The final night of the 17th Other Minds Festival presented music by four composers and included two premieres of music commissioned by Other Minds.
The concert began with music by Finnish composer Lotte Wenakoski. This diminutive Finnish woman, who also sang quite beautifully during the panel discussion, works with barely audible sounds seeking inspiration ” on the borders of silence”. Her 2006-7 work Nosztalgiam (Hungarian for ‘my nostalgia’) was performed by the modular Magik*Magik Orchestra whose size varies according to the need of the pieces to be played. Tonight’s configuration for this piece consisted of 12 players playing woodwinds, brass and strings.
Fellow OM 17 composer John Kennedy, who is the conductor for the Spoleto Festival among others, conducted the chamber ensemble. Nosztalgiam (2007) is apparently a set of variations/deconstructions or meditations on two Hungarian folk songs (one of which she spiritedly sang during the preconcert discussion). The sometimes sparse and always delicate sounds expressed Wennakoski’s personal impressions of her time studying in Budapest in the late 1980s. It is difficult to assess this composer represented in this festival by a single work. But the sweet, delicate personally nostalgic sounds evoked by a variety of extended techniques suggest that seeking to hear more of her work would certainly be worth one’s effort. The sensitive and virtuosic performance was greeted warmly by audience and composer alike.
Next in this first half were two works by John Kennedy, conductor, composer, percussionist and promoter of New Music. Here is a man in a role similar to that of OM Festival director Charles Amirkhanian having a chance to be, so to speak, on the other side of the table. There are apparently no available commercial recordings of this man’s music but according to his web site (which does have some too brief sound samples) he has composed many works in all genres including theater, orchestral, solo and electronic. And he has received many commissions.
This night he was represented by two works, one of them an Other Minds commission. Both are hommages to the late John Cage. As I mentioned in an earlier blog Cage is also the inspiration/impetus behind Other Minds’ esthetic.
The first work, “First Deconstruction in Plastic” (the title a play on Cage’s First Construction in Metal), does double duty as an homage and as an environmental statement. Percussion duo Ryder Shelley and Andrew Myerson sat facing each other each with a collection of ‘found objects’ consisting of plastic buckets, bottles, shopping bags, etc. This well rehearsed duo gave an energetic and engaging performance which the audience clearly appreciated. But for this reviewer was left with the impression that this accomplished work, though no doubt intricate in it’s conception and satisfying to the musicians, failed to fully engage it’s audience. I was entertained but I did not particularly want to hear it again.
The second work, “Island in Time” (2012), was a world premiere. This, also dedicated to Cage, was a different matter. Scored for the unusual combination of bass clarinet, flute, cello and percussion (all members of Magik*Magik Orchestra) was an engaging though not derivative tribute to the influence of John Cage. The composer describes a process involving different types of temporal processes to structure the work. But the specifics of the processes are secondary here to the overall impact of the work. A meandering flow of sounds and tempi flowed beautifully reverently invoking the spirit and influence of Cage’s work. I have no doubt that the riches in this piece would continue to reveal themselves with repeated hearings. And though I have very little knowledge of this composer’s other work I have no doubt that it is likely to be quite compelling.
The musicians, clearly familiar with the work, gave a loving smooth reading of what appears to be a fairly complex work requiring serious concentration and collaboration. The audience, myself included, rewarded their efforts with enthusiastic applause.
In the second half of the program the next composer, who had performed the previous night in collaboration with Ikue Mori and Ken Ueno, was Tyshawn Sorey. This was to have been a solo performance as a percussionist but in the course of the discussion in last night’s pre-concert panel festival director Charles Amirkhanian mentioned that he had heard Sorey playing the piano earlier in the day. Amirkhanian remarked on the apparently eclectic nature of what he had played. Sorey responded saying that his piano playing is informed by the likes of Art Tatum, David Tudor, Cecil Taylor and Morton Feldman. He also mentioned deconstructing Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata (!) to inspire his compositional process. Eclectic indeed! And he easily consented to playing the piano in his segment of the program saying, “…if you are open to it, sure.”. Sorey exudes a sort of calm, friendly, matter of fact confidence in his skills.
So Sorey walked onto the stage which contained his percussion kit on one side and a concert grand piano on the other. He began with a percussion improvisation starting with a fortissimo strike on the side drum followed by some fevered loud work on tenor and snares as well. This then segued into some more delicate and complex soft sounds elicited from various cymbals and drums making frequent use of special techniques which brought forth some rich vibrant harmonics especially in the quieter moments. I couldn’t help being reminded at times of Han Benink’s performance at last years festival as he released a small sower of sticks onto a drum at one point. Sorey’s sheer energy and good humor were reminiscent (though not imitative). And, unlike Benink, Sorey never left the stage in the course of the performance.
Following the well received percussion set Sorey moved to the grand piano sitting confidently and commandingly at the keyboard and pausing as he focused on the task at hand. He started slowly with a few chords and before long launched into a dizzying and virtuosic flow of music reflecting the influences he mentioned. At first perhaps Morton Feldman, sometimes Pierre Boulez, a little Art Tatum, certainly some Cecil Taylor and then deftly playing sometimes inside the piano then back to the keyboard as part of the same unbroken musical phrase evoking the experimentalism of David Tudor. But the overall impression was not episodic imitation but rather an absorption and integration of all these techniques transcending genre and becoming, simply, inspired music making. The audience was transfixed and absorbed in the flow of the music and responded with cheers of “Bravo” and enthusiastic applause (I think they were pushing for an encore but time did not permit). Had I heard a recording of this without knowing the background I would have guessed this to have been an accomplished composed work by a master composer but this was an improvisation. I am surely going to seek recordings and follow this man’s career in the years to come.
The finale was another Other Minds commission this time from composer, vocalist and Berkeley music professor Ken Ueno. The piece, “Peradam” (2011) takes it’s title from the unfinished spiritual allegorical novel, “Mount Analogue” by the French surrealist writer and poet Rene Daumal (1908-1944). Peradam is a mythical diamond-like stone sought after on the similarly mythical mountain of the title.
Ueno’s work is scored, as is his practice, specifically for the skills of the formidably talented Del Sol Quartet who so ably played the Gloria Coates quartet the previous night. Specifically the specialized skill (in addition of course to their string playing) is the multiphonic throat singing capability of violist Charlton Lee. Ueno demonstrated his vocal skills on the previous night singing with the percussions of Ikue Mori and Tyshawn Sorey. In fact all the players were asked to sing as well as play their instruments for this performance. In addition there was video creatively projected onto the sound baffles at the rear of the stage.
The music was a post modern integrated amalgam of a wide variety of conventional and extended instrumental techniques along with singing at times (the throat singing is a strikingly unique timbre which commands attention when it emerges in the fabric of the piece). The quartet positioned themselves stage right to afford the audience a clear view of the projection across the three sound baffles at the back of the stage. They played with characteristic concentration and skill in what looks like a technically challenging piece of shifting moods and tempi to which the images responded.
The images, manipulated in real time and in coordination with the music with software written by video artist Johnny Dekam, were abstract mostly monochrome images that moved and transmuted hypnotically along with the music. Dekam, who has worked with a variety of pop acts like Eminem and Thomas Dolby, had collaborated with Ueno before. In the darkened theater the images dominated the visual field though the quartet could be seen as well.
It was a complex experience that could only be grasped, if at all, by going with the simultaneous flow of music and image. This piece will benefit from repeated listenings/viewings to more fully appreciate it’s intricacies. But this first performance clearly satisfied the mostly hard core new music fans audience. And while the direct John Cage associations were not as obvious it is clear that Ueno, Dekam and the Del Sols embody the open minded spirit of his work in this, his centennial year. This grand finale was appreciated in kind by the cheering audience successfully bringing to a conclusion the 17th always uncategorizably eclectic Other Minds Festival.