You know it’s going to be an exciting evening when one of the performer’s bios states that, among other things, she has performed, “with robots locked inside a Van de Graff generator at Boston’s Museum of Science.” From that moment on, I was sold.
Ear To Mind produced the evening’s concert, at the Leonard Nemoy Thalia theatre at Symphony Space. Ear to Mind is a New York City based arts organization that “strives to present innovative programs that allow the public to experience contemporary music in non-traditional context.” What was heard on this evening was a truly remarkable display of modern art today.
The concert began in almost complete darkness, with only beautifully shaded lighting illuminating the stage. Judith Ring’s, “Mouthpiece” received its New York City premiere as the first item on the program. Ring’s vocally demanding and exploratory piece was prerecorded, as it is written for Mezzo-Soprano (in this case, Ms. Natasha Lohan), and electronics. It is a creatively devised experimentation not only into the possibilities of vocal music, but also into the art of recording. Ring’s piece layers the voice on top of itself, requiring techniques that would be bizarre even to the contemporary music aficionado. Lohan could be heard performing any number of both virtuosic and seemingly painful techniques. “Mouthpiece” was wildly successful, however, as a prelude to the concert.
Naomi Epstein’s, piano and soprano (NYC Premiere) was next on the program. Performed by pianist David Kalhous, and vocalist Megan Schubert, this piece provided us with a contemporary aria (perhaps even recitative) unlike what we have heard so far on the new music scene. The music and visual design (created by Naho Taruishi) flowed together synonymously. With Epstein’s both chordal and linear musical design, paired with Taruishi’s portrayal of a ray of light, the audience was transported into a wholly new place. Taruishi seemed to want the audience to become hypnotized. Epstein’s music stabilized us in reality, however, and allowed us to view Taruishi’s visual design from a purely observational perspective. A beam of light crossed the screen in front of us ever so slowly, before growing, shrinking, and eventually disappearing. Taruishi repeated this with some variation, until finally two beams of light, one from the top of the screen and the other from the bottom, entered and met in the middle. Though there was no clear musical climax, it is clear that this moment of the performance was to be highlighted. It was an impressive work, and the ensemble between Kalhous and Schubert was inspiring.
The third and final piece of the first half displayed one of the most impressive performances of the evening. Coco Karol, dancer and choreographer, premiered her piece This is Just to Say: “Plums”. A wildly abstract and impressive dance, Coco Karol provided a virtuosic display of ability. She appeared covered in white makeup from head to toe, and wearing only the most necessary items of clothing. She contorted herself into poses, accompanied by silence. This environment only further intrigued the audience. Her conception was driven behind very clear intellectual choices. She made no effort, however, to enlighten the audience on the specifics of the scene, or on her own personal message. This is no crime, though. Allowing the audience to develop its own unique perception and understanding should not be something feared by modern artists. This piece was liberating for the audience. At first, we were consumed with our standard audience obligations- to render some understanding of the work, and hence be able to develop an opinion on it. Ingesting this piece was like ingesting the first film I saw by the great French surrealist Antonin “Le Momo” Artaud. The only difference between “Plums” and Artaud’s surrealism, is that Artaud’s choices were made in more of an improvisatory manner, whereas Karol’s choices were made, as far as I could see, from a more logical and intellectual place.
After a brief intermission came Sonia Megias’ “ready for”, featuring the immensely talented percussionist Chris Graham, and our already prevailing vocalist, Megan Schubert. If Norman Rockwell had been a surrealist, he would have painted a picture much like the scene that unfolded before us. Graham entered, dressed in pajamas, and began playing his percussion instruments, while Schubert covered her face in lipstick and began to inflate balloons and tape them in a cross formation on a makeshift wall. It does not quite sound Rockell-ish from this description, but there was a clear undertone of the domestic American life in this work. By the end, Graham finished playing, and covered both the makeshift wall and Megan Schubert’s now silent figure with a cloth, before leaving the stage. It left the very open audience in a quizzical, yet inspired state.
James Tenney’s, Having Never Written A Note For Percussion brought the audience to a new place. This hypnotic and meditative piece featured percussionist Chris Graham, with visual art by Jayoung Yoon. Simple in its construction, Tenney requires the percussionist to play only a gong. The piece requires the percussionist to play a long crescendo and decrescendo, starting from silence, reaching a roaring fortissimo, and receding back toward silence again. Yoon’s visual art features a person switching sides of a circle in a desert, while also rotating around piles of sand. Truly it is impossible to describe to you – you must see it to understand it. Graham’s playing was tremendous, and the effect of the piece was both calming and refreshing. His crescendo and decrescendo were without blemish, and were smooth and steady. This performance readied us for the final performance on the program – the second iteration of This Is Just To Say: “Plums”
The return of “Plums” brought not only dancer Coco Karol, but also fellow dancer Gutgsell, double-bassist Lisa Dowling, and vocalist Megan Schubert. This piece, composed by founder of Ear To Mind, Inhyun Kim, was an expansion of the logical surrealism of the original. Karol was now accompanied by Gutgsell (dressed in all purple), while Dowling and Schubert accompanied their dance with music. Or did the dancers accompany the music with their dance? This is for the audience to decide themselves. What was clear was that there were themes and ideas taken from the first “Plums” that were expanded upon in this reprise. In the original, Coco Karol had a long streamer that she pulled from her mouth and wrapped around herself. In the reprise, Gutgsell pulled a long streamer from both Dowling’s and Schubert’s mouths, wrapping himself within the streamers. In this piece, Kim was able to create a performance that truly lived up to the mission of her organization: “to present innovative programs that allow the public to experience contemporary music in non-traditional contexts.” The art is beyond contemporary, however. It is postmodern in its construction and ideals. It leads us to wonder where we will go next, and whether the atmosphere of innovation running through these composer’s works will continue, or whether we are living in a time of a much needed sprint of creativity.