On Friday September 11, 2015, the Curve Line Space Gallery in Eagle Rock was the venue for a concert titled Collaborations 1.1 featuring the works of Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim as performed by members of the Southland Ensemble. Stäbler and Shim, German experimental composers, are on a three-city tour of the US, sponsored in part by the Federal Foreign Office of Germany and the Goethe Institute. Seven pieces composed between 1986 and 2007 were presented, ranging from conceptual works to those with graphical scores and standard notation. The warm evening and exquisite acrylic paintings by Sue Tuemmler complimented the amiable atmosphere present in the audience and the gallery.
The first piece was by Kunsu Shim In Zwei Teilen – I, and this was performed by violin, viola, cello and recorder. The first notes were barely audible – a light, high arco sound from the cello followed by about a minute of silence. A short chord from the strings and recorder was heard and then another long, soft tone from the cello. The combination of quiet sounds and long silences worked to focus the listening and the result was a sense of keen anticipation. More hushed tones from the cello followed and with a pleasantly dissonant final chord from the strings and recorder, the piece concluded.
Hart Auf Hart by Gerhard Stäbler was next and this had several performers scattered around the floor with portable radios and a graphical score consisting of bar codes overlaid by a grid of numbered coordinates. A series of numbers and letters were called out – much like a bingo game – the performers consulted their scores, and some began tuning their radios. The tuning proceeded fairly rapidly, and short bursts of voices and music were heard as well as loud static. The voices coming from the radios were fragmentary and did not add any sort of narrative. For some performers the score indicated silence, and the radio was turned off. The piece continued in this way, coordinates were called out at intervals and radio sounds were heard coming from different corners of the performance space. All of this produced an interesting texture, if not any definite form. The changing patterns and locations of the sounds produced an intriguing sense of space and movement for the stationary listener. Towards the end of the piece, the performers gathered around an open microphone and all of the radio sounds were now projected from a single speaker, flattening the previous sensations of distance and location. With a burst of loud sounds and static the piece suddenly ended.
The third piece on the program was Gerhard Stäbler’s ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ for piccolo, clarinet and violin. This was a conventionally notated piece that began with a dissonant tutti chord and gave off a feeling of remote loneliness. The piccolo played two alternating high notes and the others joined in similarly in their registers. The effect was like listening to a clockwork oscillating back and forth with a sort of familiar regularity. The coloring became more intense, adding a bit of anxiety. A sudden and almost painfully loud dissonant chord in the violin and piccolo disrupted the calm and captured everyone’s attention. There was a brief return to the more gentle feeling, but ]and on the eyes black sheep of night[ ended on a second tense chord as if to underline the journey from the comfortable to the anxious.
Luftrand, by Kunsu Shim, followed and this was for violin, viola and cello. Soft, muffled tones – almost a whisper – were heard, followed by silence. The players began each passage together and the quiet chords had a mysterious and secretive feel. Everything was soft and tentative, with never a strong bowing action or loud note. The players exhibited good ensemble and a soft touch to produce the delicate sounds that felt like a series of quiet sighs. Midway through, the string tension on each instrument was reduced and this produced a new sound – less purely musical perhaps, but more evocative. The now-lower notes seemed to be enveloped in a thick fog that greatly added to the mystery. Luftrand with its subtle, muted tones invites a deeper and more rewarding concentration from the listener.
In contrast to the quite stillness of Luftrand, Happy for No Reason, also by Kunsu Shim, began with a loud series of excited shouts, thumps and crashes as six performers moved about the gallery space throwing objects, screaming and otherwise creating a wild commotion. These outbursts occurred in episodes followed by period of silence. At length soft, sustained tones from the cello, violin and recorder were heard and these had a warmly optimistic and comforting feel after the preceding tumult. One of the performers slowly uncoiled a roll of masking tape about waist-high through the performance space so that it crossed the room and connected two of the players. One of the string players began bowing an empty soup can and this produced a very intriguing sound in combination with the others. The quiet, mystical feel of the second half of Happy for No Reason was prepared and intensified by the noisy prelude and provided a valuable object lesson in listening psychology.
X (February ’94) by Gerhard Stäbler followed and this began with four performers sitting on the floor surrounded by a series of articles that were either fasteners or closures. Items such as a stapler, a roll of shipping tape, various pieces of clothing with buttons, laces or zippers and other such objects were at hand – a stopwatch timer was used to begin. At certain times, dice were rolled by the performers and, depending on the outcome, a list was consulted and a task utilizing the fasteners and closures was begun. Sometimes the dice indicated no action and a performer would remain still. Typically three of the four would be engaged with their objects while the fourth was unoccupied. There were no musical tones, per se, but the sounds and bustle of the various articles and activities produced a continuous, if irregular, rhythm. Watching all this was mildly engaging, as almost any sort of physical activity can be, and at times the tempo of the hands and objects increased or slowed down. Eventually all of the activity ceased and the performers gathered up the items and made their exit. Overall it seemed that while there was constant activity, it did not seem particularly purposeful, prideful or creative – but at the same time it looked a lot like what many of us do every day. Perhaps this was the metaphor and the message.
The final piece of the program was In Zwei Teilen – 2, by Kunsu Shim, an extension of the opening piece of the concert. This had a similar feel with soft, simple chords followed by a period of silence. At one point the the flute produced a low whistling sound that added a haunting feel. The strings added a gentle, comforting sound and with a sustained note from the recorder the piece concluded.
This concert was an edifying experience in the uses of contrast in performance practice. The contrasts between loud, soft and silence, between the overt and the subtle or between agitation and serenity that occurred throughout these pieces sharpen the perceptions of the listener and open new ways to apprehend the composer’s intentions.
The Southland Ensemble continues to bring important new perspectives to the Los Angeles new music scene through concerts such as this.
The Southland Ensemble is:
Eric KM Clark
The next performance by the Southland Ensemble will be Friday, September 25 featuring work of contemporary British composers Howard Skempton, Laurence Crane and Sarah Hughes at Automata in Chinatown.