I want to talk to you about mud.
Not the sole-adorning, crossing-the-grass mud. I’m talking about thick, jailbroken swamp; the kind of mud that takes a full hand of fleshy, calloused fingers to scrape from your cheek. That was the raw, slopping sound world of Øyvind Torvund’s “MudJam”—a rib-vibrating reminder that beneath the glyphs and tuplets and extramusical suggestion, music is just sound; simple, physical, shoved around by skin, wood, and metal. At the most recent installment of the Monday Evening Concert series, each work demonstrated a different way this tug-of-air might communicate meaning; some works focused inward at the sonic material itself while others gazed outward towards their reflection in the world. The program impressed on me how sound, like dirt and water, can be molded to convey simplicity of form while its inner makeup remains impenetrably intricate—sound soil patted into a castle whose form can be either admired or subjected to the impending tide. What the hell am I talking about? I have no idea. But I left Monday’s program, New Voices IV: Untitled School, with a renewed sense of wonder at the aural sludge we work with as composers and musicians.
This isn’t to imply that the evening’s entertainment was messy or monochromatic or tracked itself halfway across my apartment before I thought better of it and took off my boots. In fact, the program was exquisitely designed and brilliantly performed—ambitious and hip and carefully paced. New York-based piano and percussion quartet, Yarn/Wire, were not just instrumentally virtuosic, but musically virtuosic. Consisting of Laura Barger and Ning Yi on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion, Yarn/Wire’s dozen years together has yielded a savviness for new music which bathed each work with a sense of proud ownership. In Thomas Meadowcroft’s Walkman Antiquarian, their playful ensemble work intertwined with nostalgic electronics in child-like exploration, punctuated by moments of breathtaking, reflective stillness. As Paul Griffith puts in his program notes, “Memory is coming to us from several angles and at different removes, in a form that proceeds with the necessity of a ritual.” This reminiscent quality is partially an artifact of the form, but is also illuminated by Meadowcroft’s orchestration. Resonances are disembodied and passed around the ensemble with the saccharine distortions of memory: Vinyl crackles become beads dancing on a speaker cone, melodic episodes reverberate eerily from the harp of the piano. Textures dissolve with a casual inevitability in the way that memories softly, if persistently, return to reality.
The more inward-focused works were Catherine Lamb’s Curvo Totalitas and Johannes Kreidler’s Scanner Studies. Where Meadowcroft’s work attended to sound’s referential (and so, emotional) potential, Lamb’s contribution was one of austere magnification of sound itself. Waves of metallic rumbling respirate slowly, almost imperceptibly, gradually unveiling a world of spectral details and transformations. Yarn/Wire’s performance was patient and deliberate, elegantly unfolding subtle shifts of timbre to stunning, pulsating, effect. Scanner Studies (numbers 1 and 2 were performed) were equally concise in concept: images are sonified in the manner of a simple grahic score before parameters are expanded to the point of absurdity. But beneath the amusing exercises is Kreidler’s always keen eye for musical potential in the mundanely ordinary, and a profound awareness of dramatic, rhetorical and comedic form.
The title work of the program, Torvund’s Untitled School, was a massive, seven-movement audio-visual exploration of scales, chords and textures that closed the evvening. Clever and driving, its later movements traverse imitations of various styles and textures before landing in the chirping soundscape of “Jungles.” This dramatic shift begged the question of how (or where) the work might progress—serene landscapes quivering with life amid dimming lights might well have concluded the piece. But then came the mud.
The final two movements, “MudJam” and “Campfire Tunes,” were set apart in several ways. There were no accompanying images. The stage lights were dimmed. There was no formal separation starting or ending either movement. All of this amplified a sense of arrival: Now, we listen rather than watch. Returning to sound(s) from the world rather than the brain, Yarn/Wire summoned a hell-raised, raucous rumbling, only loosening its grip for the flickering, smokey tranquility of “Campfire Songs.”
If anything fell short in the program’s careful design, it was the occasional awkward trappings of traditional concert format: The space, balance and performers were all on-point, but some pieces needed time for digestion afterwards. Jonathan Hepfer exuded calm, considerate intelligence and I could imagine him and/or members of the ensemble saying a few words about each piece during stage changes. Certainly program notes can provide helpful context, but with new music the context is unclear at best, and usually still in-development—brief discussions might serve (or supplement) this sort of series well. Still, Paul Griffiths’ program notes were beautiful (“scanning geometries in a thundercloud?” Be still my chart…), and the program held my interest throughout. Needless to say, this will be the first of many Monday Evening Concerts for me; I’ve already marked the remainder of this season’s offerings in my calendar.