Friday, May 04, 2018

MATA's Bad Romance At The Kitchen

This year saw the 20th Anniversary of the MATA Festival, which puts on new music concerts around the city for three weeks every spring. Founded by Philip Glass, Eleanor Sandresky and Lisa Bielawa, Music At The Anthology seeks to promote the work of unaffiliated composers, presenting a highly curated selection drawn from hundreds of entires. Time and circumstance have prevented me from ever attending even one of their shows, although I jealously kept up with reviews and press releases. This year, those same factors made it possible for me to attend one of the concerts at The Kitchen, which had the attention-grabbing name Bad Romance.

It was also my first time at the current location of The  Kitchen, a legendary performance art space last incarnated in SoHo. One of my favorite memories of the astonishing rise of the Beastie Boys was when they played a set there as a hardcore band. Because we were young and snotty, we saw it as a moment of epater le bourgeoisie and we laughed about it for a long time. There was nothing funny about seeing Steve Reich’s Different Trains there, however, although it was equally unforgettable. The new space, a large black box with extremely high ceilings, is certainly flexible enough to put on any show along the continuum mapped by those two concerts. It was also perfect for this MATA concert as several of the pieces we saw had strong theatrical elements.

Piano Six Hands

The first was Aaron Graham’s Old Voltage for piano six hands, which had Miki Sawada and Paul Kerekes on the outside of the bench hammering away like a Conlon Nancarrow piece for player piano while Isabelle O’Connell, sitting in the middle, played lyrical, almost romantic, melodies infused with tango rhythms while delivering a spoken word monologue about "hallucinations, crowds, dances, memories and lovers." The contrast between O'Connell's part and the others was increased by the way Graham has prepared the piano to dull the sound of the upper and lower registers. Beyond the curiosity value, there was power and beauty to spare in the music, which was composed in 2015 and made its American premiere at MATA. 

Jenny Hettne‘s While She Was Dreaming for violin and and tape was also an American premiere. Performed with dazzling confidence by Pauline Kim Harris, its combination of glitchy sonics with a violin part that ranged from dense bursts to folkish simplicity added up to a work I would like to hear again - stat. Hopefully this performance will lead to more of this Swedish composer's work being heard in the city, as it seems to be a fairly rare occurrence. 
Garapic, Rogers & Evans Playing Light-On-Light
Saxophonist Erin Rogers led the performance of her own Light-On-Light, which was a world premiere and commissioned by MATA. It was full of humor and ideas, including the use of saxophones and other items as percussion instruments, gamely played by Matthew Evans and Amy Garapic. Perhaps she was partly inspired by David Van Tieghem, who used his drumsticks to convert literally everything into an instrument. Her own part was full of clicks and breaths, prompting me to ask my friend if he thought anyone else could perform it. He wisely responded that it would depend entirely on the notation, which is true for any set of extended techniques. Either way, it was a wild ride. Rogers's work for guitar and soprano, The Lone Tenement, will be performed twice in New York this month. Make a plan.

Two Pianists Below, Many Samurai Above
The visual element in Chris Perren’s Samurai Loops, conceived as it was for video and two pianos, was among the strongest of the night. The projection took a scene of two friends in mortal combat from Masaki Kobayashi’s 1967 film Samurai Rebellion, at first looping the movements of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai so they began to resemble dancers instead of warriors. Just as I was settling into that concept, the images exploded into repeating patterns, with dozens of samurai now moving in concert on the screen. Even more dazzling was the rhythmic acuity, as the music matched each clash of the swords. Not so easy, as O'Connell confirmed after the show. While she and Sawada were able to use the electronic sounds to help them stay on track, they couldn't really see the screen while they performed. The music, while adjacent to minimalism, could also be lushly melancholic, with sweeping melodies that interacted well with the macho romance of the imagery. Perren, from Australia, also performs with Nonsemble and Mr. Maps, among other things. Watch Samurai Loops and then explore his world if you're as captivated as I am.

Charlotte Mundy In Basic Black
The second half of the night began with Steven Whiteley’s [      ] [    ] [  ] [ ] [] (yes, that’s the title!) for soprano and electronics. The piece convincingly explored the relationship of syllables and words to gestures and to the sonic environment. Some of the repetitive, quotidian phrases ("Darling you're so...") made me think of Scott Johnson's work using language. It may sound cerebral in a description but this was gripping stuff with a stunning performance by Charlotte Mundy, who embodied her demanding role completely, including some haunting (and virtuoso) laughter. I was already a fan of hers thanks to her great work on Ecstatic Music, the 2016 album by TAK Ensemble so I am glad I had the opportunity to see her on stage. Her website is sorely out of date, but if you follow Ekmeles, the vocal ensemble to which she belongs (or TAK), you're sure to be able to catch her. 

El-Ansary (left) Acknowledges The Applause
The penultimate work was by Bahaa El-Ansary, a young Egyptian composer who has been causing a stir in new music circles. This is not only due to the fact that there are fewer known composers from that region, but also because of the sheer emotional power and command of structure displayed by his work. Nightmare for guitar, violin and viola was a perfect example, with the trio’s forces marshaled with great economy and style. Dan Lippel’s acoustic guitar virtuosity deserves special mention, while Harris on violin and Carrie Frey on viola certainly had no trouble keeping up. As far as I can tell this was the first performance in New York, and only the second in the US, of any work by Al-Ansary. Programmers should explore his website, which is full of striking music, such as Lost, composed for harp and 30 cellos. That's not a combination you see - or hear every day!

Ken Ueno’s ‘Tard, another MATA commission, was wisely placed last on the program. Like Hendrix at Monterey, no one would have wanted to follow it. For this world premiere performance, Ueno was joined by the outgoing Artistic Director of MATA, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, on vocals, along with Evans and Garapic on percussion. Each of them had an enormous bass drum, which were visual statements in their own right. Ueno and Du were both wearing whimsical garments (pants on the former and a shirt for the latter) made of multicolored puff balls, which were the only hints of levity in this bleak and searing piece. Unless, that is, unless you count the listing on Ueno's website, which credits him as "non-breather" and Du as "screamer." Those descriptions became clear shortly after Ueno took his place at a table set with a glass bowl filled with water and a small towel.

As soon as Evans and Garapic began wailing on their massive drums, creating an equally massive sound, Ueno bent at his waist and put his face in the bowl of water. He remained there for at least two minutes as Yun vocalized in composed agony. She and the drummers continued when Ueno pulled out of the water and stood silently glaring at the audience with what seemed to be barely controlled fury. The only let up in intensity was when Evans and Garapic switched from the drums to striking metal water bottles together, creating a sound not unlike the cloud chamber bowls David Byrne used in parts of his score for the Catherine Wheel. According to the program notes, presented as an email exchange between Ueno and MATA Executive Director Todd Tarantino, the original conception included contact mics on the bowl and a camera under it so the composer’s submerged face could be projected. Intriguing thoughts (“Hmmm” was Tarantino’s entire response) but it’s hard to imagine those bells and whistles making the work substantially more effective. 
Ueno Glaring, Du Screaming
As seen at The Kitchen, ‘Tard is a brilliantly enigmatic piece that asked more questions than it answered. That title, for one. Was it short for the repulsive neologism “libtard”? Or the scarcely less awful “retard”? Nothing good, that seems certain. And was the rage directed at us? Or a reflection of our own anger? Or just good theater? This was par for the course for an evening filled with works that seemed to explore the firewall where intellect and instinct collide. Kudos to MATA for bringing this important music to light. I can only imagine what I missed over the rest of the festival, not to mention the last 20 years!

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