Walking through Brooklyn’s Cloud City art space on May 17, 2015, you passed a vintage sink full of dirty dishes before greeting a circle of couches and hard-backed wooden chairs. Rugs splayed atop the forest green concrete. A red velvet curtain fell ceiling to floor, thickly separating the rest of the warehouse from the performance space where new ensemble Exceptet presented their premiere concert. Exceptet is a collaboration of seven Bang on a Can and Contemporaneous musicians inspired by the instrumentation of Stravinsky’s 1918 L’Histoire du Soldat. When he wrote the compact drama, Stravinsky was a poor twenty-something cut off from his primary income by war and a lean artistic economy; his economic and eclectic instrumentation still allowed for full dramatic characterization, and Exceptet’s vast emotional range and onomatopoetic charm brought this history to life.
Sarah Goldfeather founded Exceptet after discovering how little music had been written for Stravinsky’s wry septet, and she issued a challenge to today’s emerging composers for new repertoire. The grouping of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, and percussion lends itself to humor, and happily neither the musicians nor the program smelt of pretense. Instead, Exceptet seemed to enjoy celebrating each featured composer as much as they enjoyed making music together. Besides Fjóla Evans, every composer on the program attended the concert and gave a live preface to their work instead of printed program notes.
Paul Kerekes’ “Figment” set the program’s tone with a “clunky but fun” exposé of Stravinsky’s silliness, in which Chuck Furlong took the clarinet on erratic runs through its registers and Evan Honse on muted trumpet yelped like a southbound goose. “Fray” from Fjóla Evans uncurled single-tone string lines as warnings: the piece ballooned into a true aural fray, and the seven instrumentalists blew, struck, and bowed ferociously at the work’s midpoint. Before fraying into silence, Daniel Linden’s round trombone tones drooped downward in mournful spurts and the warm legato tones of Sarah Goldfeather’s violin offered quiet empathy. In Eric Shanfield’s two-part miniature “Septet”, the two non sequitur titles were their own private joke. “My Eyes, the Goggles Do Nothing!” and “Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse” did nothing to explain the work and everything to give it good humor. The first movement used Mark Utley’s percussion to trigger brief, burbled rejoinders from the other six players like clockwork. The second movement showcased Stravinsky’s original dramatic purpose as the trombone cawed in frustration and Patrick Swoboda sharply bowed the double bass. “Lag” by Brooks Frederickson did anything but its title verb as the piece spiraled upward through two modulations. The musicians struggled to keep pace and stay together on this one: their sharp and constant breath cues became another contribution to the piece.
During a stage change, Chris Cerrone explained that his piece “Recovering” was previously composed as an attempt to appreciate L’Histoire du Soldat – which he dislikes. The bassoonist and trumpeter set up shop in the audience, standing across from the clarinet and trombone as four corners of a square. David Nagy started the piece by blowing unpitched air through the bassoon. He passed the unpitched solo to the trumpet, who handed it over to the trombone and finally the clarinet; a tangible pastoral breeze filled the room. Eventually the sound was pitched, and the nimble vibraphone and strings joined in. The piece was clear like a prism and refreshingly romantic. The bassoonist played in the audience to himself, almost forgotten (indeed, he seemed somewhat overlooked in each miniature). After a moment of silence, the group moved back to their original staging and the square space reverberated with Brian Petuch‘s “Protosaurus”. Exceptet built the piece’s simple components into their biggest sound of the night and finished the program with a good-natured, lumbering romp.
As enjoyable as the miniatures were, the highlight of the evening was the genial warmth with which every musician personified their instrument. The audience could really hear each one, both within the ensemble and in solo features. The short program and small plates menu – a smattering of yelps, yowls, and splatters – was refreshing, and it was easy to imagine the musicians in another practice room, discovering a shared love of Stravinsky, and getting their composer friends in on the idea. There’s no background music in this rendition of L’Histoire: the instruments themselves are the featured characters, and they’re telling a story of imagination and charm.