Do you dream? I do. My dreams are like bizarre television shows, and, unfortunately, I only sometimes remember to hit record. Some of the happiest, and most terrifying, moments of my life have been rudely interrupted by my morning alarm. Carla Kihlstedt’s composition At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire (2012) unabashedly ruminates on the complicated subject of dreams and dreaming. The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) gave the world premiere of Kihlstedt’s nine-part song cycle on January 26, 2013, at Merkin Concert Hall in the Kaufman Music Center as a part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, anchoring an epic and nearly flawless concert.
Whether they occur while awake, sleeping, or somewhere in between, the dreams in Kihlstedt’s composition entered the consciousness of every new music fan present in Merkin Hall, as well as through the radio, warmly hosted by John Schaefer on WNYC and internet streaming on Q2.com. But wait, this stellar premiere occurred after intermission. So, we’ll get to At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire soon. The entire first half of the concert provided more than enough ‘wow’ to go around, and the universe deserves to know it. I’m talking about the collaboration among everyone involved — ICE, Kihlstedt’s trio Causing a Tiger, and Face The Music, the new music ensemble for highly talented New York teenagers supported by the Kaufman Music Center.
ICE not only commissioned At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire (through its collaborative ICElab program), but also brought Causing a Tiger (featuring Kihlstedt, Shazad Ismaily on baritone guitar and electronics, and Matthias Bossi on percussion) and Face The Music together for the first piece of the night. What was that first piece, you ask? Why, George Lewis’s Artificial Life 2007, in which all ensembles, but most prominently, the middle and high schoolers of Face The Music, created a sound envelope, sealed all of us listeners in it, and sent us posthaste to Dreamland.
Musicians standing in every corner of Merkin Hall alternated coos, squawks, rapid staccato runs, and everything in between. The degree to which this superensemble dueled with each other (following Lewis’s instructions, of course) was only matched by the degree to which they clicked.
Causing a Tiger took the stage straight after the Lewis piece, huddling close together for pure improvisation and collaboration. I would have recommended everyone close their eyes, but I couldn’t find the will to interrupt my own experience to cry out — whether using Twitter or my vocal cords. Speaking of which, Kihlstedt expertly used spoken poetry, glottal stops, and even slurping noises to convey inconceivable (and yet strikingly clear) meaning.
At intermission, in which audience members clamored for the bathroom and the bar, this reviewer overheard bits of conversation: “Wow!” “What was that?” “That was amazing” and “I’ve never heard anything like that before… and that’s a shame.” But, like the old song says, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” — and believe me, dear reader, we hadn’t.
Total immersion in the foreign-yet-familiar territory of Dreamland truly came during the world premiere of Kihlstedt’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire. Kihlstedt stood in the center of her ICE colleagues, beginning her song cycle with “Actual Boy,” a beautiful introduction to a series of dream worlds explored by each of the piece’s nine parts. The composer, who also played violin and sang, skillfully jousted with or against (depending on the movement, sometimes even the moment) her other ensemble-mates. The second two movements – “One Story Motel” and “Rocks and Concrete” blended so well with the first and each other, they left the room in a kind of trance.
That trance broke somewhat, however, during the fourth movement, “The Surrender,” wherein Kihlstedt’s words begged to come off as playful and light, but didn’t mesh as well with the dark music surrounding them. As a result, this movement suffered from a palpable sense of the wrong kind of tension. The group recovered, however, in almost no time, forging ahead with the delights of a music box and a continual retuning of guitar and mandolin as they played.
Above all, the concert challenged listeners to consider the importance of sound in dreams. Sure, it’d be great to lucidly dream and use it to fly, but think about this: if you can dream lucidly, you can design the sound world of your consciousness while you do it — without limit. Yours truly hasn’t done that yet. But I did get a taste of it on January 26, 2013, in Merkin Hall.
Which is really the bottom line of the success of this concert. This superensemble proved two things: 1) New Music is out there; and 2) It hasn’t gone far enough. Yet.