On May 25, 2017, the stage at National Sawdust played home to a collection of talented and politically-motivated musicians, described as “comely young women” in a concert preview. The all-female ensemble was to perform a program of four back-to-back electroacoustic premieres by Olga Bell, Isaac Schankler, David Bird, and Gabrielle Herbst, yet it was their fashion choices that was apparently most notable, setting up gendered expectations before they even played a note. Despite this, the venue was full to the brim on a rainy Thursday evening in Brooklyn. Those gathered would hear the Nouveau Classical Project (flutist Laura Cocks, clarinetists Isabel Kim and Mara Mayer, violinist Kate Dreyfuss, cellist Thea Mesirow, and pianist/artistic director Sugar Vendil) perform against a backdrop of video projections by VJ Mamiko Kushida. The performers looked excellent in their geometric black-and-white outfits, matching the jagged black-and-white walls of the performance space. These elegant visuals were matched by expert technique, impassioned playing, and a palpable rapport with one another—all of which strike me as just as significant as their physical appearances.
“Ezra is a fuck-up; he’s gonna be a music teacher!” were some of the words echoing against our ears during Olga Bell’s Zero Initiative (2017). Bell incorporated “field recordings” from a rehearsal into her work, musicalizing and distorting the scathing spoken commentary sprinkled throughout. The piece began as the words “zero initiative” were repeated over and over, eventually echoed by musical lines as the semantic content crumbled into nonsense and the raw sonic perception of tones and frequencies. The looped voice brought to mind Reich’s classic Come Out as the musical lines jolted their way into motoric minimalist patterns. The somewhat bland acoustic lines felt familiar enough, but the words of the field recordings—familiar in an entirely different way—contributed an unexpected and humorous layer. Visuals of pointing fingers and flowers spiraled their way into view on the screen behind the musicians; these visual echoes of sonic repetitions were pleasant enough but did not feel integral to the performance.
Isaac Schankler’s Artifacts (2017) crackled against our ears in a delightful juxtaposition of harsh, scraping electronic sounds and a sequence of consonant acoustic lines. These sonic shards and repetitions lurched their way into a post-minimalist soundscape of delicate flute and piano patterns over a sustained bass clarinet note. Eventually, the sounds of the “present” collided with the sounds of the “past” as harpsichord notes began twanging along with the bouncing chord patterns of the live instrumentalists. Schankler’s conflation of the old with the new, as well as minuscule change with vast range, came together in a wry musical commentary on time and technology. David Bird’s Cy Twombly-inspired Cy (2017), although texturally fascinating, felt slightly more disjointed. An introductory low rumble was interrupted by instrumentalists making ragged percussive sounds into their mouthpieces. The piece wound its way through a series of foreboding sections peppered with eerie wisps of sound, before eventually dissolving into silence.
Rounding out their program with Gabrielle Herbst’s Where is my voice (2017), the ensemble saved the best for last. Herbst’s meditation on the female voice began with pulsing and phasing recorded voices ricocheting off the black and white walls, clattering into each other and dwindling into breaths that were looped into repetitions and patterns of inhalation and exhalation. As Herbst executed this symphony of sighs on her laptop, Vendil stroked out a series of notes inside the piano next to her. A Glass-like progression of repeated notes was interrupted by a high-pitched shriek as the kaleidoscope of color bursts intensified on the video projection overhead. The churning repeated melodies continued and were punctuated by intense flute passagework, cascades of recorded voices filtering through, Mayer’s hands clapping and her voice groaning into her bass clarinet. Lines between past and present, as well as human and technology, were blurred as the musicians began breathing in patterns reminiscent of the opening electronics.
In the final passage, a recorded female voice sang out a sequence of “oohs” as the performers joined hands and exhaled in time with each other. Although the venue was not cold, a chill crept up my arms at this unabashed display of sonic beauty and female solidarity. It is moments like this—and not the youth or physical appearance of the ensemble members—for which NCP should be noted and applauded. The ensemble’s tactics, which Vendil described in an I CARE IF YOU LISTEN interview as “unabashedly female,” might seem unusual or gimmicky in a field dominated by white cis hetero “combrosers.” And, sure, most other new music ensembles rarely coordinate their outfits with the walls of the venue in which they perform. But when it comes down to it, these bold tactics are a much-needed breath of fresh air in the new music world, and will make it possible for more and more women—like Herbst and Bell—to find their voices.