On Tuesday, January 28, 2020 Tuesdays@Monk Space presented a concert titled 20/20 Visions which consisted of several new pieces for microtonal keyboards. Presented by Brightwork New Music, the concert featured five contemporary works – including three world premieres – all performed by the Ray-Kallay Duo. Four of the composers were in attendance to offer comments on their music to the knowledgeable audience that filled the intimate Monk Space venue.
The first piece in the program was Atlantys (1984) for two DX7 keyboards, by Tristan Murail. The Yamaha DX7, manufactured from 1983 to 1989, was the first successful digital synthesizer offered to the mass market. Two vintage DX7s were on hand, giving this performance the sound of period authenticity. A soft rush of surf along with some low ambient sounds opened the piece, immediately delivering a restful and calming feeling. A deep rumble soon emerged from the lower registers that added a contrasting sense of the slightly ominous. Ringing sounds soon dominated the performance space, but never overpowered the interplay between Ray and Kallay that remained well-balanced, even as the variety of electronic sounds rapidly multiplied. One distinctive element was the sound of large iron bars being struck, ringing out with strong percussive tones. Towards the finish, a loud explosive sound filled the room and reverberated throughout the venue. More electronic sounds entered, alien and eclectic, reminding everyone of the great versatility of the DX7. Atlantys artfully exploits the capabilities of the venerable DX7 synthesizer, and was admirably complimented by the performance of the Ray-Kallay Duo.
The world premiere of “Really, I’m fine” (2019) by Jason Barabba followed. This was a microtonal composition for the four-handed keyboard of the Ray-Kallay Duo. This opened with a series of intricate, interleaving passages that managed to avoid needless complexity, even with twenty fingers on the keys. The strong sense of motion was pleasant and continuous. The active sections were, by turns, intimate, mischievous, playful and sweet. Engaging rhythms and an agreeable mix of exotic chords intrigued the audience throughout. The often-elaborate counterpoint was precisely played by Ray and Kallay, who navigated each passage with clarity and style. “Really, I’m fine” is an appealing combination of inviting rhythms and complimentary microtonal harmonies in a well-crafted balance.
Hush (2019) by Nina Shekhar was next, another world premiere. As the composer explained, Hush is an attempt to create the musical equivalent of a loving hug, the sort of comforting embrace that might be welcomed when feeling homesick or sad. Performed by Ray and Kallay, this piece began with quietly gentle arpeggios that rang out with bell-like tones, as if from an old-fashioned music box. A warm, soft feeling resulted, reminiscent of a favorite lullaby. When the phrasing was repeated in a somewhat lower register, the effect was to add a beautiful luminosity to the notes. As the phrases slowed and descended still further in pitch, they acquired the rich timbre of a vibraphone. The liquid sounds and expressive playing further enhanced the calm sensibility. Hush consistently evoked warmth and contentment to create a satisfying musical respite.
Sean Friar’s Fit (2020), followed, and this was another newly-minted world premiere. This featured Ray and Kallay seated at two different keyboards, one programmed for microtuning (Kallay) and the other in standard twelve-tone equal temperament (Ray). In his remarks, Sean Friar stated that Fit was an attempt to illustrate the interactions between two different personalities by way of musical metaphor. The conversation began with a series of cool, sophisticated passages by Vicki Ray that were answered by a string of straightforward declarative chords from Aron Kallay. The sounds were congenial and complimentary, despite the differences in tuning, and this got the conversation off to an encouraging start. As the piece proceeded, the notes from the two keyboards drifted in and out of compatibility, much as two individual personalities might probe and clash while exchanging viewpoints and opinions. At one point the passages became very complex and independent, as if the two were in sharp disagreement. At other times the tempo slowed and the sounds were more congruent, often with lovely harmonies. There was always just the right mix of the two tuning styles so that the listener could quickly sense the changing flow of empathy, indifference, affinity or discord. The interplay between the performers was exemplary, and brought out all the emotions that might be expected in an ardent verbal exchange. Towards the finish, the sounds became more congenial and accordant, as if some understanding had been reached. Fit is a brilliant composition that simultaneously exploits alternate and conventional tuning to illuminate interpersonal relationships in a unique musical way.
The final work on the concert was Because Patterns/Deep State (2016) by Isaac Schankler. Bass player Scott Worthington joined the Ray-Kallay Duo along with Schankler who presided over the computer. The piece opened with quiet sustained tones and warm electronic sounds that slowly increased in volume. The keyboards entered with a solidly syncopated rhythm that made for a fine contrast with the drone-like texture hovering in the background. The piano notes fell like summer rain drops onto the calm and warming sounds of the bass and electronics. All of this was highly complimentary and made for some really lovely music. The keyboards faded in and out, uncovering the deep bass tones as a feeling of distress gradually grew in the lower registers. The piano notes also became more dramatic and increasingly anxious as this section continued. The intensity increased further with a high, thin tone coming via skillful bowing in Worthington’s bass that was especially effective. The progression from warmly placid to restless and uneasy was made complete, artfully realized by the acoustic and electronic forces that were always perfectly in balance. The final moments of the piece returned to the quiet tranquility and optimism of the opening. Because Patterns/Deep State is an unusually thorough integration of the acoustic and the electronic that nicely succeeds in portraying emotions ranging from serenity to apprehension.