enough body to seem linear and enough forward motion to suggest development without being explicitly illustrative or, god forbid, didactic. Visceral vocalizations among the quartet realized by quick breathing and timbre manipulation gave way to Paul D’Arcy’s clear tenor solo. A syllabic “language analog” provided a counterpoint to the video in its suggestion of motion and narrative, and was soon filled out by four voice polyphony. Granularization and reverberation transformed the otherwise smooth voice leading as the performers began to accompany themselves with a variety of hand claps, pops, and head shakes, the last of which had as much visual impact as aural. Descending lines came of like something from the Tower of Babel, each voice struggling to dialog, hands waving and eyes popping as all possible avenues of communication were explored.

 

Beat the Heat: Austin Chamber Music Center Summer Festival 2012

In a completely unnerving turn of events, by mid-July in Austin we have had an absolute ton of rain and only a handful of 100+ degree days. I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks in California only to return to A-town on what turned out to be a record-breaking 109-degree June afternoon, but beyond that anomaly it’s been unseasonably lovely. Usually this time of year marks the beginning of relative cave-dwelling during much of the day; long strolls through books stores and experimental coffee houses dovetail with lunch on the lanai of a café, surrounded by a cadre of mister fans doing their best Wimbledon audience impression, forever sweeping back and forth. With the meteorological gods on our side (for now) however, I’m hard-pressed to be inside for anything less than spectacular, and the Austin Chamber Music Festival certainly qualified.

This annual three-week festival has developed over the years by taking its broad and general title quite literally. It’s not summer classics, new music, or jazz; it’s all that and more. Calling virtually all comers, the festival has something for everyone without spreading itself too thin. Groups like avant jazz trio The Bad Plus rubbed shoulders with the Fine Arts Quartet. Local upstart Mother Falcon tore it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s while Richard Stoltzman and ACMC Director Michelle Schumann split their show into two sets, one classic and one new. The Brasil Guitar Duo performed music from several centuries, and Matt Haimovitz and Christopher O’Riley closed the festival with a stunning yet intimate duet concert presented to an absolutely drenched audience, one that certainly must have thought they were anywhere but Austin in July, not because of the music, but because water was falling out of the sky outside.

Mother Falcon

Mother Falcon tearing it up at Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s.

Of course, there were many stellar performances during the festival, and among the highlights for me was the Mother Falcon show. Consisting of a rotating group of between 15 and 20 musicians, Mother Falcon’s quasi chamber orchestra/rock band had the look of the former but for the most part the sound of the latter. Ranging in age from late high school to early college, they packaged all the energy of a garage band at their first gig with the songwriting and performance level of seasoned professionals. There were no programs, so I’m not sure of the various titles that were occasionally announced from the stage (this was a rock show) but the opening tunes essentially had the formal bones of rock dressed sharply in a variety of attractive chamber arrangements. The Falcons were joined for a portion of their show by additional players (younger still, somehow) who were members of the Austin Chamber Music Center’s Summer Program. It was interesting to watch such a large group navigate the difficulties faced by rock bands since time immemorial. Dealing with on-stage communication among players, as well as the challenges inherent in performing with speakers and monitors (especially if you’re playing acoustic instruments which lend themselves to feedback issues and whose tone is often strangled when run through a P.A. system) are all part of “Live Rock 101.” Fortunately, there were virtually no issues, and Mother Falcon treated the nearly packed venue to a great show.

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion at Bates Concert Hall

Third Coast Percussion’s performance at Bates Concert Hall featured works by Reich and Cage, as well as two pieces written by the performers. Fractalia by TCP member Owen Clayton Condon was a perfect piece to start the show; a short, inviting amuse bouche to whet the appetite. Moto perpetuo figures echoed between marimbas, these figures complimented and set off by occasional accents on toms. The Condon was followed by Reich’s Mallet Quartet, which started off with many of the classic Reich tropes but showed some newer ideas in the second movement. Asymmetrical phrases populated symmetrical sections featuring two marimbas playing four bars figures followed by two vibraphones playing 16 bars, the entire form repeated several times. There was something of a music box texture in the vibes as their chords rang out above large structures in the bass register of the marimba, the latter sounding like strummed guitar chords. On the surface, Third Construction by Cage has a number of features that mark it as a precedent to groups like Stomp and Blue Man Group, whose bread and butter stems largely from creating compelling rhythmic constructions from unorthodox sources. The wide variety of instruments used here (including conch shell) have for the most part made their way into the “mainstream” of new concert music (okay, maybe not the conch), but the visual impact of watching a performer keen away on the shell as the other members of the group perform complex, driving, interlocking rhythms has at least some connection with BMG doing their PVC pipe bit. The couple sitting to my right looked to be straight out of an AARP commercial with the notable exception that they both grooved for the duration of the piece, heads bobbing like bizarre extras in a hip hop video. TCP’s performance of the piece was energetic and thoroughly engaging and the reaction of the audience would not have been out of place at the Mother Falcon show, whoops and hollers and all. The second half of the concert was devoted to David Skidmore’s Common Patterns in Uncommon Time. Consisting of six movements played without pause, the work appeared seamlessly at the end of the intermission by way of a prerecorded track. This quiet, sparse material served as a foundation for vibes and marimba figures rising and falling dynamically and building eventually to nearly painful heights, especially with hard mallets on the vibes at fff. The work moved through a variety of moods and textures, and at times had the audience looking around and behind to find other performers on wind chimes and other atmospheric instruments. Though contemplative in tone over all, Common Patterns in Uncommon Time was in like a lion and out like a lamb.

Austin is not hurting for music festivals, and it’s no mistake that the behemoths SXSW and Austin City Limits are in spring and fall respectively to allow attendees to enjoy the nice weather during those periods. Doing anything in Austin in the summer can be a bit of a drag, but checking out week after week of top notch chamber players is a pretty spectacular way to pass the time. The variety and quality of performers and venues, coupled with extensive outreach including free concerts, kept it fresh and interesting throughout the festival. Director Michelle Schumann has worked tirelessly to retain legacy audiences while pushing far outside the boundaries of the traditional summer music fest, so if you find yourself in Austin in the middle of the summer do yourself a favor and check it out.

Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cardew’s The Great Learning

Written over several years in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning was performed over two evenings by the Austin New Music Coop in the spring of 2011. Terabytes of high definition audio and video were recorded during those performances, excerpts of which appear throughout this podcast. (They have been made available as individual listening samples below, as well.) Also included here are extremely detailed and comprehensive program notes and examples of reductions of the score created by the ANMC which were used by the section leaders and conductors to communicate Cardew’s performance concepts to the performers.

Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

I was joined by Steven Snowden and Ian Dicke in a conversation with ANMC members Brent Baldwin, Nick Hennies, Brandon Young, and Travis Weller about their experiences putting together this massive work. My thanks to all the participants for their time and contributions to this podcast, and in particular to Travis Weller for compiling the additional material.

(Musical excerpts in the podcast appear in the following order: Paragraph 3, Paragraph 1, Paragraph 2, Paragraph 7, paragraph 5, Paragraph 6, Paragraph 4.)

DOWNLOAD Talk About Sound: Austin New Music Coop and Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

 

Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning

About Cornelius Cardew and The Great Learning
(from the ANMC website)

Cornelius Cardew was born May 7, 1936, in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire, England, and killed in a hit and run automobile accident in London, December 13, 1981. He taught at the Royal Academy of Music in London as well as other schools. With Michael Parsons and Howard Skempton he formed an improvisational ensemble, The Scratch Orchestra, which premiered the entire cycle of The Great Learning. He was active in the seminal chamber ensemble AMM with Eddie Prevost, Keith Rowe, John Tilbury and Christopher Hobbs. Cardew’s concern for human rights and economic justice led him into Marxist politics and renunciation of his experimental music during the 1970s. Instead, he pursued popular styles of music-making. At the very end of his life (and after Mao Tse-Tung’s death), he appeared to be open to reclaiming aspects of his earlier broad approach to sonic art.

Cornelius Cardew’s 1970 masterpiece The Great Learning is a work in seven parts or “Paragraphs” based on translations of Confucius by Ezra Pound and is composed for trained and untrained musicians. The piece instigated the formation of the experimental musical ensemble The Scratch Orchestra, who also gave The Great Learning its premiere. Now, four decades after its completion, Cardew’s obsessively constructed 5+ hour composition has become an often recalled and imitated masterpiece of counter-culture avant-garde. The influential piece, one of the earliest pieces to be called “minimalist” by composer/critic Michael Nyman, conjures at once Ligeti’s clouds of sound, Webern’s pointillism, Reich’s phasing cycles, and Cage’s conceptual provocations. This feast of varied sound-theater events includes a pipe organ with whistling chorus, cascading waves of percussive sound, loud and soft laughter music, an orchestra of droning contra-basses and large brass instruments, and swirling clouds of a cappella voices. Sadly, a complete presentation of The Great Learning is exceedingly rare, due largely to its demands of 50+ performers, several unconventional instruments, a pipe organ, and necessarily open-minded interpreters.

Soli Plays ‘Til the End of Time

Premiere of Steven Mackey's Prelude to the End

Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End – Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

Austin’s central location puts me within just a few hours’ drive of most of the large Texas cities. Last fall I pointed my car east to check out Houston’s Musiqa, and so this spring I decided to head south to San Antonio. Known for the Riverwalk, the trail of Spanish missions, and the Alamo (though after more than a decade in Austin, it’s hard for me to think of anything but this when I think “Alamo”), San Antonio also has a vibrant musical community, and the chamber ensemble Soli is among the strongest proponents of new music in the region. Formed in 1994, Soli has commissioned 17 works in as many years, including the May 8 world premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End.

The McNay Art Museum was the setting for their final concert of the season. I arrived a bit early, and it looked as though it might turn out to be one of those old-school new music concerts where there are more people on stage than in the seats; a real bummer given the Mackey world premiere that was forthcoming. The handful of people who were there twenty minutes before curtain were dwarfed by the 100+ chairs, and as the 7:00 p.m. start arrived, Soli was joined on stage by Mackey, video director Mark DeChiazza, and dancer Kristin Clotfelter. However, as the casual pre-concert discussion led by pianist Carolyn True progressed, the rest of the audience came in by and by, eventually all but filling the room.

The concert began with la scène miniature quartet by Richard Carrick. I’ve never really tuned in to microtonality, so its mention in the program notes made me a bit wary, but Carrick’s spare use here was effective without descending into the sometimes painful, quasi-out-of-tune world which often develops. The microtonal lines in the violin played well against the piano, long loping phrases giving way to breathy bass clarinet and seagull harmonics in the cello, the latter sounding quite organic and natural in the texture and not like the special effect it typically is. These lines moved seamlessly between the bass clarinet and cello, which were rejoined shortly by a more consonant dance in the violin and piano, the former eventually returning to microtones. Finally, they were all together, syncopated germs bouncing about as a Bela Lugosi moment by way of Bartók showed up at the end of the work, tremolo and all, with big eyebrows in the piano.

An oldie but goodie, Stephen Hartke’s trio for piano, clarinet, and violin The Horse with The Lavender Eye (1997) followed the Carrick. Featuring left hand alone for all performers initially, piano rumbles, angular clarinet lines, and insectile pizz. arpeggios populate the first movement, the extreme quiet of the violin drawing the listener in as the piece shuffles forth. “The Servant Of Two Masters” was a fitting title, as listening to the movement almost seems like flipping back and forth between two television programs. True divided her time between Stephanie Key’s piercing clarinet part and Ertan Torgul’s contrasting gossamer violin lines. The peaceful wandering lines of “Cancel My Rumba Lesson” which followed contrasted with both the earlier manic material and the title itself. The communication on stage was tight and particularly notable during the fits and starts of the second movement.

The McNay was doing a big Warhol show, so Paul Moravec’s Andy Warhol Sez, originally for piano and bassoon, arranged here by Key for bass clarinet, seemed a particularly appropriate choice. Consisting of seven miniatures (some a bit bigger than others), the piece explored a variety of moods and textures and was quite attractive and approachable. The Moravec was followed by an arrangement of “Kashmir” performed by cellist David Mollenauer. [1] I would have to think at least twice before deciding not to do an impression of Robert Plant in a truly seminal Zeppelin track, but I have to say that Mollenauer pulled it off with aplomb. The arrangement was originally for cello ensemble, but Mollenauer recorded several backing tracks which he played along with live, complete with the occasional percussive thwack. The entire evening was quite well received, but the applause volume peaked at the end of this piece. It occurred to me afterward that there were likely a number of people in the audience who were not familiar with the source material and simply enjoyed the tune and the vitality of the performance. While I also enjoyed it, I did find myself wishing that I could hear this piece without the baggage of an entire high school life spent playing rock guitar. [2]

Speaking of misspent youth as it relates to guitars, the second half featured the premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End. Commissioned by Soli and featuring video by Mark DeChiazza of a performance by dancer Kristin Clotfelter, Prelude to the End was written not exactly as a response to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, but with the knowledge that any piece written for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano might be programmed along with the Quartet, or at least seen in light of it. No pressure. Initially populated with bright declamatory gestures among the ensemble, high moto perpetuo piano lines developed which were underscored by jagged phrases in the cello and bass clarinet. These phrases are picked up on by the violin, leading to an overall darker section. A brief return to the opening material acted as a bridge to new and highly syncopated lines, heavy chordal riffs in the piano accompanied by high, dramatic violin parts. This eventually spins itself out leading to somber, slower, and more reflective material which lasted through the end of the work.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.
Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

The concert was followed by a reception as casual as the opening of the show. Soli and their guest artists spent the better part of the next hour chatting with the audience in the lobby, and I found myself in a conversation with a recently retired art teacher who had just moved back to Texas after several decades teaching in New York. She and I briefly discussed the finer points of the evening’s music, but much of our discussion was about the concert experience itself. She was happily surprised at the broad demographic of the audience, the relaxed atmosphere, and the warmth and connectivity of the musicians both on and off the stage. She said it reminded her of shows she’d seen back east, but was not necessarily what she’d expected upon her return. I said that I thought the show was representative of my concert-going experience in the area, and that if she enjoyed this one, there were likely many more in store for her. She seemed heartened by that, and as she made her way over to mingle with the artists, I headed out to my car, the riff from “Kashmir” my accompaniment on the way home.

*


1. It occurs to me that I might need to mention that this piece is by Led Zeppelin, though I hope that goes without saying.


2. Including “Kashmir.” Lots of “Kashmir.”

Perspective: Xenakis—48 Hours In a Surreal Soundscape

Little did I know that the Baylor Percussion Group’s performance of Peaux at Fast Forward Austin last month would be but a glimpse of things to come. Curated by Matthew Teodori, the recent festival Perspective: Xenakis featured local, national, and international performers and scholars plying their wares around Austin. A festival of the music of Xenakis might at first blush seem to be better presented in the rocky and otherworldly terrain around Phoenix, or perhaps one could just double down and hold it on the moon. Ben Watson’s description of Xenakis’s work as “…a music of truly majestic otherness…an alien shard, glimmering in the heart of the West” fits glove-like this strange, visceral, and largely explosive music. Held at three venues over two days, the festival was dedicated to the chamber works of the composer and architect.

Pleiades performance at the Floating House - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Pleiades performance at the Floating House – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The Floating Box House, from which one could see downtown Austin framed by gently rolling hills, was a pretty rarified venue for the opening concert of the festival. Located on a sizeable parcel of land in the woodsy area of Westlake, the remote location had both an expansive and intimate feeling which nicely mirrored the ensemble percussion of the evening. The Meehan/Perkins Duo was joined by line upon line percussion and Timothy Briones to perform Persephassa and Pléïades. The six percussionists surrounded the audience on the tree filled front lawn of the property, an invitation to look around as Persephassa opened with a slow pulse that developed into polyrhythms. This material slipped and slammed through timpani glissandos and unison floor toms, building to a head before screeching to a halt; a significant pause which was filled uncannily with breeze and spare birdcalls. Real wind and real birds. It was the kind of moment that would have seemed contrived in a film but was breathtaking in the real world. Rejoining the avian conversation were gongs, woodblocks, and wooden simantras that mimicked woodpeckers. Delicate tremolo built to violent attacks which in turn dwindled to sotto voce muttering among the instruments, interrupted by short bursts. The 6.1 Surround Sound effect that was created, part of Xenakis’s work in spatialization, was palpable as lines spun around the audience in swelling crescendos, complemented with thundersheets and whistles which, when all was said and done, left the audience in silence, all except for a few crickets who checked in as the birds made their way out. Following a brief intermission and set change, the percussionists set up in front of the house in a more conventional configuration for Pléïades. As dusk settled in, the sixxen, sounding every bit a mini-carillon, lent a solemn air to the first movement. Overtones piled up in layers and provided a bit of respite from the onslaught of the first piece. The second movement, “Claviers featured vibes and marimba, magical textures conjured in the center of the musicians and chased by delicate, childlike runs across the space. Of course, the following movements, “Peaux and “Melanges,” put an end to childish things, the final movement combining the instruments of the previous three and bringing the work to a dramatic, athletic close.

Michael Zell - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Michael Zell – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

St. Elias Eastern Orthodox Church was the site for the solo portions of the festival. Performances of Rebonds and Psappha by percussionist Michael Zell bookended trombonist Steve Parker’s performance of Keren, Xenakis’s only wind solo. Pianist Michelle Schumann, an eminently physical performer, was unrelenting in her performances of Evryali and Herma. These performances were preceded by a showing of Something Rich and Strange, a BBC2 documentary film made by Dennis Marks and one of the festival scholars Nouritza Matossian. Matossian was joined by Benoit Gibson after each performance for a Q&A session, as well as more formal presentations at the Butler School as part of the festival.

JACK Quartet - Photo by Elisa Ferrari

JACK Quartet – Photo by Elisa Ferrari

The term “surreal” has lost much of its currency through both mis- and overuse. Often used casually to indicate something that is simply weird, it’s worth remembering that the hallucinatory and dreamlike qualities it should indicate are most sharply experienced through juxtaposition. Watching the JACK Quartet playing the complete string quartets of Xenakis in front of a fireplace with a widescreen TV mounted above it in a very lovely but decidedly suburban home (I live in one of these, it should be noted) was, for me, surreal. Watching violinist Ari Streisfeld negotiate some of the most challenging music ever written for anything while sitting before to a curio cabinet was surreal. Experiencing some of the few moments of quiet and delicacy in these pieces while some insane person emptied chips into a bowl (did I mention that this was one of those open concept kitchen/living room arrangements?) was actually more surreal than infuriating, though the latter was definitely a close second. Challenging music for a challenging venue, no doubt, but JACK simply tore everyone’s face off. Truly, hearing this much Xenakis in a 48-hour period does a number on your wiring, but it was really amazing to experience the relativity of dissonance, to see what your ears can handle if thrown in the deep end and asked to swim [1]. From the big chunky chords of Ergma, bristling and metallic, almost like distortion, to the special-effects bonanza of Tetras, JACK pulled everyone into the alien landscape, and while there were a few folks initially who were not sure if they arrived at the right house, I can tell you that the standing ovation (granted, many of us stood the whole time, but anyway…) went on for some time, and that the Q&A with JACK had to be cut short even though there were several hands in the air at the end.

The plan is to do one of these Perspective festivals every three years, and given the level of performance and coordination on display, I can understand why Teodori might want to take a bit of a break before launching into another. Having said that, I’m really quite interested in seeing who and what is coming down the pike. It’s wonderful to hear a work or two by a given composer, but to spend several days steeped in a particular language, especially one as esoteric and distinct as Xenakis’s, is a different thing altogether. In some ways, it felt a bit like the shared experience of going to a rock concert. You know the tunes, you know the group, and for the most part you’re around people who are on the same page. As we approach mid-year, I still haven’t tired of the Cage retrospectives and I’m more than looking forward to the Rite of Spring centennial, which I imagine will generate more than a few satellite concerts of Stravinsky’s other works. These focused events are just the ticket in a world of hyperdistraction, where if you’re not careful, a few clicks and a few hours later you’ve YouTubed your evening away. It was fantastic to unplug for a while and hang out with Xenakis, and I’m looking forward to catching up with other old friends in a few years.

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1. Dude, that is surreal.

The Kids Are Alright: The Texas Young Composers Concert

When I was in high school, most of my free time was spent figuring out Van Halen licks, not writing orchestral music. I played classical guitar a bit and spent two years in juvenile detention at Tickle The Ivories Penitentiary, so I had some familiarity with the little black dots. However, for any number of reasons, the idea of composing never occurred to me. Who was I to put those things in order? This is apparently a question that never came to mind for the nine students who were chosen from across Texas to have their works performed at the Austin Symphony Orchestra’s second annual Texas Young Composers Concert. Still, even the night’s first composer Jack Roberts understood that this set him apart. “Writing music is just not a normal thing for a kid to do,” he acknowledged.

2012 Texas Young Composers Concert Winners

2012 Texas Young Composers Concert Winners with Joe R. Long (center) and ASO Executive Director Anthony Corroa (right). Photo by Don Hill.

Roberts’s Into the West was the opening work of the evening and was introduced by the composer via a short video projected above the orchestra. Similar videos preceded each piece and provided not only information about the background of the composer and the generation of the work, but also insight into the maturity and character of each artist. I’ve often said that I’m a very lucky guy to have not grown up in the YouTube age[1], but I can’t help but wonder if a sense of constant observation might speak to the high level of maturity and eloquence on display in these presentations. Bursting in all its pentatonic glory, Into the West put on display a number of tropes from the best of the old Westerns. Bright leaping horns held the door open for sad strings, all of it culminating in a triumphant ending.

Austin’s Jocelyn Chambers told a story of staring at a blank Sibelius screen, warmed over John Williams themes created and erased, while her grandfather played piano in another room. From among the lines coming from the piano, a Bb, Ab, and G spoke to her and became the germinal motive for her work My Heart. A largely melancholy composition with a number of dramatic transitions and a glimmer of hope in the woodwinds, My Heart was an impressive show for the youngest of the night’s composers.

Garrett Tatum’s Paradise—Paradise Lost had a strong declamatory opening, great brass voicings, and rich string scoring, all leading to a playful waltz which occasionally straddled the line between whole tone and diatonic. Contrasts by Wells Leng was just that, relative to Tatum’s work. A slow entrance in the winds paved the way for odd-time, ostinato, pentatonic material treated polyphonically at first but also leaving space for a number of solo sections. Trevor Villwock’s When I Woke Up in the Forest wrapped up the first half of the show with Tchaikovskian orchestration and a focus on the flute.

Bleak Dawn by Behnam Arzaghi was the most contemplative work of the evening. A broad harmonic language and long lingering lines set the stage for a more focused mix of Persian folk tunes and lyrical melodies which played hide and seek in the texture. Brennan Anderson’s Downfall Rising was a fantasy narrative of sorts, complete with peasants, heroes, and villains drawn from his experience in writing music for video games. (I should mention that although this was the first time I’ve actually met Brennan in person, I’ve corresponded with him ever since he approached me for an internship a few years back. We weren’t able to make it work at the time but we’ve kept in touch, and I was happy to see that he’d made better use of his time than running to get coffee for me.) Brandon Maahs’s Song of Love and Joy, the first movement from his Symphony No. 1, had a number of compelling features, including thoughtful string orchestration, use of 7/8, and arguably the most thunderous “Kaboom Ending!” of the evening. Finally, Jared Beu’s Affirmation featured varied and rich harmonic language, strong changes of mood, and a wonderful interplay of harmonies in the brass and flourishes in the woodwinds.

*

Let me tell you, if you want to see some proud parents (and hear some great tunes!) then be sure to check out next year’s show. Music Director Peter Bay and the orchestra put all of their forces to bear on these works, and when the composers (dressed to the nines in everything from tuxedos to Charlie Chaplin bowlers—I’m looking at you Brennan) were acknowledged in the boxes…well, let’s just say if you could harness the beaming power of those parents, you could power the country for a month. Or the East Coast leg of the Fair Warning tour.

***


1. There are quite enough thoroughly embarrassing still photos. Thanks, Dad.

Fast Forward Austin II: The Reckoning

When you do a sequel, you can either do Empire Strikes Back or Ghostbusters II.

Which is to say, when you have a hit on your hands, you can take some risks and possibly alienate the fan base that made you worthy of a sequel in the first place, or you can play it safe, give them the same show warmed-over, and collect your pay. Ian Dicke, Robert Honstein, and Steven Snowden upped the ante at this year’s Fast Forward Austin festival by tripling the call for scores winners, bringing in a headliner, and moving to a big, multilevel venue near downtown complete with a bar, soundman, and a dude who stamps your hand.

Precipice perform Coming Together Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice perform Coming Together. Photo by Elisa Ferrari

Precipice, a mixed chamber ensemble from up the road in Waco, started things off. Snowden described them as a group who do “things with lots of stuff”; truer words have never been spoken. They began their set with the first call for scores winner of the day, Shawn Allison’s Towards the Flame, a four-movement work for violin, flute, cello, and percussion. Based on a variety of moth species, Allison’s piece began with flourishes and broken lines before moving to unison gestures in the second movement. The third movement featured extended techniques on the flute while percussion patter coalesced to a rock groove. Daniel Webbon’s[*] string trio For thee, oh Absalom, my son in three movements was an attractive, somber, and contemplative work that served well as a last minute replacement on the program. Precipice finished their set with a powerful rendition of Frederick Rzewski’s Coming Together.

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias

Katherine Hodges and Leanne Zacharias. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

When I returned after the set change, I found that the chairs in the venue had been resituated around a piano bench surrounded by three music stands and backlit, pastel tulle. Cellist Leanne Zacharias and dancer Katherine Hodges‘s set of four works was bookended by the first and fourth movements from Cage’s Etudes Boreales. They began the performance as the house lights dimmed, each performer seated on the piano bench but facing away from one another. As Zacharias began playing, Hodges sat motionless, moving slowly around the space only after several minutes of music. Delicate glissando and harmonics complimented the slight, intimate shifting as Hodges made her way through the tulle. Zacharias turned 90 degrees to perform Event Horizon by Nicole Lizee. Pizzicato scale-fragment ostinato, percussive sections reminiscent of heavy metal palm muting, and pre-recorded material (originally for violin, cello, and bass, but here recorded entirely on the cello by Zacharias) were woven with a dance that foreshadowed the slurred cello of the final section. Eugen Friesen’s Pizzicato Etude had elements straight out of guitar technique, complete with arpeggios and syncopated, ascending, slurred groups of three. The final work mirrored the first both in musical character and in presentation, as cellist and dancer came full circle, ending where the other had begun.

Spank Dance Company returned to FFA with another engaging butoh performance, followed by composer and bassist P. Kellach Waddle performing a series of his works for bass alone, ranging from the ’80s through last week. A member of the Austin Symphony Orchestra for over two decades, Waddle is a prolific composer, passionate performer, and consummate businessman, and his production company PKWproductions, through its long time association with Strait Music, supplied the piano for the festival. His works were romantic and dramatic, hair flying as slow melancholy melodies in the lower register were countered by virtuosic runs in the upper, a quasi-improvisatory character running throughout.

Baylor Percussion Group

Baylor Percussion Group. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

After a brief set change, Baylor Percussion Group performed Peaux from Xenakis’s Pleadis, which—thanks to my Louisiana heritage—I can pronounce with uncanny accuracy. Peaux is what all guys in drum circles think they sound like, all big and unison and cathartic, and BPG delivered the goods from the second floor loft. BGP moved to the stage for the second movement of Lang’s so-called laws of nature. This quartet features identical instrumentation for all players, including three floor toms, bass drum (with foot pedals), and metal pipes which at first glance resembled re-purposed chimes, but in fact were cut to specific lengths to yield specific pitches. With each performer facing stage-right, the movement began slowly on the pipes and added the toms and bass which eventually take over, developing into a huge pulsing texture far removed from the pitch elements of the initial gestures. The athleticism of the second movement was contrasted by the meditative delicacy of the third. The teacup, crotales, and guiro instrumentation were coupled with pedal-like figures, occasional notes popping up from the tea cup tremolo. The program described an extended diminuendo and ended with applause recalling the volume of the first piece.

Bel Cuore

Bel Cuore. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Bel Cuore Sax Quartet performed Snowden’s Speed Studies, a work that opened slowly, moving to a series of declamatory statements in the high register. Key slaps and other rhythmic effects in the tenor and bari played hide and seek with rips in soprano and alto leading to a funky groove and a slamming ending topped of by the declamatory statement. Matthew Ricketts’s[*] Summerline was quiet and pensive. Thoughtful use of combination tones by Ricketts and careful phrasing by Bel Cuore made for a wonderful tension throughout the work. David Biedenbender’s you’ve been talking in your sleep was the second call for scores winner. The sighing, sleeping, and breathing that opened the piece were sideswiped by a honking Morse code in the bari, which in turn morphed into full-blown syncopation among the players, culminating in complete tutti madness. Finally, Life and Afterlife by Nick Sibicky closed Bel Cuore’s set. A narrative work in two movements, the piece started with bright pulsing rhythms and moved to more solemn lines. In the second section, BCSQ took a seat and took up rainsticks, shakers, and the errant drum to the delight of a number of kids who sat wide-eyed in the front.

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves

Graham Reynolds and Austin Soundwaves. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

FFA continued its support of non-profit music education for underserved groups this year with Austin Soundwaves, a new program based on Venezuela’s El Sistema program. An orchestra of about 30 students from the burgeoning program was led by Graham Reynolds in providing music and sound effects to a Felix the Cat film. After their short, charming set, Reynolds was joined by several local pros with whom he’d been working on an upcoming commission. The tunes were built from a funky mix of genres and, after several songs, Vicky Chow and Owen Weaver joined Reynolds on stage. Chow and Reynolds banged out several tunes on the keys, and when I say “banged out” I could not mean that more literally. That piano was rode hard and put up wet, and this became particularly clear later in the evening when Chow did her solo set.

Owen Weaver’s set began with Christopher Cerrone’s Memory Palace. Crickets and other sounds of the early evening were joined by Weaver plucking inside the piano and, as the piece progressed, a background of late night sounds played behind Weaver’s delicate performance. The second movement featured Weaver playing a custom mallet percussion instrument. Made of five or six wooden planks and sounding a bit like a muffled set of woodblocks, the instrument was played with two mallets per hand, one mallet above and one below the planks so that Weaver could provide an extended tremolo that made my arms ache to watch. The tremolo was complimented by electronics that picked up and amplified the natural resonance of the bars. Ian Dicke’s 808 featured loops from the classic Roland 808 drum machine along with real-time manipulation (via MAX/MSP) of cymbals, tambourine, cowbell, and bells, among other percussion instruments. I’ve heard this one several times, and each time it’s a slightly different experience. The use of the crash cymbal in conjunction with the electronics is particularly compelling, giving the impression that the sound not only emanates from the cymbal and through the electronics, but also at times returns to the cymbal from the electronics like a genie returning to the bottle. Vicky Chow joined Weaver for Daniel Wohl’s Pixellated. Beginning with a trill on bells and slaps on piano, Pixellated is initially all fits and starts. A rapid, descending trichord entered the fray adding body to the texture which continued to go all herky-jerky on us like breaking news. Strummed chords in the piano further broadened this texture which eventually broke apart like a fading radio signal.

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver

Vicky Chow, Christoper Cerrone, and Owen Weaver. Photo by Elisa Ferrari.

Vicky Chow took the stage before an eager audience and began with a collection of miniatures, of which Digital Sustain by Ryan Francis was a standout. Chords held out by the una corda pedal made a bed for rapid, staccato, player-piano-like figures. Christopher Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn for piano and electronics was the final call for scores winner. A spare texture of slowly played and largely consonant chords served to describe the experience of waiting for the train at the piece’s namesake subway stop in Brooklyn. The chords split into a counterpoint between the hands, accented by the single tones as a chordal passacaglia of sorts developed in the left hand. I’m hesitant (as Cerrone was in describing the piece at the show) to go into much detail about the electronics except to say that they show up towards the end of the piece and are really quite effective. Daniel Wohl’s Aorta for piano and electronics, all syncopation in the piano coupled and textural electronic elements, and Andy Akiho’s vick(I/y) for prepared piano brought Chow’s set to a satisfying close. But we weren’t done. Joining Chow on stage for a grand finale performance of Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union were several of the festival’s performers. The combination of approximate pitch and exacting tutti rhythms among the players was an absolutely fantastic visceral experience, and could not have made for a more definitive end to the evening.

Fast Forward Austin built on the strong foundation laid last year at their inaugural festival. A blend of local, regional, and national acts along with a sense of community purpose made for a day that was as intellectually stimulating as it was warm and inviting. As my penguin hand-stamp fades, I can reflect on the events of the day while looking forward to next year’s festival, confident that it will be more Search for Spock than Phantom Menace. Of course, I’d be happy to watch Vicky Chow go all two-fisted Workers Union on Jar Jar, but perhaps that’s a whole different festival altogether.


*The composer of For thee, O Absalom, my son is Daniel Webbon, not David Webern, and the composer of Summer Line is Matthew Ricketts, not Matthew Prickett, as were originally reported. We regret the errors.

Austin’s Conspirare Receives $1 Million Gift From the Kodosky Foundation

Austin choral ensemble Conspirare recently received a leadership gift of $1 million from the Kodosky Foundation towards their $2.2 million “A Legacy of Sound” major gifts campaign. This five-year fundraising initiative coincides with Conspirare’s 20th anniversary season in 2012-13. To date, Conspirare has raised a total of $1.5 million with additional support from the Still Water Foundation, Mattsson McHale Foundation, and other donors.

Conspirare artistic director Craig Hella Johnson said, “We at Conspirare are deeply grateful for the generosity of these donors; they are important parts of our circle of music through their friendship and support. We hope many other friends of Conspirare will join them by making gifts of all sizes to this campaign, which will help widen the circle even more.”

Conspirare

Conspirare – Photo by Karen Sachar

Notable in their plans is a $500,000 Fund for Artistic Innovation “to enable Conspirare to commission more new work from a range of established and emerging composers, explore new uses of technology and multi-media presentations, and develop new approaches to choral performance.” A $1 million expanded recording program will support Conspirare’s future releases and ongoing relationship with Harmonia Mundi, and $375,000 will go towards increased national and international touring efforts. Of this considerable goal, only $125,000 will go towards performance of classic repertoire.

Conspirare will announce details of its 2012-13 20th anniversary season, including the first projects supported by the “A Legacy of Sound” campaign, in early May.

Austin New Music Coop Celebrates a Decade of New Music

“If we need something, we can find it in this town…”

The above quote (overheard at an Austin New Music Coop meeting) is a phrase that describes the attitude of many Austin musicians. Austin is still a relatively small city, but the ease with which one can find a last-minute replacement for that “contrabassoonist who also owns his own unicycle” part is impressive, and it’s this high concentration of strong, adventurous players coupled with a titanic work ethic that has allowed ANMC to flourish in the last ten years.

Austin New Music Coop performs Earl Brown's December 1952. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Austin New Music Coop performs Earl Brown’s December 1952. Photo by Meredith Maples.

The two-night show celebrating their decade of new music making began with a somewhat theatrical performance of William Meadows’s Loose Atoms for graphics tablet and electronics by the composer. Meadows sat before the audience at a small table stacked with papers. One by one he removed the papers from the pile and distributed them around the table until all he was left with was what appeared to be a thick notebook. He then took out a pen, looked up as though planning the first words of a letter, and began to write. The pen and “notebook” soon revealed themselves to be electronic instruments with samples of Meadows’s speech emanating from the speakers as he moved the pen around the tablet. Various effects manipulated the sound as Meadows held the pen at a variety of angles. The delivery was as compelling and enjoyable as the piece itself, and served well as an opener for the evening. Keith Manlove’s The Becoming Machine II for solo voice, electronics, and video involved a variety of vocalizations that sounded at times like dogs, insects, hyperventilation, and what a contact mic would pick up if it was in your mouth when your dentist asks you to “swish and rinse.” All this audio was run through a four-speaker system that surrounded the audience and was accompanied by a video presentation. Despite the unorthodox sound source and the distinct processing (which, in the hands of a lesser composer, might have been the piece, all bleeps and blorps with no structure) The Becoming Machine II was quite organic and made for a satisfying journey.

Nick Hennies performed Still and Moving Lines of Silence in Families of Hyperbolas by Alvin Lucier. Originally in three parts, this is one of those “pieces that can be played by any number of people at any time,” so on this night Hennies was solo on vibes, his only accompaniment a sine wave. The idea behind the piece is that the notes the performer plays (in this case, Hennies only played one pitch, repeated in several long phrases) should be ever so slightly out of tune with the sine wave such that one might hear the resulting combination of tones. I’m not sure how this is supposed to work with vibes, but I think the following describes how the piece was received:

Audience member #1) “I think they were just tryin’ to torture us with that!”
Audience member #2) “That was my favorite piece of the night!”

No gray areas on this one.

Members of Texas Choral Consort and Austin New Music Coop perform Paragraph Seven of Cornelius Cardew's The Great Learning. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Members of Texas Choral Consort and Austin New Music Coop perform Paragraph Seven of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. Photo by Meredith Maples.

The Viola In My Life was the first of two Feldman pieces of the weekend. Among his first post-indeterminacy era pieces, it was written with absolute control over all parameters in order to outline the gradual crescendo in the viola throughout the piece, which was well represented by violist James Alexander. After intermission, The Great Learning, Paragraph Seven by Cornelius Cardew was performed by Texas Choral Consort and members of the ANMC. Director Brent Baldwin led between 40 and 50 performers who, over the course of the 30+-minute movement, moved around the stage like flocking birds flying in slow-motion. The piece began with an “Om” that spread through the group like a benediction. “In confusion” gradually began to appear among the voices, the first of several short phrases and single words that marked the sections of the work. Among the striking elements of this performance is that TCC is made up of a number of performers who are non-professional community choristers. To watch them become fully invested in (and give a great performance of!) a long and involved 20th-century work was really thrilling.

*

The second night of performances began with Nick Hennies’s Second Skin With Lungs for five percussionists. Positioned around the audience, the percussionists described circles with their hands on the heads of toms and snares, recalling the sound of rain. This texture was occasionally punctuated by rolls of thunder on bass drums and echo figures played on the snares and toms.

The Owl built by Travis Weller

The Owl built by Travis Weller.

The reflective tone of this piece seemed to pick up from the end of the previous evening, and this continued with Travis Weller’s Toward and away from the point of balance. This piece featured the “Owl,” an instrument built by Weller to more easily perform a number of techniques developed on prepared piano. The piece began with a slow tremolo on the Owl (played with hand-held piano hammers) which developed into unison gestures with the violin, viola, and cello. The gestures gave way to a slow, pulsing rise and fall colored with harmonics and overtones. In addition to the hammers, Hennies also used a “loose” violin bow (essentially two handles with a few feet of hair between them) to manipulate the Owl, creating otherworldly textures with the playing of the other performers. Brent Farris’s I apologize, Julius, for judging you seemed in some ways to be a study in instrument resonance. Sounds like screaming whales (yes, whales, not wails) came from the amplified violin and contrabass and mixed with a constant electronic reverberation in the speakers at the rear of the room that slowly moved forward. A melody in the viola built to a climax, its rise hidden by the amplified strings which then abruptly fell into silence. Cymbal rolls and long tones served as a coda and masked a quiet return of the static rising through the texture before rolling to a halt.

Kinship Collapse, just before the string broke. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Kinship Collapse, just before the string broke. Photo by Meredith Maples.

Earle Brown’s December 1952 is among the most well known and earliest graphic scores. This performance featured thoughtful interplay among the performers, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have sounded like in 1952 with players who had no background in this type of music. The concert concluded with Arnold Dreyblatt’s Kinship Collapse, an ANMC commission from 2008. A definitive closer, Kinship Collapse features amplified violin, cello, and contrabass (the bass player actually had a second bass fitted with unwound piano string), as well as horn, drum set, and an “electric overtone guitar” with four strings and an unusual fretting system that accommodates Dreyblatt’s particular 20-tone just-intoned system. The piece started with rapid sixteenths traded between the violin and horn which were soon joined by similar figures on the cello and on the frame of the snare. The guitar entered speaking metal overtones as the percussion moved from frame to hi-hats, all leading to an early climax which sounded like a dinner bell joined by high register violin with the horn blowing loud and bullish in kind. Riffs and a strong backbeat took over, and while all musicians were chugging along, I noticed that the vamp seemed to be stretching out a bit longer than seemed right. Just then, Weller hopped up, walked backstage, and came back with a new string to replace the one he’d broken in the fray. How he changed the string so quickly, much less retuned with all that swirling around him I’ll never know, but I’ll tell you it took under a minute and they were back on track seamlessly, bringing the piece to a resounding close.

*

ANMC put on a great two-night retrospective. This report doesn’t cover all the nuances of intermission conversations (Lucier notwithstanding), the mini-museum of Luigi Russolo’s extinct instruments constructed by ANMC [1], or the wonderful reception afterward during which audience and performers casually interacted. For that you’ll have to come to one of their next shows and experience it for yourself. It’s shows like this that make it so wonderful to be a part of Austin and frankly, who wants to live in some backwater where the contrabassoonist has to rent his unicycle?


1. The ANMC intonarumori (roarers, cracklers, and gurglers) are totally different from the ones Berkeley-based Luciano Chessa built around 2009. In fact, ANMC’s first performance with them was on November 2005. It seems both projects developed 100% independently! The Austin project was the brainchild of NMC member Sarah Norris, pictured here playing a crackler.