Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Glints In The Darkness: Mario Diaz de Leon

Embedded among the halal joints, Islamic libraries, thrift shops, and even a few hip restaurants on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, is Roulette, the latest iteration of a venerable space for avant garde music and performance. They've been in this spot since 2011 and the location was chosen wisely, as they are within sight of the Barclay's center and just a few blocks from BAM and other exemplars of cultural ferment in downtown Brooklyn.

This past Tuesday saw the former YMCA (circa 1928) devoted to a showcase of works by Mario Diaz de Leon, yet another exciting young composer launched from Columbia University's orbit. Diaz de Leon's instrument is the guitar and he has wielded his axe in the realms of progressive metal for the last few years, while also releasing albums of chamber music on John Zorn's Tzadik label. On the basis of this impressive concert, he is growing into an assured manipulator and assembler of a panoply of sounds and instruments.

Claire Chase, the flautist who made waves with her performance of Edgard Varese's seminal Density 21.5 on a platinum flute, opened the show with Luciform (2013) for solo flute and electronics. Dressed in a to-the-minute ensemble in shades of black, she launched into the complex opening sequences with a fury, dispatching the extended techniques with aplomb. Gradually, a cloud of synthetic sound began to engulf the amplified flute and just when that seemed to be the composer's modis operandi for the piece, Chase launched into a devastatingly knotty run that was matched note for note by the recorded sound in a texture like shattered glass rods. 

It was a thrilling moment, two wary collaborators finding common ground in a smoking crater of their own design. Between woman and machine, I'm not sure whose job it was to keep up with who, but it was executed flawlessly - and repeatedly throughout the 13 minute work, interspersed with more spacious periods of exploratory music. This is sure to become a signature work for Chase and it is included on Density, her just-released third album, along with the Varese and compositions for flute(s) by Glass, Reich, Alvin Lucier, and Marcos Balter. Needless to say, I bought it on the way out. Chase, also the founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), is seeming a more crucial element in NYC's musical firmament all the time. The spirit of Roulette was exemplified by the way she took her bows, packed up her flute and took a seat among the audience.

Next up was Tilt Brass performing Bellum, composed for their 10th anniversary festival held earlier this year. The seven players formed a semi-circle around the conductor and began sonorous blasts, assembling dense chords anchored by the tuba's rumble. In this piece, rather than working together, the electronics and instruments alternate sections, with three movements for the brass and two for the synthetics. At the end of the first brass section, the lights went down - all the way down - and we listened to the sounds in darkness, with the brass barely glinting on the stage. There was a touch of theater to it, but it also made perfect sense as there really is nothing to see during those moments.

The lights came up and the brass returned. The second movement held more chords, but also melodic strings of notes from either the pair of trumpets, the pair of horns or the trombone and bass trombone. There was some difficult writing here, whether in the duration of notes or the sequences, but like Luciform, it never dissolved into a virtuoso exercise. The lights went off again and we were treated splintered soundtrack that was quite loud, but very beautiful. Bellum was finished by the brass, limned by the echoes (in my mind, at least) of the explosive blocks of electronic sounds.

After a brief intermission, the three string players of Talea Ensemble took the stage for Trembling Time II, completed in 2009 and Diaz de Leon's earliest composition on the program. In this case, all the distorted and highly dramatic sounds are produced by the string instruments themselves. Deep, long notes from the viola or cello were accompanied by skirling runs from the violin, often ending in an abrupt pluck. From a melodic standpoint it was reminiscent of Eastern European liturgical music, with an atmosphere of mystery and ritual. It is arresting music and, of the works we heard at least, the most direct translation of Diaz de Leon's more rock-based work to the realm of the concert hall. One could easily hear three distorted guitars navigating its craggy, dark terrain but having traditional instruments play it was in no way a stunt.

The capstone of the program was the world premiere of The Chapel Abyss, performed by the full cohort of Talea, with Diaz de Leon himself on guitar. At around 23 minutes, this was the longest piece and featured some complex ensemble writing interspersed with glassy solo keyboard segments. There was a searching atmosphere, as if the group were seeking new territory, sometimes working together and sometimes at cross-purposes. 

While this, too, was a dark-hued piece, the chimes - withheld until the end - shot it through with hopeful light, just like those glints on the brass during the blackness of Bellum. All of the instrumental work was outstanding, without any sense of tentativeness. One quality that makes Talea so impressive is the sense of alertness all the musicians demonstrate - to the score, to each other and to the production of their individual sounds. As a listener, this has the effect of keeping me on the edge of my seat and listening to every nuance. The Chapel Abyss rewarded my attention and I look forward to hearing it again, along with the other pieces performed at Roulette and more music from Diaz de Leon. 

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