Michigan did New York a solid. The U-M School of Music, Theatre, & Dance sent distinct compositional personalities and a vibrant reed quintet to remind Brooklyn that things are happening elsewhere. And National Sawdust is paying attention–on August 23rd, 2018, they hosted an evening of collaboration and mentorship on target with their mission of giving space, resources, and a supportive crowd to artists who are in the early stages of building a career. The “Go Blue: Wolverine New Music” program specially featured composers Gala Flagello, Daniel Zlatkin, and Nina Shekhar, including a piece for Vanguard Reed Quintet by Douglas Hertz.
Flagello’s expert use of both meaning and sonic matter was apparent from the first phrase of Anonymous Woman. By the end of the work, she transforms “anonymous” into a word with dimension and identity. A glissando wipes out the end of “anonymous” in a double entendre. The word “woman” is tossed between voice parts like a rag doll, and men sing the first full sentence, but Flagello builds the title adjective into a choral theme that demands equality between voice parts and a memorable hook. Her Self-Talk, the first of four pieces performed by the University of Michigan’s Vanguard Reed Quintet, deploys the same nuance. Flagello’s music is both flesh and spirit, intensely psychological without sacrificing concrete musical enjoyment. She divides and conquers the sprawling timbral options of oboe, clarinet, saxophone, bass clarinet, and bassoon; form serves her themes of trial and error, interruption, diversion, and transformation.
Fake Smile depicts the emotional labor and exhaustive expectations set on women composers in contemporary music. The simple opening melody was quickly forced to climb a scalar ladder. Flagello provided riveting material for Jeff Siegfried’s smart interpretation on solo alto sax. His shifts from inner to external activity were apparent yet natural; his tone tightened into its own chest, ballooned into moments of relief, and shifted from simple, fluid melody to brittle technical exercises. Siegfried noted the challenge and honor of inhabiting visceral female experience as a cis white male, and he did it justice. Flagello’s work is thick with intention and buoyant in sound.
Daniel Zlatkin curated the program and explored the supernatural in four works. His choral piece Sh’ma Israel, referring to the Shema central to Jewish morning and evening prayer services, was an appropriate call to listen. KHORIKOS, the choral group representing New York’s musical contribution, moved its text from consonant unison to division and subtle chromaticism. The most striking feature of Sh’ma Israel is Zlatkin’s use of abrupt phrase endings and total silence; prayer does not expunge the tension in living, but makes something beautiful of it.
From the Ones, his second choral piece premiered by KHORIKOS, set poetry by Lucille Clifton documenting earthling encounters with an alien being. The first movement was surprisingly demure for a choir of more than 20 voices, and conductor Alec Galambos balanced delicate second intervals between vocal sections. Eventually, the poetry’s alien visitors decry human arrogance, pointing to “the air you have polluted” with dynamic indictment. While these extraterrestrials appear of their own accord, in Zlatkin’s Guardian II, one is summoned by solo tenor saxophone. Siegfried gave a quicksilver interpretation that conjured not only an opaque supernatural being, but an evocative setting and unstable supplicant.
It was in Emerge Three, however, that Zlatkin’s fascination with the supernatural peaked. Inspired by the movies Alien (1979) and Annihilation (2018), Zlatkin coupled his earlier interest in silence with Vanguard Reed Quintet to illustrate his image of a body unwittingly crawling with surreal organisms. Zlatkin seemed most interested in unfolding broad soundscapes to illustrate different angles of the supernatural experience, and the number of times he employed abrupt suspense suggests a penchant for silence and cross-disciplinary work worth exploring. Vanguard Reed Quintet was a prime vehicle for imagination. They took each composer in stride, including Douglas Hertz’s 2016 From Lidless Eyes, which demands rhythmic courage and absolute ensemble.
Nina Shekar wrapped each program section with fearless, generous music that is both completely directive and curiously laissez-faire. Shekar refines the general (fire or urbanity) into specific (flame or urban development) and sets it free using the best of Indian and Western forms. Urban Development for two alto saxophones evolves a 4-note motive like real estate. Other players may have chosen an allusive duet with grit and groove, but Jeff Siegfried and Sean Meyers pulled long lines, precise contrasts, and swirling energy out of Shekar’s ready material.
Her second piece, red, closed the program. She made a perfect match for Vanguard Reed Quintet’s dissonant crackles and overtone sparks. “red describes the unpredictability of a flame … flashes of crimson, scarlet, and vermillion into the surrounding air,” Shekhar writes in her program note before describing flammable rhythmic moods. Her instrumentation gives shine to a satisfying range of solo and ensemble timbres; she consciously uses notes from common Indian raags and layers angular, asymmetrical rhythms inspired by raucous Sufi religious experiences of vocal participation.
Shekhar revitalizes the excitement of concert attendance with her ability to construct detailed frameworks that extend freedom to its performers–and the “Go Blue: Wolverine New Music” program did the same thing. Seven of its ten works were world premieres, and the friendly, exploratory atmosphere relaxed the audience. Although the program featured gender, ethnic, and career profile diversity, these rested on a base of national relationships and systemic initiative. The active values and dedicated professionals bode well for music and more fun.