To celebrate this year’s fiftieth anniversary season, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart charged International Contemporary Ensemble with performing fifty new pieces over the course of the festival. Numbers 45-49 were presented at Merkin Hall on Tuesday, August 23rd. The fiftieth, music by Tyshawn Sorey celebrating Joséphine Baker, was slated for the 24th.
Tuesday’s program consisted entirely of concertos. In some cases, the composers used the term rather loosely, creating amorphously constructed entities rather than the formally distinct works one might expect in the genre. Nearly all were longer than their advertised times: starting at 7:30 PM, the first half alone was ninety minutes. At the concert’s conclusion, we dashed out the door for our train at a few minutes before ten. This loquacity did not always show the works in their best possible lights: all of the composers created fascinating sound worlds, but some tightening of construction would have served several of them well. Karina Canellakis, a prominent young conductor and violinist with an impressive pedigree in both areas, assuredly led ICE. With elegant gestures, she assumed a calming presence amid the maelstroms of complexity being wrought onstage.
The entire program was reordered, but the audience was guided through the changes by brief remarks from the stage by flutist Claire Chase and each of the composers (all four were present — a rare treat). The best piece on the program was also presented first. Marcos Balter’s Violin Concerto displayed formal clarity, abundant virtuosity, and a fascinating use of small percussion instruments (played by the ever nimble Nathan Davis). Violinist David Bowlin played one cascade after another of high harmonics and multi-stops with scintillating aplomb.
In Anthony Cheung’s Assumed Roles, violist Maiya Papach was given a more challenging set-up in which to operate. An unorthodox ensemble grouping, which included several instruments that played in or near the viola’s register and an electric guitar, meant that Cheung had to be judicious in his choice of demeanor for the soloist. He decided to have Papach vacillate between “roles,” working with the ensemble, playing prominently in front of them, and sometimes disappearing beneath their billowing sheets of sound.
The premiere of Dai Fujikura’s Cello Concerto featured a labyrinthine structure. Soloist Katinka Kleijn’s supple tone was challenged by often piercing responses from the ensemble. Cast in a single expansive movement, it was sometimes difficult on first hearing to follow the thread, but several signposts — sections where the cello played open strings and prominent harmonics — helped one to be reoriented.
Wang Lu’s Cloud Intimacy is designed to feature all the members of its ensemble in spotlight moments. It is also meant to be a commentary on technophilia. One heard the tapping of computer keys and ICE musicians got to ham it up with cell phones; the piece ends with a “selfie.” The soloistic aspects of the concerto were less prominently dealt with than the depiction, or distraction, of “Tinder.” However, guitarist Dan Lippel did get a chance to “rock out,” which he did with abandon.
The evening culminated with the US premiere of Fujikura’s Flute Concerto. Written for Chase, it contains many of her signature extended techniques: beat-boxing, multiphonic glisses, harmonics, and pitch bends. It also requires her to employ an array of instruments, from piccolo all the way down to the enormous (and voluptuous sounding) contrabass flute. Interestingly, rather than relying on its strident altissimo register, Fujikura features the underutilized lower register of the piccolo. Cast in five sections, the movement between instruments by Chase helped to delineate the piece’s form. The Flute Concerto has two versions, the chamber one heard here, and another in which Chase is accompanied by full orchestra, already premiered and recorded for Sony/Minabel. The chamber version was plenty for the intimate environs of Merkin Hall and proved to be an ebullient showcase for Chase.
The International Contemporary Ensemble – ICE – was one of the featured groups performing at the 69th Ojai Music Festival. On Friday, June 12, 2013 ICE presented a varied concert of virtuosic pieces at the gazebo in the center of Libbey Park. A good-sized crowd turned out to hear the ICE artists play traditional acoustic instruments artfully combined with amplification and electronics.
Dan Lippel was first with Electric Counterpoint, a piece for guitar and tape by Steve Reich. The music was immediately recognizable as classic Reich and bubbled along with a satisfying groove. The playing by Dan Lippel here was seamless with the tape and the sound reinforcement system seemed to be up to the task of projecting out into the open spaces of the park. The recorded bass line was particularly effective when present and there was all the energy typical of the music of Reich. The piece unfolded in several sections that were variously festive or a bit more introspective, but all consistently active and upbeat. This was the perfect opening piece for the afternoon and the audience was visibly pleased.
This was followed by Jennifer Curtis and David Bowlin performing Apophthegms, a piece by John Zorn for two violins. This was very different and surprisingly complex music, with fast runs, flurries of pizzicato and unexpected changes in direction. Quiet passages followed loud sections, and fast, complex sections were followed by softer and more uniform stretches. Some of the quiet parts had a decidedly sinister feeling and a creaking sound from the violins added to the tension. The amplification, for the most part, worked in favor of the instruments although there were times when very soft segments were lost in the ambient noise of the park. As the piece concluded, a faster and more animated feeling took hold as the two violins weaved wonderfully bright and complex patterns that shimmered to the finish. Apophthegms is a virtuoso piece in every respect – from both a composing and performing standpoint.
Rebekah Heller was next, playing Concatenation, for bassoon and electronics by Rand Steiger. This began with a low rumble of notes that seemed to be re-processed for echo and delay and then sent to the speakers – this nicely increased in density as the playing continued. The sounds soon came in rushes with great clouds of notes pouring out over the audience. There were also slower sections where the sustained bassoon tones and electronics gave a distant, lonely feel that contrasted well with the busier stretches. These sounds were pleasantly matched to the backdrop of oak trees and shrubs, perfectly at home in the woodsy surroundings. As bursts of notes echoed away, it was as if the music was receding back into a forest. The sound also seemed to move from left to right at times, giving a convincing sense of motion and movement. A low trill accompanied by some futuristic electronic sounds at the conclusion gave the impression of a flying saucer rising rapidly upward, taking off and leaving the earth behind. Rebekah Heller’s performance – played with out a score – was a triumph of energy and concentration and the audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Nuiko Waddenh followed with Polvere et Ombra a piece for solo harp by Suzanne Farrin. This began with a series of rapid arpeggios, fast notes and a low strumming sound that gave a somewhat darker edge to the piece. There was a sense of rapid movement and velocity throughout and a series of sharp, furious chords that were expertly delivered. Towards the end the feel of the piece turned a bit lighter, but still mysterious, becoming very quiet at the finish. The amplification was both necessary and precisely applied to allow the naturally soft harp to be heard in the open spaces of the park.
San, by Du Yun, a piece for cello and electronics was next, and this was performed by Katinka Kleijn. Ms Kleijn took the stage clad completely in black and wearing a white mask. A large bass drum, equipped with a foot pedal, was situated next to her chair. The piece began with low, scratchy tones from the cello and several solid strikes on the bass drum gave this a very Asian feel. Some higher knocking sounds coming from the electronics – and the white mask worn by Ms. Kleijn – added a strong sense of ceremony and ritual to this. As the piece progressed there were complex, layered sections that alternated with slower and more somber stretches. There was a sense of struggle woven throughout and as the piece concluded the percussive sounds in the electronics and the striking of the bass drum conjured images of a violent battle. The complex playing, the combination of electronics, a bass drum and the wearing of the mask were all smoothly handled by Ms. Kleijn who delivered a spirited and drama-filled performance.
Next was a piece by Mario Diaz de Leon, Luciform, for flute and electronics. This was performed by Claire Chase and began with some light trills and rapid runs from the flute with a kind of low roar in the electronics that seemed to be moving slightly in pitch. This soon became very complex in the electronics with the flute supplying a series of fast repeating phrases. The pace slowed and the flute took up a low, dark melody while the deep roar returned to the electronics, producing an overall sense of menace. As the piece continued the electronics became very active and the volume increased, as if sending a warning. The tension increased in the somber flute, evoking a melancholy sense of pervasive alienation and the piece concluded with a frenetic finish. Luciform was another instructive example of how electronics and solo instruments can be artfully combined given good writing, playing and sound engineering.
The final work on the program was Rock Piece by Pauline Oliveros and this was performed by all the ICE musicians. They began in front of the audience, each with two smooth ocean rocks, striking them together more or less randomly. There is not supposed to be a common beat or volume in this – your brain actually works to find rhythms and counterpoint from the perceived sounds. As the players fanned out into the audience, the sounds of the striking lessened and became more diffuse. The players slowly returned back to their starting point and the sounds again became more distinct. The outdoor acoustics ultimately worked against the hearing of this and the one piece in the concert that was performed without electronics seemed to suffer the most.
This concert by ICE provided a lively and forward looking series of pieces that featured exceptional playing and impressive writing that skillfully combined the strengths of acoustic instruments and electronics.
The 69th annual Ojai Music Festival featured the West Coast premiere of Sila: The Breath of the World by John Luther Adams, staged outdoors in Libby Park as a free community event. Performers from ICE, red fish blue fish and Cal Arts – some 80 musicians in all – were placed in selected positions in the center of the park and the audience was invited to move around and among them as the piece progressed.
Sila is an Inuit concept for the spirit that animates the world and marks the second outdoor piece by John Luther Adams at Libby Park. Inuksuit was performed here in 2012 under similar circumstances and was judged a great success. Sila is perhaps a more ambitious piece in that there are more players and a more diverse orchestration. Inuksuit is a dynamic percussion piece that was spread out over the entire park. Sila has strings, horns, woodwinds and voices organized into sections, all ringed by percussion stations. Sila probably occupied a bit less than half the area of the Inuksuit installation.
Sila is also a more delicate piece – its subject matter is intangible and highly spiritual. In a recent article by Tim Greiving the composer was quoted: “My image of the piece is really quite simple, It comes up, very slowly, out of the earth, out of these very low sounds — of bass drums and double basses and bassoons and tubas. And over the course of an hour or so, it just gradually rises up through this series of harmonic clouds and goes out and rises, and blows away in the wind.”
Sila opens with a great roll of the bass drums accompanied by sustained tones from the low brass. There is a primal, elemental feel to this that increased as the bass clarinet and oboe entered. The entrance of each section of instruments, in turn, contributed more sustained tones that gradually rose and fell in volume. The early parts of Sila were heard in the lower registers, but the sounds gradually rose in pitch over the course of the one hour performance. The musicians and singers slowly rotated as they played, adding a swirling effect to the texture.
Microtones were notated in the score and the musicians were equipped with a cell phone app that helped to monitor the pitches and provide stopwatch time to mark the entrances of the various sections. There was no formal beat, but rather a series of long tones – always entering and fading – and producing a constantly changing color and texture to the sound. At times the ensemble sounded like a great sigh.
The crowd pressed in among the musicians and depending where one stood, there was a markedly different character to the listening experience. Standing near the woodwinds or voices, for example, one heard a lighter, ethereal sound while standing near the brass or percussion evoked a feeling of expansiveness and grandeur. Given its more diverse instrumentation, Sila is a much more position-sensitive experience than the percussion-driven Inuksuit.
About midway into the piece there were high trills on some of the xylophones while others were bowed and this produced a lovely mystical wash on top of the sustained pitches coming from the instruments. The soprano voices were also very effective when within earshot. The press of listeners as they moved among the players had a somewhat damping effect on the sound – especially among the higher woodwinds, strings and voices. The audience was quietly attentive and fully engaged for the entire hour. The piece gradually wound down in volume and in the final moments all that could be heard was the rushing sound of air coming from the instruments and voices. John Luther Adams was in attendance and acknowledged the sustained applause that followed.
This performance of Sila was well matched to the Ojai Festival which, after all, is built on the idea of music outdoors. Much credit goes to the 80 musicians who had to bring off a subtle piece in the park setting and contend with microtones, stopwatches and the distractions of having their audience moving among them. The performance was successful, in part, because it involves the audience in a way that can’t be duplicated in the concert hall. Sila – and the other outdoor pieces by John Luther Adams – have added an important new dimension to the presentation of new music.
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Composer Mario Davidovsky turns 77 today. The International Contemporary Ensemble and soprano Tony Arnold are celebrating his birthday with a Portrait Concert at Miller Theatre tonight at 8 PM (details here). They’ve also recorded a birthday greeting for the composer (video below), adding a bit of angularity and jocular dodecaphony to a more traditional number.
Meet the Composer’s latest venture, MTC Studio, will be unveiled on Monday at an event at the 92nd Street Y (Tribeca). It features members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the first class of MTC Studio composers – Kati Agócs, Marcos Balter, Yu-Hui Chang, Glenn Kotche (of the band Wilco), Dohee Lee and Ken Ueno – in an evening of conversations and music making.
Yesterday, I caught up with Ken Ueno (University of California-Berkeley) and asked him about MTC Studio and some of his other recent exploits. In addition to his activities with Meet the Composer, Ueno is getting a portrait concert on the Baltimore Contemporary Museum’s Mobtown Modern series. What’s more, he’s spending the year as a Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin.
Ken Ueno. Photo Annette Hornischer
Sequenza 21: For those not in ‘loop’, what’s ‘Meet the Composer?’
Ueno: Meet the Composer is one of America’s most important and vital institutions supporting the creation of new musical work. A core tenet of theirs is to foster exciting new ways for composers to interact with audiences and performers.
Sequenza 21: Tell us about their new project, MTC Studio.
Ueno: Meet the Composer sums it up this way: “MTC Studio is a website that documents the creative process of composers through video, blogs, and other web content offering a rare perspective into the raw inner-workings of a composer’s world. Viewers get the unique opportunity to follow a musical work from first note to stage and can take part in individually supporting commissioning projects.”
Sequenza 21: What was the process for creating your page on the website?
Ueno: Kevin Clark of Meet the Composer’s home office and Jeremy Robins (a videographer) came out to Berkeley to interview me over the summer. During that time, we shot some initial footage. They gave me a flip camera and I’ve been since shooting my own footage that Jeremy has been editing. It’s kind of like keeping a video diary balanced with a more general introduction to who I am and what I do as an artist. It’s been a lot of fun. Sequenza 21: Have you had, will you have, interactions with the other MTC composers?
Ueno: Most of them I’ve already known for years! I’m quite honored and humbled to be included amongst some of my favorite composers of my generation! Glenn, I did not know from before. But being a Wilco fan for years, I look forward to meeting him. Sequenza 21: You’re busy on this trip to the US. Tell us your itinerary!
Ueno: I gave a lecture on my music at Columbia this week. Next week, I have the MTC Studio event, a lecture at Stony Brook, and two performances of my new piece for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players (at Stony Brook and at Merkin Hall).
Sequenza 21: How’s your residency in Berlin been? What’s the academy like and what are you writing there?
Ueno: Being at the American Academy in Berlin’s been great! I have the time and space to concentrate on composing. It’s a gracious gift of time. What’s been especially enthralling and stimulating has been learning from the other fellows. People like the literary critic James Wood, the journalist Anne Hull, the writers John Wray and Han Ong.
Two senior colleagues from UC Berkeley are there too: Martin Jay, a historian (one of the world’s foremost experts on the Frankfurt School), and his wife, Catherine Gallagher, a professor in English (an expert in the field of counterfactual fiction). It’s been great hanging out with these folks and picking their brains about all sorts of things. I’m quite impressed with our youngest fellow fellow, Kirk Johnson, who started the List Project. His organization has helped hundreds of Iraqi allies transition to the US. This man has saved people’s lives! Very inspiring. We are also lucky to have Pamela Rosenberg be our dean of fellows, with all the experience she’s had in the arts. Oh, and as a foodie, I’ve especially enjoyed the creations of the academy’s chef, Reinold Kegel. He’s fantastic!
During my year at the academy, I’ll be working on a number of projects. The first piece I finished was a 20-minute work for 11 instruments for the Stony Brook Contemporary Chamber Players, which will be premiered next week. Next, I’ll work on an installation for SCI-Arc, a collaboration with the architect, Patrick Tighe. After that, I’ll work on pieces for Alarm Will Sound and a solo for Evelyn Glennie. If all goes well, I’m hoping to have time to work on my chamber opera, in which I’ll perform, but that’s due much later.
Introducing Meet the Composer Studio
Monday November 15, 2010, 7:30 PM
Mainstage at 92YTribeca, 200 Hudson Street, NYC
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The International Contemporary Ensemble will be featured at 7 PM tonight on Q2. Hosted by John Schaefer, this live broadcast from Yamaha Piano Salon in NYC is a sneak preview of Lincoln Center Festival’s Varèse: (R)evolution.
(R)evolution will present the composer’s entire oeuvre over two concerts on July 19 &20. Performers include the New York Philharmonic, conductor Alan Gilbert, percussionist Steven Schick, and ICE.
Program: Density 21.5 (1936) with Claire Chase, flute Un Grand Sommeil Noir (1906) with Samantha Malk, soprano Ameriques (NEW YORK PREMIERE of 8-hand piano version) (1929) with Jacob Greenberg, Amy Williams, Amy Briggs and Thomas Rosenkranz
Q2 and ICE have been kind enough to share a freebie that all the new music kids will be adding to their Droid/iPhone/Blackberrys: a Poème Électronique ringtone!