Sunday, October 5, 2008

Review: Great Noise Ensemble 9/19/2008 - Darkness in No Man's Land

Great Noise Ensemble Season Four: Icons Old and New
Concert #1: Darkness in No Man's Land
September 19, 2008 - Catholic University of America, Ward Hall, Washington, D.C.

The Great Noise Ensemble filled The Catholic University of America's Ward Hall with a choice sampling of exciting and diverse music on September 19. Although not without its liabilities and holes, GNE's season-opening concert was a thoroughly entertaining, engaging, varied, adventurous, and challenging evening of contemporary music. (True, Rzewski's early-70's works aren't exactly recent, but they, without question, rightfully claim the prime finale spot of this concert.)

Thick Skin, Ryan Brown
The attractively off-kilter funky jam session of Ryan Brown's Thick Skin was the ideal opening groove to grab the audience's attention. As numerous student composers in their 20's sat cheerfully beating out a 7/4 pattern in the audience, the group harnessed that jazz ensemble tradition of a loose, free feeling made up of super-tight ensemble licks. For its length, though, this first movement could have used more return of familiar material before its sudden end.

The fantastic 5 vs. 4 riff between the electric and bass guitars was a nice set up to the lyrical bassoon line that bore a somewhat curious resemblance to Thom Yorke's voice – only huskier. Balance was an issue in this second movement in particular, with very quiet auxiliary experimental percussion (clothes hangers, etc.) overpowered by electric guitar and ride cymbal. Hopefully the studio recording, if there is one, can clean that up.

The final movement continued the relentless barrage of happily infectious grooves, this time featuring the bassoon and guitar. The bassoon's fingering looked incredibly awkward, but the wide jumps of range were navigated with surprising fluency. Also, this is probably a happy accident, but the use of the side of the snare drum was a welcome relief in this echo-prone brick space. The recurring bVI, VII, I progression (Db-Eb-F, or thereabouts) toward the end brought a bit of a rock/soul flavor reminiscent of the Blues Brothers. In all, this work was enough to make the classical-only crowd wish they were more versed in contemporary jazz/art rock. In contrast to the following piece, the program notes for Thick Skin didn't mention the music itself at all, but gave a nice insight into the composer's motivation.

Three Nocturnes, James Leatherbarrow
James Leatherbarrow's Three Nocturnes for tuba and piano presented an ambitious, adventurous piece filled with interesting effects and expressive potential, but ultimately lacking in development and long-term musical interest. The many non-traditional (though now common) composerly effects seemed to be the main focus throughout the three movements. Tuba multiphonics formed a nice timbral counterpoint to low piano tremolos. The tuba's playing into the open piano lid presented a partially-exploited opportunity to explore the instruments' combined resonance, but a more compelling musical statement was needed to compensate for this physically awkward gesture.

The opening to the second movement featured a Bartokian rhythmic energy interrupted by dramatic sweeps in the piano. The concept of an incomplete or unformed tuba melody used here has potential, but this version was entirely unsatisfying, like setting up an audience expectation and never fulfilling it.

Noticeable intonation issues plagued the slow final movement especially, which is unfortunate because previous GNE audiences have heard Mr. Goins play much better. Throughout the piece, the tuba lost much of its beauty when approaching louder dynamics. Some diatonic/pentatonic clusters brought the work to a slow, unsatisfying ending.

Frankly, the program notes to Three Nocturnes were more compelling than the music itself. This work provided a good lesson for the many student composers in the audience that night: that the success of a piece of music can't rest on special effects and a compelling program alone.

On a positive note, the interesting musical material was plentiful and the sound-world was well established. But, as in a sketch draft, the composing out of those musical ideas seemed under-developed. It was as though the very existence of non-traditional sounds (by now rather commonplace in GNE concerts, actually) and a rich narrative backstory were considered enough to carry the piece. The truth of this statement, however, is a judgment I leave up to the audience.

Grab It!, Jacob TV
Presented without its video component, JacobTV's Grab It! is under ten years old, intriguing, and dripping with Reich-like inventiveness (it has the flair of a twenty-first century It's Gonna Rain). The work is in some regards simply a saxophone transcription of text itself, which is the work's primary shortcoming, but its performance by Matt Taylor showed real edge and skill. I heartily agree with the composer that the sax was a great timbral choice to accompany the recording.

This piece would really benefit from another revision that includes some contrapuntal texture in the sax to break up the feel of a literal transcription, and to allow for more intelligibility of the text. The house's unforgiving high wood ceiling and brick walls surely didn't help matters, but even so, the text was consistently covered by the live performer.

Since the intelligible portions of text were limited to a few choice expletives and the words “You lose everything,” the piece never ultimately transcended the world of great ideas yet to be realized. A simple change of texture in a few select areas would largely solve this single significant problem. This “simple change,” however, might involve undoing the composer's overall artistic goals for the piece.

Coming Together and Attica, Frederic Rzewski
Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together and Attica both deal with the story of upstate New York's Attica Prison riot of 1971, leading to the deaths of nine guards and twenty-eight inmates. The tragic loss of an obviously intelligent individual – Sam Melville, the author of the texts – provides a specific up-close picture of the events set musically to great effect.

The texts are spoken in cyclic patterns, adding new phrases or words on each go-around. These two process pieces originally call for ensemble improvisation on a given monophonic line (a bass line and an evolving melody, respectively). Due to some truly masterful orchestrating by conductor Armando Bayolo, these non-improvised versions demonstrate a real sense of direction and sensitivity to the texts – so much so that these particular arrangements seem as much a part of the compositions as the original music and texts themselves. A particularly effective moment came in Attica when the ensemble smartly gets out of the way of the guitar, a gorgeous but quiet instrument too often covered up by only a few others. This pair of orchestrations alone is certainly an accomplishment at least on par with the rest of the compositions on the concert.

In contrast to JacobTV's Grab It!, the musical components to Rzewski's works truly complement and support the delivery of the text, rather than slavishly following their every inflection. The music is not a setting of, but rather a reflection on the texts. Freed from a literal musical transcription, the cyclical text format creates a dramatic intensity and heightened focus as each new phrase approaches. Rather than becoming tedious, the textual repetitions only serve to remind the listener where she/he has been. Also, richer orchestrations were exploited well during repeated texts, helping balance the roles of word and music.

Whereas Coming Together utilizes a rather lengthy paragraph (or a brief essay) full of text, Attica is comprised entirely of the phrase “Attica is in front of me”. As in Coming Together, the words are revealed slowly, almost as if they are being pondered and written down in real time with the music. This is especially moving once the listener realizes, at least a good 60-90 seconds beforehand, that the end of the phrase will eventually be “Attica... is... in... front... of... me.” That word “me,” then, is imbued with a magnified dramatic importance as both the musical and textual climax of the work.

I was somehow unperturbed by the fact that this pair of works – and the entire concert as a whole – ended on a comparatively down-tempo piece. I have already argued that this was one limitation of the Leatherbarrow work heard earlier in the evening, but somehow the same musical tactic aroused in me a very different result. My only defense is to say that the emotional impact of these final two works by Rzewski succeeded in carrying me to a place at which this subdued ending seemed not only appropriate but indispensable.

The composers, performers, conductor, behind-the-scenes facilitators, and audience members combine to ignite an energy that is a rare and welcome relief to the typical well-starched concert-going experience. Of course, what stirs one listener's mind and soul may simply leave another flat, and GNE's variety of programing will inherently illicit responses of each category in every performance. (What do you get when you cross a chamber concerto, a passion oratorio, and a mandolin/soda can duo? I don't know, but someone is sure to disapprove.) But I along with most contemporary music fans will take this “hit-hit-hit-hit-and-miss” effort over safe, sanitary, familiar programing any day. Kudos to the Great Noise Ensemble for another successful concert!

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