Red Light New Music, a composer collective and new music ensemble now in its seventh season, presented Music in Layers on May 21 at Symphony Space in New York City. The performance included pieces by six composers, interwoven by ambient soundscapes and interludes designed by Christopher Cerrone and Adrian Knight. The concert highlighted new arrangements of works by Cerrone and Knight, as well as additional local composers Vincent Raikhel, Liam Robinson and Scott Wollschleger, plus one piece from John Cage. Cerrone and Knight based the electronic interludes on field recordings collected from New York City; Harriman State Park; Stockholm, Sweden; and Miami, Florida. These electronic interludes were meant to create a seamless listening experience, connecting one piece to the next, as well as encouraging the audience to appreciate the musicality of everyday existence.
The concert began outside at dusk. Or so it seemed when the lights went down and the sound of crickets began to build and envelop the room. The lights rose to uncover pianist Yegor Shevtsov leaning within the piano and beginning to pluck the strings of the first piece, Harriman by Cerrone. This piece was followed by special guest vocalist soprano Mellissa Hughes who stood to repeatedly call in the dawn joined by the accompaniment of Erin Wight on viola and John Popham on cello, introducing what would become the leading connective tissue of the performance, Sketches at Dawn by Liam Robinson. Hughes repeated cry for daybreak felt at once like a mournful prayer and a call to action. Robinson’s lovely composition, interlaced throughout the concert in six movements, included a coda at the end with the entire ensemble that incorporated compositional elements from the other pieces in Music in Layers. Sketches at Dawn slowly revealed throughout the concert an original poem by Robinson, reprinted in full below.
The air across the lake
Eases into lightness
The water between my palms
As if the sky drips black
Into my tea cup
Many of the compositions in Music in Layers included layered resonances, subtle harmonies, and discordant accents that did not allow an unquestioning relationship with nostalgia or familiarity. The strength of the ensemble was clear in several of the more challenging and innovative pieces such as the lively performance of Vincent Raikhel’s Espejos / Refracted Epilogue by clarinetist Christa Van Alstine and percussionist Kevin Sims. Highlights of the performance outside of Robinson’s connective Sketches at Dawn included Cerrone’s Hoyt-Schermerhorn, a solo piano piece written for and dedicated to Shevtsov, his long-time collaborator in Red Light New Music. Hoyt-Schermerhorn was written as “a tribute to the New York nightscape” and an ode to the MTA subway station in Brooklyn near where Cerrone lives. The piece explored the composers complex emotions inspired by life in the city and was expertly played and embodied by Shevtsov. Another highlight was the spirited and humorous performance by Christa Van Alstine of John Cage’s spoken elements of The Ten Thousand Things that called for speaker, viola, piano and percussion. Uncustomary for most classical performance, this piece involved violist Erin Wight kicking plastic bags tied around her music stand as percussion and Alstine brushing her hair, coughing, stomping, pulling her ear and yelling her spoken, at times humorous and at times spellbinding, improvisations.
A clearly adept, cutting-edge and vital ensemble, Red Light New Music provided an evening replete with profound beauty, laughable absurdity and uneasy reflections on sonority in all its forms. At times the sound design and layering functioned, creating a liminal and expansive space between one piece and the next, and between personal memories and associations. At other times it was so undetectable that it appeared entirely absent or abrupt. Robinson’s Sketches at Dawn was the essential feature that provided a sense of continuity and connection where at time the ambient interludes did not. Overall the performance succeeded in creating a unifying structure of overlays, soft limits, poetry and/in sound, and both the gravity and whimsy of performance. The program notes began with a quote from John Cage: “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” During Scott Wollschleger’s piece In Search of Lost Color (I-III) I was overcome with the music, the quality of light, and the beauty of Wight’s right hand, resting against her knee. As a visual artist I couldn’t help but walk away with the question: which is more musical, a pianist’s hand hovering above the lower keys before this timbre is introduced into the room, or a violist’s fingers resting in soft yellow light against her knee?
Adrianne Koteen is a New York City based artist and educator. Follow her on twitter @akoteen.