The Summergarden is a truly special place. It is the de facto backyard, if you will, of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It draws on elements of the city, such as concrete pathways and its own café, but it also draws on the serene, with its lush beech trees, a pond, a bridge, and ample greenery. Punctuating this layout are a variety of thought-provoking sculptures. Sparrows chirp from the trees, but you can still easily hear street traffic.
This is where several hundred people gathered to hear the New Juilliard Ensemble play on July 8. From my survey of the crowd, this diverse bunch was actually immersed in the concert. To the point, I can only count on the fingers of one hand the number of cell-phone checks while the music was playing—and that speaks volumes. All four pieces had their New York premiere, and all four used the complete chamber ensemble to its full capacity; these composers have an excellent command of texture, and it shows in their works. Joel Sachs led the New Juilliard Ensemble with his baton, and all performers were in fine form.
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On January 17th, Claire Chase celebrated the arrival of her new CD, Terrestre (earthly in French, Ed.). The setting was Le Poisson Rouge, and the ambience was set smoothly before a single note was played, as the room was lit primarily by swaths of cool blue lights and warm red ones, in a jagged pattern. The house was packed, and the crowd was eclectic, as twenty-somethings, hipsters, and the baby-boomers were all well represented.
Starting the evening off was Glacier, a minimalist piece written by Dai Fujikura for solo bass flute. The bass flute is not often seen or heard, and after seeing and hearing Chase play it, one wonders where this magnificent instrument has been hiding. The piece opened mysteriously on an open fifth, and proceeded like a soliloquy with great expressive range. While the timbre began gently, warm, and with an airy vocal quality, even approaching a plainchant, there was soon much more vigor, with multiphonics, trills, warbling sounds, even honking and blasting at times. The music was divided nicely by carefully measured periods of silence. It ended on a repeating descending tritone, fading away.
Claire Chase - Photograph by Stephanie Berger
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There are many elements of music which we take for granted, especially in traditional Western music, which Hubert Howe does not. These include the even-tempered scale and the concept of standard harmonics. Even the (relative) consistency of instrumental timbre, which is common to almost all music around the world, is eschewed by Mr. Howe in favor of his computer-generated sounds.
This album is part of an ongoing experiment in the outer limits of what can be done with music, walking the line between music and chaos. In Howe’s music, the line is frequently crossed. He created this album entirely using the CSound program (authored by Barry Vercoe). The user of this program can design artificial instruments, as well as override conventional acoustical physics, by selecting the partial overtones created by the notes played.
All of these intricate devices combine to create an alien atmosphere of sound. The first piece, Clusters, opens quietly, with what sounds like an organ, then throwing in harp-like glissandi, as the motion moves perpetually upward. There are some traditional devices used, such as the control of consonance and dissonance, and a prolonged call-and-response section. It all builds to an abrupt end.
The second track, Inharmonic Fantasy No. 2, sounds quite similar to the first, but it appears to be a study of vibrato, ranging from flat tones to heavy vibrato. Sometimes you think you can hear bells, and there are some interesting moments with a shimmering quality, but many of the sounds produced are cacophonic and difficult to listen to.
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The Extended Play Marathon concert on October 16th at Columbia’s Miller Theatre was just that, a marathon. The lineup was very diverse, ranging from string ensembles to wind ensembles, from solo piano to brass ensembles, and from an a cappella choir to a painting robot with percussion. While there was so much to choose from, I will only comment on a few key works.
Hector Parra’s String Trio was one of the evening’s standout pieces. From the very beginning, the rhythmic spacing of the trio and the use of both extremes of register and extended string techniques painted a bizarre and foreign sonic landscape. The Talea ensemble, who took this work on, did a fantastic job with the devilish techniques, including glissandi, scratching and clawing at the instruments. And to further fill out the landscape, Parra included a soundtrack including bass drums and chimes sounding off in the distance. At times he seemed to borrow from the spirit of Gyorgy Ligeti. During the final minute, the use of more traditional bowing techniques sounded fresh and vibrant, and gave a sense of peace. Overall, the piece was cohesive and brilliantly written.
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