Review: WasteLAnd presents Berglind Tómasdóttir

A question I hear often is “why should people go to concerts?” It can be expensive,* it takes time out of your busy evening,** and high fidelity recordings make it easy to pipe music directly to your own headphones.*** If you have ever asked this question, this review is for you.
*Big symphonies in big venues can be upwards of $100, especially famous orchestras on tour. Small ensembles in smaller venues, especially doing contemporary music, can be $5-$20, which is comparable to buying a CD.
**In light of a certain app that came out on July 6, I am inclined to believe anyone can be convinced to go outside if they have enough of a reward. Every concert is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, that’s a pretty good reward.
***Don’t get me started.

WasteLAnd is run by five SoCal-based composers (all of whom I have reviewed in some regard at some point in the past year). Alex Ross calls it “one of the country’s most far-sighted new-music series.” The music is performed mostly by LA-based performers, but also brings in internationally renowned players and composers. WasteLAnd programs 21st century music, generally for soloists or small ensembles. This is the first show of their fourth season, featuring internationally acclaimed Icelandic flutist Berglind Tómasdóttir.

Berglind Tómasdóttir is a flutist and interdisciplinary artist living in Reykjavik, Iceland, and has ties to the SoCal music scene through her time achieving a DMA from UCSD and working with LA- and SD-based composers. She is now an associate professor in contemporary music performance at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and her music has been featured in festivals and conventions across the northern hemisphere. Her performance for WasteLAnd featured her own recent flute pieces, played with minimal break so they blend into one hour-long piece.

After taking my seat, I noticed an array of flutes on a table. The lights dimmed. Berglind picked up the headjoint of a bass flute, and began to whisper. Behind her shone a projection of a camera inside a flute. Or maybe it was an esophagus. Or rain, incredibly close up. It was impossible to make out the shapes on the screen, just as it was difficult to grasp the sounds coming out of Berglind. What Berglind made with the headjoint was not dulcet music, but rather a soundscape. She wheezed and sucked and whispered into the aperture. I keenly remember a moment when it sounded like animalistic slurping, right as the projector showed something that looked vaguely organic. It was a completely spell-binding moment, but was whisked away as Berglind relentlessly squeezed and squeaked. There was an electroacoustic element, and a ghostly amplified flute generated by processing Berglind’s original sound accompanied her like a duet partner. She eventually put the headjoint on the bass flute and had a wider range of notes. She didn’t need them; I would have been content to hear her headjoint-only timbral play for hours. But applying pitches added a new element to the music. She eventually picked up a C flute for the finale, the standard size with a higher register than the bass flute, and the opportunities increased yet again. Between the two flutes, a video played on the projector of her in a grassy field playing her C flute. She was attacking the music vigorously, jerking her head emphatically, but it was silent. It is a curious thing to watch music without sound. I could almost hear it. I could see what she was doing with her fingers and mouth, and having just watched and listened for half an hour, I had become attuned to her style. But even the wind was silent. When the video faded out, the real her faded back in on flute, and the audibility was startling.

All that would be an impressive performance by itself, but Berglind wasn’t out of tricks yet. It took me completely by surprise when I realized the echoes surrounding me were not just her amplified flute on the speakers, but flutes and voices coming from performers hiding in the shadows. I had never experienced anything like it before, and I am not sure if I ever will again. The precision of blending multiple flutes and voices, matching and blurring microtones and timbres like they did, was unreal. The realization came when they started to spread; they no longer matched, but they took on their own identities. Out of one came many, and in ways the listener wouldn’t expect. The performers landed together on a sweet chord and faded away. Now, you know a performance is amazing when people don’t want to clap and break the spell. The stunned silence is the best compliment to give a performer. Berglind took a timid bow and we finally broke out in applause.

This concert was not an album you can put in the background while reading the new Harry Potter book. This was an experience that only happened once. Nothing can ever replace the wonderment of being there enveloped by sounds from another reality. And that, dear readers, is why you should go to concerts.

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