Review: Southland Ensemble, Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim

While wild Up clattered, reoriented itself, and clattered again downtown on Friday night, a much quieter kind of recapitulation of materials took place at Curve Line Space in Eagle Rock: Southland Ensemble, known for their careful presentations of underrepresented composers, performed intimate works by composers Gerhard Stäbler and Kunsu Shim. The pieces titillated and occasionally challenged, and as violist Cassia Streb commented, consistently offered an “intellectual puzzle.”

A particular pleasure was the stark simplicity of In Zwei Teilen, or In Two Parts, by Shim. The Teils, or parts, bookended the concert, an appropriate metaphor for the concert overall; in music this purified, when materials are stripped to their essence, structure becomes content. Teil 1, conducted by the composer, consisted of two tableaus: rain-like pianissimo plinks from a thumb piano against a sustained tone in the cello, alternating multiple times with long, glassy dissonant chords through a dispersed ensemble of recorder, cello, violin, and viola. The same tableaus ended the concert, presented as Teil 2. When our ears are bombarded daily, it’s gently fulfilling to apprehend something as fundamental as binary form. One forgets, there is clarity and power in simply reconsidering an idea after another has been presented.

Another highlight was Southland Ensemble’s a playful interpretation of Hart Auf Hart by Stäbler, a graphic score comprised of a bar-coded grid with coordinates. Ensemble members turned handheld radios and cassette decks off and on to Battleship-style coordinates shouted over a megaphone, rewinding and piping in tinny AM radio, bringing to mind Cage. More like Cage, some grid squares contained nothing at all, and silence delimited the material with an uncomfortable objectivity.

]and on the eyes black sleep of night[ by Stäbler presented more thoughtful juxtapositions, for piccolo, clarinet, and violin, in which breath-like cadences on piercing intervals alternated with passages of dissonant activity. Piccolo amplified the higher partials of the clarinet, as overtones interacted in the beating atmosphere, and the piccolo seemed to take on aspects of the clarinet, its woodiness suddenly apparent in the lower dynamics. Violin, a mediating force, held these fast.

Shim’s luftrand for violin, viola and cello continued the theme of self-contained scenes, but in a darkened tone. While Stäbler explores a taut, considered objectivity, in Shim, things loosen, junctures come apart. Wavering sul pont harmonics and unsure gestures are suspended precariously in short, motivic units. Each scene is presented as an aphorism, but an apprehensive one, made by somebody lost on some bleak shore. The form occurs within these aphorisms, musical meaning leaping between lilypads, bounded by silence. The dual structure evokes an individual voice, weighing options, assessing alternatives, all with emotional intensity.

Happy for No Reason by Shim, in contrast, was a straightforward conceptual exploration of noise and quietude – buckets, boxes, and bags of bells were dropped and thrown at random intervals, before a B section in which players reconfigured with deft, tiny gestures, while the Stäbler slowly pulled a roll of masking tape from wall to wall, around various players. Again, the simplicity of the binary form was remarkably effective.

X (February ’94) by Stäbler, “for closures and fasteners” featured the ensemble working with ziplock bags, Velcro, tape, zippers, shoelaces, staplers, boxes and clamps, manipulating each according to dice rolls. All of these items can only exist in one of two states: open, or closed. As dry as the content and structure seemed to be here, this choice of materials, and their implied states, suggested a subtle poeticism.

There is plenty of academic work on Stäbler and Shim’s music, exploring its theoretical and political underpinnings, but for the average, curious concert-goer, this music more than speaks for itself, with its careful emphasis on form, expectations, and purity.

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