On Saturday, December 9, 2017, New York City’s tastiest contemporary music series, Kettle Corn New Music, kicked off its sixth season with an intimate sequence of works for string quartet helmed by the exceedingly talented and equally busy Argus Quartet. Presented at the base of large, amphitheater-like steps just inside the New York Public Library’s 53rd Street branch, swirling snow visible through the modern, angular façade above and encircling the nighttime glow of the MoMA as it slumbered across the street, the evening’s program consisted of three increasingly substantial works including the New York premiere of Loren Loiacono‘s Waxing Cerulean, Kaija Saariaho‘s Cloud Trio, and culminating in the world premiere of Tender Buttons (completed in 2016) by Los Angeles based composer Jordan Nelson and featuring special guest, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon.
After picking up a bag of complimentary kettle corn and a soft drink at the door (beer typically comes to mind in association with past KCNM events, perhaps deemed inappropriate in this instance within the library’s walls), the concert rambled gently to a late start in order to give the last courageous devotees a chance to emerge from the blustery, snowy evening. The modest delay in no way detracted from the event, which was imbued by a cozy and welcoming atmosphere bolstered by yummy snacks and the casual charm of sitting on circular, felt pads in the absence of chairs or seats.
In a brief pre-performance commentary, the program’s first composer, Loren Loiacono (who in her alter-ego serves as KCNM’s Development Director) remarked that her work Waxing Cerulean was born out of the cellular repetition often experienced while practicing challenging repertoire, during which a performer will rehearse a short passage (or cell) of material ad nauseum in pursuit of technical excellence or a more meaningful breakthrough that may be difficult to articulate or describe. As Loiacono explained, being a composer tends to cause these cells to evolve on an unchecked creative plane where something small and seemingly innocuous “begins to suggest something new, unto itself.”
Indeed, her lucidly precise and articulate comments were clearly illustrated in the exposition of her beautiful work, which took shape as concentrated bursts of luscious harmonic material were distributed across thoughtful breadths of silence before they gradually converged, perpetually suggesting something new while the basic elements persisted. Loiacono’s piece neatly exhibited the characteristics of toying with an idea, or perhaps more accurately attempting to recall a familiar memory, which manifested as a kind of synthesis of the essence of the unrealized memory and something new, informed by the present moment. In summary, Loiacono writes with a strong and straightforward voice that consistently juxtaposes uniquely lyrical passages against an effervescent, textural sensibility that effectively pulls drama out of pause and subtle quiet.
In support of this excellent piece, the youthful Argus Quartet made no compromises in delivering a stunning and thoughtful performance. The gravity generated by the confident presence of the group was absolute and engaging, and seemed effortlessly to connect a very attentive audience both with their own unique individuality as an ensemble and the wonderful music they commanded.
Following Loiacono’s strong contribution, the Argus trimmed down to a trio in order to bring eminent Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s Cloud Trio to life. Commissioned in 2009 by Båstad Kammarmusikfestival’s artistic director Karin Dornbusch, Saariaho’s brooding composition expressed a similar character to that of the Loiacono in its invocation of a dreamlike state or the suggestion of a perpetually fleeting memory. Assembled of broader strokes and harder lines, in comparison to Loiacono’s expressive playfulness, Cloud Trio felt somewhat less compelling with an uncompromisingly monochromatic sense of drama and a vocabulary that felt more obvious than individual. Despite the trio’s expert performance, the work bridged the two distinct shores of the program with the static flavor of an interlude.
The final work of the evening, Jordan Nelson’s Tender Buttons, restored the full quartet and invited special guest, soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon to the stage. Nelson’s piece is a significant song cycle that animates the linguistic experimentation of Gertrude Stein’s seminal 1914 work of the same name. Stein’s work was written to explore the rhythmic and sonic qualities in language used to describe every day objects, and through alternative grammatical structures, deconstruct the relationship between the description of the object and the object itself. What emerges are new characteristics that somehow transform the familiar into the unfamiliar and vice versa.
Nelson’s ambitious work takes this cue and elaborates upon Stein’s theme by shepherding the evolution of sounds and rhythms in speech and prose into organized musical ideas. Spread over eleven movements broken up by three interludes, Nelson’s Tender Buttons tells a story through sonority and texture that comes across in performance as a holistic extension of Stein’s technique. Presenting its world premiere, Argus performed masterfully with elegant poise and in seamless symbiosis with Fitz Gibbon’s charming presence and impressive instrument. Most compelling over all were the three interludes that pulled the players of the quartet into an expressive execution of spoken word alongside Fitz Gibbon, reciting the text of Stein’s “Chicken” over various rhythmic and sonorous transformations. Over all, Nelson’s work was quite successful, though there were times during which it felt almost too precise in its executions; moments that might have benefitted from a more mysterious or ambiguously open-ended edge akin to the intentionally confounding nature of Stein’s texts.
In testament to the Argus Quartet’s insightful scholarship, themes of transformation and of courting the distantly familiar drew a beautiful golden thread through the whole of the program. Combined with Kettle Corn New Music’s approach toward establishing an atmosphere that is both entertaining and thought-provoking (and the cozy, scholastic ambiance of the New York Public Library as a temporary refuge from the early December snow), Saturday’s concert set an exciting pace for what is yet to come from a series that has well established itself as a mainstay in New York’s contemporary music scene.