Sunday, March 16, 2014

Bang-Up World Premieres

Shara Worden (center) and the BOAC All Stars
Whenever I hear world-premiere performances - which almost can't be often enough - my first hope is that something new and beautiful will be introduced to the world. My second hope is that there will be more performances of the work(s). In the case of Bang On A Can's recent performance at the Ecstatic Music Festival, which featured three new works from their People's Commissioning Fund, I will be very surprised if there isn't a clamor from other new music ensembles to get their hands on at least one or two of these pieces.

First up at Merkin Hall, however, was an older piece, Lick, composed by BOAC co-founder Julia Wolfe. Its punky energy, big block chords and squealing soprano sax warmed up both the audience and the Bang On A Can All Stars. Reed player Ken Thomson's feet barely touched the ground during the performance. When the applause died down, WNYC's John Schaefer introduced Alvin Lucier, whose piece Firewood was the first of the evening's new works, which were all based on the theme of field recordings. I'm not sure if Lucier has read David Rothenberg's wonderful Bug Music, but he is already living it: The composition was inspired by the trails of insects under the bark of a piece of word - a field recording of a very different kind!

The meandering trail of the bugs is represented in sound by the cello, guitar and bass sweeping up and down the scale while interacting with pulses and tones from the clarinet, piano and vibraphone. The effect is of a sustained tone, inexorable and intense, with rhythmic beats occurring when the harmonies vibrated together. Schaefer pointed out beforehand that the piece did not contain any of Lucier's signature electronics. Lucier responded that he only used them when necessary "and after 50 years of composing electronic music, that's still my attitude." In any case, those vibrations were a whole new kind of synthesis. At just over six minutes, Firewood induced a state of concentration that was almost palpable in both players and listeners alike.

"Richard Reed Parry," I said to my friend, "That sounds familiar." "He's a member of Arcade Fire." "Oh, right," I mumbled, preparing to rid my mind of all the negative associations I have with that band. I'm not a fan, but that's not something I wanted to hold against Parry, so I listened with open ears as the musicians began his entry, The Brief And Neverending Blur.

Speaking of ears, those of the All Stars were occupied by stethoscopes, which were pressed against their chests so they could sync their individual playing with their own heartbeats. This was a nice, if slight, bit of theater that the musicians seemed to embrace, although its effect on the performance was hard to gauge. In any case, Parry's piece was lovely and wistful, evoking the music of Satie and the absorbing melancholy of watching rain stream down a window. Appearing in the background were the wobbly sounds of a dictaphone recording of Parry's piano music, which was left in an unheated shed in Canada for the better part of a year. John Cage would have approved of both the element of chance and the witty approach to the "field recordings" theme. When it comes to Parry's extra-Arcadian exploits, I say "more please."

The last of the premieres was Holographic by Daniel Wohl, composer of last year's Corps Exquis, which was on many "best-of" lists including my own. Part of his gift is alchemical, combining instruments - both acoustic and electronic - to create new and wondrous sounds. For Holographic, he "processed and stacked" recordings of instruments and vocals, in order to create an aural double image when accompanying the live performance of the musicians. The end result is beguiling and seductive, like fantasies projected on smoke, but not insubstantial. There is real melodic invention and compositional development in Holographic and I'm sure it will reveal even more delights upon further listening. It also ended with a satisfying thump, signaling the completion of the first half of the concert.

After a brief intermission, we returned for a performance of David Lang's Death Speaks, in an expanded arrangement for soprano with a sextet instead of the original trio. Completed in 2012, the half hour piece takes as its text various lines from Schubert songs where death himself speaks to the audience or another character in the song. The other stream of inspiration Lang drew on was the intimacy of "indie pop" as performed in small spaces, the way Schubert lieder were once heard. As in the original performances (and the 2013 recording) the vocalist was Shara Worden, whose ubiquity at the intersection of contemporary classical and indie rock can hardly be overstated. She is much admired for her crystalline voice whether performing her own music under the name My Brightest Diamond or collaborating with a host of composers.

I admit finding Worden and her cult just a bit precious, but she sang with deep engagement, flawlessly unspooling Lang's tear-stained libretto as the band played hypnotic, unresolved arpeggios. While I would have liked a little more articulation in the words, Worden has clearly taken ownership of this piece. Lang's incorporation of the additional instruments was very well conceived, especially the way the percussion linked up to the piano. The sound world occupied by Death Speaks seems closer to John Dowland than Schubert, but since Dowland nearly invented the melancholy pop song that only seems fitting.

It had been a demanding night, so I welcomed the chance to revisit Death Speaks and the other fascinating music we heard on Q2 Music's stream of this remarkable concert. Let's hope these important new compositions find continued life in concert halls as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment