Monday, January 10, 2011

Concert Review: Seattle Composers' Salon, Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Seattle, 1/7/2011

The concert began and ended with ensemble pieces. The first of these was the cryptically titled “Gemtian Songs” by Christian Asplund, for tenor and various instruments (this performance was for acoustic guitar, French horn, clarinet, and string bass, though judging from what was said about the piece, it has been played by completely different ensembles in the past, and may actually be for any, unspecified, instruments). Whatever its intended instrumentation, the piece relied much on timbre for its overall effect and even its form. The fact that I could not hear the words distinctly (nor was I supposed to, I don’t think) only added to this. There were five songs (of a set of six) performed. In each, aleatory and improvisatory elements combined into textures: pointillistic sputters on a single pitch; drones with varying overtones; scatters of individual phonemes pronounced by the instrumentalists (and later the tenor soloist); and at one point a jazz/minimalist ostinato that fragmented and slowly disappeared into an evolving drone/chord. The overall feeling was meditative, particularly since the volume level was low throughout.

Afterwards, an audience member asked how they’d chosen to do the specific five songs from the set of six. The answer: “Well, the other one asks the instrumentalists to sing… No, actually, we had to cut one because of the time, so if we had to cut any, that was the one.” Another humorous moment: an audience member asked about the French horn player's unusual instrumental accessory. “What type of mute is that?” Answer: “An Opel.” (Meaning, of course, the Buick – it was a hubcap.)

The second piece was the shortest: an untitled “Prelude” by Michael Nicolella, who played it on the classic guitar. He first gave a short introduction, saying that he wanted to achieve a pianistic sound for the guitar. The piece did have some of the quality of keyboard writing, with an ostinato (what would be played in the left hand on a piano) and a melody that slowly revealed itself floating above it; however, to me it had the feel of Spanish classical guitar music (not Flamenco) more than a Chopin prelude.

Christopher DeLaurenti followed this with an electronic piece for negative soundspace. He took the sounds that were not originally intended in a performance of a string quartet by Luigi Nono (page turning, shifting positions of instruments, breathing by performers) and amplified these, leaving blank spaces where the notes of the string quartet originally were. The piece succeeded on two levels. In one way, it was a continuation of the “silent” music of Neal Meyer’s “Gradus” and Gust Burns (and ultimately of Cage) – serving as a vehicle to bring one’s mind to the silence and unintended sounds between and among sounds. But also, Chris gave a long spoken introduction, then had the lights doused, and he performed in near darkness with only his face visible, moonlike and expressionless in the pale gleam of a laptop – it was a startling visual performance piece that caused the audience members to focus on the small details of light and darkness that were dimly visible here and there (the glint off of a piece of jewelry, the shadows cast by the glow of the laptop) in the same manner as they focused on the sounds.

The last three pieces were all very short and for a very large ensemble: members of the Seattle Rock Orchestra (so called because they often do arrangements of rock and other types of popular songs). They are basically a full chamber orchestra, notably lacking percussion (probably to avoid any stereotype sound of “arranged pop music”) and heavy on the bass instruments – trombones, bass clarinet, and I counted five string bases. The three pieces were by brothers John and Scott Teske: two (from a set of six) untitled graphic scores by John, and a fully-notated post-Romantic piece by Scott. In the first of John’s graphics, low menacing microtonal drones gradually opened into larger sounds – very reminiscent of some of Ligeti’s “Atmospheres” pieces. The second started with a vast bang and a tumult – by far the loudest single ecstatic explosion I’ve ever heard at a Composers’ Salon – and then gradually fell apart, returning to the drones of the first piece (letting a didgeridoo give a primordial growl in the process). Scott’s piece finished up the set by beginning with a chord much like one of the drones in John’s pieces, then evolving melodically into a short symphonic slow movement with traces of Mahler and Richard Strauss. By itself this piece would have seemed too short (and even unfinished); but in this set it sounded like a finale that returned the listener to familiar territory after the two graphic pieces. One less string bass (the bass player was now a conductor) didn’t detract from it piece at all.

As Tom Baker (curator of the Salons and guitarist in “Gemtian Songs”) commented, something great about the Salons is the variety of pieces that could be presented. This concert was no exception.

(This posting is on 1/10/2011; 134 days until the first performance of the complete "StormSound" Cycle.)

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