With election day just a week away, Tuesdays@Monk Space offered Midterms: This Will Hurt Someone, a concert program devoted to contemporary music with a political viewpoint.
Grab it, by Jacob TV opened the show, preceded by a recorded track of coarse street talk that blended into an equally angry video. The four hands of HOCKET accompanied, and the raw stream of words was perfectly matched by a dense and powerful outpouring of piano notes. The music reflected the passionate resentment of those caught up in the wheels of a system intent on punishing the small time street criminal. Scenes of prison life and enraged inmates gave way at the finish to a hymn-like stretch that spoke hopefully of a life reclaimed after incarceration. Grab it is a stark reminder of the failings of American justice and how it perpetuates a violent underclass.
This Will Hurt Someone, by the late Matt Marks followed, arranged by pianist Thomas Kotcheff who accompanied vocalist Gregory Fletcher. The text for this piece is the final statement of R. Bud Dwyer, State Treasurer of Pennsylvania, asserting his innocence upon conviction of bribery in 1987. The music has an easy, sweet feel, and the entrance of a toy piano played by Sarah Gibson added a childlike innocence to the words. Fletcher sang calmly and gently, navigating the higher registers with a steady confidence. The music turned darker at times with lines such as “But in this nation, the world’s greatest democracy, there is nothing they can do to prevent me from being punished for a crime I did not commit.” Yet the placid character of the music continued, underlining the disconnect between the reality of conviction and Dwyer’s enduring sense of innocence. “This will hurt someone” were the last words spoken by Dwyer before committing suicide on-camera during the press conference. This piece is Matt Marks’ testament to an often misplaced confidence in our judicial system.
Counterpundit by Ian Dicke was next, a work that for piano and video performed by Aron Kallay. This opened with a quietly introspective piano line that attained a nostalgic sensibility at times. As the tempo increased, the music became more active and the video displayed a flag waiving in the breeze. Strong percussive beats were heard on the sound track of the video as the images became halting and choppy. As the piece proceeded, images of Hulk Hogan became increasingly intermingled with the flag until the video was dominated by wrestling personalities striking patriotic poses. Counterpundit was written during the 2016 election campaign and is an astute observation of how spectacle has replaced reasoned political discourse. The outcome of the election and the subsequent behavior of the present administration only amplifies Dicke’s central premise from 2016. The piece ended with a quiet introspective feel that seemed to be longing for a return to a more enlightened past.
Following the intermission Tonality, a ten-voice choir that specializes in music about justice issues, took the stage to perform “Her beacon-hand beckons”, the third movement of Caroline Shaw’s To the Hands. Lush four-part harmonies filled Monk Space with beautiful a cappella sounds and a peaceful sentiment. This perfectly matched the text, a freely paraphrased version of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. The final line, “I will be your refuge…”, was particularly moving.
Philosophy of Furniture, by Natalie Dietterich followed, performed by speaking percussionist Derek Tywoniuk. A video projected a series of statements – ostensibly on the ideology of interior decoration and fashion – accompanied by loud, primal drum strokes. Tywoniuk shouted out the texts as they appeared on the screen, punctuating them with booming blasts and sharp raps. The contrast with the previous piece could not have been greater and the thunderous percussion created a compelling emphasis on the otherwise mundane stream words on the screen. The drift of the argument seemed to be that contemporary taste is overly influenced by money so that expensive furniture invariably acquired a higher status. “We proceed on false principals and imagine we have done a fine thing…” All of this unfurled seamlessly and Tywoniuk’s dexterity of was on full display as he attended to the many percussive elements while shouting out the spoken words at the correct instant. The text then took a most interesting turn. By describing the same processes that are at work in fashion, money was shown to similarly exert a decisive leverage on one’s political opinion. Philosophy of Furniture combines the quiet of subtle reasoning with explosive percussion to make a telling point.
Two pieces from widely known contemporary composers completed the concert program. “Which Side are you on?” the second movement of Four North American Ballads by Frederic Rzewski, began with a recorded vocal rendition of a Harlan County miners’ protest song. Rzewski’s take on the song, arranged for piano, followed immediately, full of strong chords and a sturdy texture that was ably realized by Thomas Kotcheff. The complexity and power of the music seemed to increase with each variation on the simple folk tune, filling the cozy Monk Space with a robust militancy and ending with a vigorous crescendo that drew cheers from the audience. Tonality closed the concert with Make Peace by David Lang, a composer known for his sensitivity and a strong sense of empathy. The close harmonies and delicate balance in the music were complimented by the house acoustics and excellent intonation by the singers. Make Peace was a gracefully tranquil ending to an often raucous examination of our current politics through contemporary music.
Midterms: This will Hurt Someone was a carefully curated and timely collection of diverse musical commentary on our political culture.
The Isaura String Quartet, based in Los Angeles but too rarely heard, appeared in Chinatown on Sunday, February 18, 2018, at the spacious Human Resources venue. The concert program consisted of five contemporary chamber pieces, including first performances of works by Scott Worthington and Ulrich Krieger.
Valencia (2012), by Caroline Shaw, was first. The audience – appropriately enough – snacked on orange slices thoughtfully provided at the door and this simple token worked on the imagination of the listener, even before the first note sounded. As the composer writes of the Valencia orange: “It is a thing of nature so simple, yet so complex and extraordinary.” The opening arpeggios are light and breezy and some very high squeaks in the violin suggest a gentle breeze blowing in the branches of an orchard. A twittering of birds is heard and a solid optimism prevails in the tutti passages. The feeling is warm and earthy, and taking the orchard metaphor further, it is as if we are watching the fruit ripening in the sunshine. The pizzicato phrases towards the finish even suggest oranges plucked from the tree. The Isaura Quartet played with their accustomed sensitivity, deftly extracting all of the elements present in this inventive work.
Next was Decay One (2015), by Amy Golden. A quiet, sustained chord was followed by a slow, downward glissando in the cello and this imparted an increasing sense of anxiety. The others joined in, sliding up and down the strings at different rates and increasing in volume, much like a slow motion siren. Each string instrument independently varied its pace, pitch direction and register, neatly simulating a group of sirens and adding to the sense of discomfort. Every Angelino immediately understands that many sirens coming from different directions amounts to a major problem. The sudden stop at the finish only inflated this sense of urgency – when the sirens stop you know that trouble is close at hand. The playing throughout was disciplined and cohesive even as the score lacked any melody, pulse or formal harmonic structure. Decay One artfully invokes one of the more instinctive anxieties of contemporary urban living.
The first performance of Scott Worthington’s The Landscape Listens (2016) followed. Long, quietly sustained tones opened this piece, building into luminous harmonies. No pulse or melody intruded on the delicately introspective sensibility. As the chords progressed smoothly upward, small changes in their construction and some unconventional pitch combinations continuously recast the sound into a beautifully calming ambiance. There is a timeless feel to this piece – it slowly unfolds at its own pace, yet never loses the listener’s interest. With everything depending on precise intonation, the poise and concentration of the Isaura Quartet never faulted. Towards the finish, the top pitches in the violin were very high and thin, but these were played squarely in tune and with a very fine touch. The Landscape Listens is a radiant piece that is a superb addition to Worthington’s already impressive body of work.
Darkness is Not Well Lit (2016), by Nicole Lizée was next and for this the Isaura String Quartet entered a large metal cage made from small aluminum tubes, as you might see in a tent frame. The players arranged themselves, each sitting behind a circular fan placed just in front of their music stands. The fans were powered up and rotated at a fairly low speed so that when a note was played the sound partly reflected back and partly passed through the fan. This effect added a cheerfully alien character to the music as it proceeded in a series of two or three note phrases and by sustained tones. The shorter notes tended to acquire an echo from reflection by the fan blades while longer notes could interact in various ways with their own standing waves. Some syncopated vocalizing was occasionally heard, broken up by the fans, and this added to the unorthodox feel. The low throbbing of the four fans was heard most effectively in the mechanical processing of the string sounds, and not as a separate component of the ensemble. For the finish of the piece the fans were turned off and the players froze in mid-motion as the sounds slowly faded away. Darkness is Not Well Lit is remarkable for the simplicity of this novel concept and the unexpectedly powerful way that the sound of the string quartet was transformed.
The first performance Up Tight II (1999/2010/2018), by Ulrich Krieger completed the concert program, a work some 19 years in the making. This latest edition for string quartet began with a great busy chord, roiling and bubbling outward into the audience. The players were all using two bows applied to open strings, creating an active texture of breathtaking proportions. It was like hearing a great primordial soup of sounds, very dense and often rough, yet surprisingly cohesive. After a few minutes the viola and violin players shouldered their instruments and everyone began playing with a single bow. This thinned the texture somewhat, but it continued flowing outward as a hot, swirling cloud of anxious sound. Following a grand pause, the quartet restarted, this time in a somewhat more organized fashion. A steady beat appeared and a stream of accelerating tutti notes suggested a steam locomotive gathering speed. The tempo increased again after a second grand pause, adding to the sense of powerful kinetic movement and high velocity. The playing was as precise as the composer’s intentions; the extended techniques, JI tuning, and lack of conventional structure were all masterfully navigated throughout.
Another grand pause, several seconds in length, signaled a turning point in the piece. A series of strong gestures gave way to softer tutti chords and slower tempos. High, thin tones in the violins – played perfectly in tune with the darker pitches in the lower strings – gave the feeling of a failing machine in need of lubrication. After a short burst of frenetic activity the piece came to a sudden halt, having finally broken down completely. Up Tight II is a remarkably acute vision of the forces of genesis and entropy as expressed in sound, expertly performed by very talented musicians.
I had never heard of Battle Trance before attending this show. What little I did know was what I read on the Facebook event page, and gleaned from talking to other concert goers. I don’t believe I even knew their instrumentation. Like seeing a movie without seeing a trailer, this can be a better experience. Hype can set a bar too high. All I knew was that Equal Sound was putting on the concert, and that some quartet called Battle Trance would play Blade of Love. 10/10 for the names, but would the performance live up to these vague expectations?
A string quartet – Madeline Falcone and Emily Call on violin, Diana Wade on viola, and Betsy Rettig on cello – performed the first half of the concert, which consisted of Medieval and Medieval-inspired music. They opened with Hildegard Von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae, a pensive, simple polyphonic work. Its texture was so lush, yet at the same time, so bare. In light of the women’s marches worldwide, particularly the 750,000-strong march in LA on January 21st, I appreciated that the most prolific Medieval female composer had the honor of opening. I always love von Bingen’s work, and this was no different. O virtus Sapientiae praises the power of wisdom, a lesson we can all value in this age.
The next piece, Valencia (2012), by New York composer Caroline Shaw, had clear roots in Medieval style. The strings pass around ostinato rhythms and simple melodies, intercut with striking glissandi and dense harmonic swells. Shaw wanted to evoke the texture of a Valencia orange. Such a synesthetic feat may be impossible (I must admit I did not get the connection between the title and the piece until reading about it later), but the music by itself was pleasing and its textures were interesting.
Third, My Desert, My Rose (2016) by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov, featured low and slow cello like a cantus firmus while the higher strings played aimless harmonies, muddled like a fine cocktail. It feels like wandering through a busy marketplace; each step brings a new wave of sounds, and while there is a goal to reach, the journey wanders. It’s a flawless interpretation of Medieval inspiration for a 21st-century style.
Finally, the quartet concluded the first half of the concert with Guillaume de Machaut’s Kyrie I. The Kyrie is the first sung prayer of the Mass Ordinary, and it is most appropriate during penitential seasons like Lent and Advent. The quartet saved the Kyrie for the last piece in their set, but it also served to introduce Battle Trance, thus keeping with tradition. While we were not actually in a penitential season, something about the timing and the mood of the audience made it fitting.
After intermission, we got what we came for: the tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance performing Blade of Love. Here’s my short review first: it was bananas. And I love bananas.
Now here’s the longer review. First, you must realize that each segment flowed from one to the next, sometimes overlapping or splitting half and half between the players. The players never rested. The performance was one uber-piece, and the energy ebbed and swelled but never ceased. Sometimes three players would provide an upbeat, looping harmony for the soloist to howl over. Other times, all four would whistle through their reeds. There was impressive counterpoint. There was intense sound blending. There were intergalactic lasers and interstellar spaceships. There were intrepid explorers in jungles. There was an immeasurable ocean. There was an insane profession of love. There was also insufferable honking – but so it is with saxophones, I suppose, and it didn’t last too long.
Most impressive of all, in my eyes (ears?), was that there were difference tones. Those happen resonances combine and modulate in your ear so that your ear itself creates new sound. It’s a curious sensation, and rare for acoustic instruments to pull off. So not only did the four gentlemen of Battle Trance play for an hour straight, on memorized music (somewhat improvised, but mostly structured for sure), and was the music incredible, but they also caused your ear to invent its own music, using acoustic instruments. This illustrates why I love writing these reviews; every time I think I’ve heard it all, that I’ve heard every extended technique, I go to another concert and I’m absolutely floored.
Battle Trance’s music is available on their Bandcamp page. You have the upper hand compared to me; you already know what to expect. I’ll be upfront: I’m told that their recordings don’t have the same chutzpah. So this is what I recommend: buy a CD. Hear how good they are recorded. Then see them live. Fly to New York if you have to, but experience them in person. It’ll be bananas.