As those of you who regularly read my reports from Ann Arbor know, most of the new music I cover is related to the University of Michigan, usually in the form of a student composer concert, a performance by the resident Contemporary Directions Ensemble or the appearance of a contemporary work or two on a Symphony Band concert. Beyond these highly active groups at the Michigan School of Music, our town is gifted with two wonderful concert presenting organizations who regularly feature contemporary music on their programs: the University Musical Society and the Kerrytown Concert House. Last year I attended several UMS events, but hadn’t stepped inside KCH as an audience member until last week when composer Ezra Donner invited me to hear the Aurea Silva Trio premiere his work Variations for Flute, Bassoon and Piano.
More so than UMS, the Kerrytown Concert House focuses on experimental programming and intimate presentations, garnering recognition from the Nation Endowment of the Arts for their important role in the music community of Southeastern Michigan and, frankly, the whole country. Unbeknownst to me, KCH has hosted a new music/jazz festival called “Edgefest” for fifteen years, which wrapped up last month. Although, I missed out on an opportunity to report on that concert series, I was able to catch a bit of new music there last week with the aforementioned recital by the Aurea Silva Trio.
Commissioned for the Trio, Variations reflects a consistent theme in Mr. Donner’s music: the influence of his upbringing in the Rust Belt of western Pennsylvania. To my ears, the connection was apparent in the first, expansive sonority of the piece, which ascends from the rumbling depths of the bassoon’s lowest register to the higher ranges of the flute and the piano. This section is the theme of what Mr. Donner called a, “classically oriented theme and variations” in pre-concert remarks, and does more than establish the root of all the subsequent music, it introduces bassoonist Gareth Thomas as a very prominent figure in the narrative of the work. Beyond the structure, the only stylistic allusion to classical tradition occurs with one variation I noted as a, “demented waltz”. I found the link impossible to ignore thanks to the section’s typifying meter and accompanimental pattern in the piano, though the passage’s melodic material is more of a grotesque caricature of than a respectful homage to traditional waltz music. As the variations continue, the ‘waltz’ music returns in a decayed form while the bassoon maintains its status as the principle melodic figure in the work – until the theme comes back. With the bassoon relegated to its lowest range, pianist David Gililand and flutist Brandy Hudelson are given an opportunity to expand on what we’ve heard before, leading to a rousing conclusion that caused one attendee – luminary America composer William Bolcom – to call out “good!” before the Trio could take its first bow.
More apropos to this article’s title (and pro forma to my reviews) is the second item to report: ‘Gypsy Pond Music’, an annual presentation by the University of Michigan’s Digital Music Ensemble, which concluded Sunday. Led by composition professor Stephen Rush, the students of the DME are charged to create an interactive electronic music experience in the area surrounding the famed pond adjacent to the Michigan School of Music’s main building. Last year’s installment featured a whirly-gig-like structure emerging from the water and motion-tracking sensors that triggered different audio samples to create an ambient soundtrack for the extant landscape. This year’s project was a little different, so I thought I would ask Mr. Rush about the project and the student’s thought-process as they put it together. Here’s what he shared:
[W]ell, as you know it’s an annual installation that is a result of some serious labyrinth study (multi-cultural, comparative religion approach), as well as some visceral experiences like walking the lab at the cancer ward at St. Jo’s and the Dexter-Huron Metropark. They also learn Cat’s Cradle, play marble mazes and study a little Installation Art. All in 5 weeks. It’s like a boot camp for some wacked out degree in Cosmology, Comp Lit, Re-Intro to grade school as well as Interactive Art-Making 101/510! Yeesh.
From their the idea consolidates, based on a “collective cosmology”….in other words, as a consensus, the class lands their lifeview in a particular way in a grand bold philosophical (epistemological) statement. For Instance – “Many Paths/Same Truth”, “One Way, Many Distractions”, “Journey, not Arrival”, etc. Labyrinth study leads to these bold truths…that’s why I do it (for the last 13 years, actually). This year the thought is “Experience EXPERIENCE!”. The main concept here is that life is what you experience, that reality shapes our thinking, not some “outside truth”, and that we have to be proactive “experiencers”. Be the Ball. Get in the Game. Just Do It. These are slogans that all co-opt this really important life philosophy that other cultures have called everything from Existentialism to Engaged Buddhism to Karma Yoga or even the Christian notion of “Faith Without Works is Dead”.
To that end….the students have built 4 usb-enabled rotary phones that will hang from the trees. They ring interactively as people pass by, summoning them to “get in the game” (get it!?). They pick up the phone, follow prompts, and play samples by dialing 2-digit numbers on the phone. The samples play over loudspeakers, and people “play the piece”…the middle ground of the piece. The background is soothing ambient layers (ala Eno, etc.) to create, well, an “ambiance of beauty” (life?). The foreground is the filtered sound of the participant, speaking into the microphones in the telephone. 3 layers.
Our hope is that it’s a really powerful, fun, interesting, entertaining and enlightening musical instrument that people can come and play. It’s not an objective experience of art , per se, like a Haydn Quartet..it’s participatory. Let’s hope.
- Steve Rush
If you are interested in reading more about my experiences as a graduate composition student at the University of Michigan, please visit my website.