The December Tuesdays@Monk Space concert was titled Grinding Sounds, Repeating Patterns and Sonorous Incantations and was curated to take advantage of the friendly acoustics of Monk Space for just such music. As Aron Kallay noted in the program notes: “Not every hall is good for every combination of instruments and in many ways Monk Space takes this to the extreme. Two things the space absolutely loves are low strings, and voice.” Accordingly, Scott Worthington was on hand with his electrified contrabass and the Hex Vocal Ensemble provided the sonorous incantations.
The first piece was I Feel Pretty, by David Lang, for acoustic or amplified double bass. Worthington’s bass was fitted with a pickup that fed directly into a PC. Sounds from the bass were recorded, processed and then broadcast from the speakers on-stage after a delay of a second or two. The opening double-stopped phrases were low, rough and gnarly as well as absent of melody. The speakers multiplied the deep texture so that it was almost as if the audience were confronted by a growling bear. At times the piece gathered itself into a nicely pulsating groove, and there were often intriguing harmonies that arose between the acoustic bass and the process electronics in the speaker. David Lang is generally known for his sensitive and empathetic music, but I Feel Pretty seemed to be joyfully the opposite. As expertly realized by Worthington, I Feel Pretty was a reminder that beauty need not be delicate to be appreciated.
Next up was Mint Conditioner by Alexandra Gardner, also for doublebass and accompanied by recorded samples from the speakers. This opened with a deep creaking sound, as if a large rope or cable were being drawn taut. This established a feeling of tension as Worthington’s acoustic bass entered with sustained low notes followed by rapid passages. The speakers then issued a series of otherworldly tones that were musically complimentary, but at the same time in stark contrast to the earthy timbre of the bass; it was an encounter of the primal with the far future. At times, the piece had a jazzy, African feel that developed a gentle groove, masterfully conjured by Worthington. Towards the end, the acoustic and recorded sounds blended together with a broad, soothing feel that turned just a bit sorrowful at the finish. Mint Conditioner skillfully blended recorded sounds with live acoustic playing, with the result often greater than the sum of its parts.
Home, by Jenny Olivia Johnson followed and this opened with slow, double-stopped tones. The electronics were configured to process the acoustic sounds, then loop them through the speakers with a one or two second delay. The low notes added an element of sadness while the electronics contributed a somewhat bleary sensibility. Various sounds followed, including some rough, sawing noises and a series very high pitches that stood out like screams from the otherwise dense texture. As the piece proceeded the drama increased, and a number of amazing effects were produced by Worthington and the computer. At the finish, high screaming tones dominated, a fitting climax to the ever-rising tension. Home is one long crescendo, artfully constructed and adroitly played. Worthington’s efforts were met with sustained applause.
After the intermission the Hex Vocal Ensemble took the stage to perform – a cappella – the Sonorous Incantations section of the program. Hex specializes in music from, and inspired by, Meredith Monk. Their first piece was After persimmons by Li-young Lee, composed by Carolyn Chen, which opened with long soprano phrases followed by the lower voices entering in counterpoint. At times, the soaring phrases by the soprano arced brilliantly overhead while the other voices continued with independent melodies. The interweaving of the various lines was precisely sung and resulted in an intriguing and constantly changing surface texture. After persimmons by Li-young Lee is beguiling music which took full advantage the vocal finesse of the Hex Ensemble.
Hee-oo-hm-ha, by Toby Twining was next, and this had a bright, up tempo and contemporary feel with vocalise in place of words. The strange syllables and phrases were crisply delivered and generally infectious. There were stretches of full harmony at times, but the sunny optimism and rhythmic groove of Hee-oo-hm-ha was pleasantly reminiscent of doo wop street singing. Strong applause followed this piece.
Dolmen Music, by Meredith Monk, followed with cellist Gina Kodel joining the singers on stage. Dolmen Music is normally learned and sung by rote, but the Hex Ensemble had notated the entire 25 minutes of vocal parts. High, thin pitches from the cello began the piece with a remote, windswept feeling as if we were in some distant and barren landscape. The higher voices entered with a sound like the far off howling of coyotes in the desert night and the lower voices answered with garbled phrases. There were no intelligible words in any of these passages and the Hex Ensemble convincingly created the sense that we were witnessing the primal incantations of an ancient culture. As the piece progressed, variations emerged in the vocal sounds including rhythmic syncopation, broad tutti stretches in full harmony, conversational passages between groups of voices and strong solos. The cello was often tacet, but deep double-stopped chords and extended techniques were regularly mixed into the vocal flow. The vocal lines were often independent and complex, but all were successfully navigated by the Hex Ensemble. At the finish, all were heard in full voice, creating a powerful climax. Dolmen Music and the Hex Ensemble delivered up a unique musical sound world, full of fundamental passion.
The final work in the program was Music for people who like the future, by Andrew Hamilton and this opened in a series of declarative passages with repeated words. It was a difficult to make out the text – it was part yelling, part cheering and part singing – all in a wonderful mix of sounds. A strong beat kept the piece on course, adding to an insistent and urgent feel. The tempo and volume increased towards the finish; a reminder that the future will not arrive quietly. Music for people who like the future brought a hopeful measure of confidence to what seems, these days, to be such a bleak uncertainty. The Hex Ensemble provided the needed flair and enthusiasm for this welcome message and sustained applause followed.
The next concert at Monk Space will be on January 8, 2019 and feature performances by the Grammy Award-winning ensemble PARTCH.