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.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure, the new CD by Andrew McIntosh recently released on the populist records label, consists of three distinct sections of four pieces each. Each group is connected not only by the instrumentation and scoring but also in projecting related sets of feelings. The first and last groups are comprised of the Symmetry Etudes and the middle tracks on the CD are the four movements of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure.
The first four tracks are Symmetry Etudes V, II, III and IV, composed from 2009 to 2012. These are written for two clarinets – in this case Brian Walsh and James Sullivan – and violin, played by Andrew McIntosh. The first of these, Etude V, starts with a syncopated violin line that is soon joined by smooth, sustained clarinet tones above and below. A sense of purposeful activity in the violin is immersed in tension as the clarinet pitches become stronger and more acute – almost electronic in purity of pitch. The violin struggles and is almost overwhelmed by the loud clarinet tones. There is a sense of virtuous purpose in the violin that contrasts with the emotionless and machine-like clarinet parts. As the piece concludes there is the sense that the two opposing viewpoints remain unresolved.
Etude II begins with a simple but elegant clarinet line that flows out, joined by the second in a higher register. This creates a wonderfully weaving and sinuous feel while the violin adds a thinner sound that provides a complimentary bit of definition in the texture. There is a sense of calmness and nature at work, like walking by a lake early in the morning. A very beautiful piece. Etude III opens with the clarinets warbling together, accompanied by higher, sustained tones in the violin. There is a sense of mystery and anticipation – along with a slightly alien feel. As the piece progresses a feeling of remoteness develops that becomes increasingly agitated, although some nice interweaving harmonies appear that slowly die away at the finish.
Etude IV is a series of slow, ascending scales – there are some lovely harmonies that develop as the three pitches rise upward, like watching warm vapors rising and mixing, forming various combinations. Some occasional syncopation in the rhythm keeps the sound interesting and engaging. There is a wide open – almost Coplandesque – feel to this, like looking out at a far horizon. I first heard this piece performed at Disney Hall in 2013 and much of the finer detail was lost in that cavernous space; this recording is a much more satisfying experience. The clarinets dominate most of these Etudes and the playing by Brian Walsh and James Sullivan is right on target, fitting the various moods exactly.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure (2012 – 2013) is a four movement work that occupies the four center tracks of the CD and is performed by Laura Barger and Ning Yu on pianos with Ian Antonio and Russell Greenberg on percussion. The first movement starts off with two pianos playing scales in different directions and this evolves into separate lines with differently syncopated rhythms. Now marimbas are added in what becomes an almost random pattern of notes. The pace slows and the feeling is like hearing rain drops. There is an exotic, primal feel by midway through – as if in a rainforest or jungle. A growing sense of tension arises, as if far into deep wilderness, perhaps lost. Now a brief repeat of the first piano lines as the movement ends and it is as if we have traveled deep into the unknown to arrive at a strange place.
Movement II starts off with rapid runs of sixteenth note scales by two pianos – now slowing to single notes spaced a few beats apart with the percussion. A single bell sounds at four second intervals accompanied by a low bottle blow sound. A series of lovely chimes ring out, as if in a Buddhist temple, with piano chords sounding at intervals. There is a serene, meditative feel to this, disrupted by the occasional forceful piano chords. A strong sense of contrast here – restful and menacing at the same time.
A low booming drum roll opens Movement III creating a sense of anticipation. A cascade of piano notes develop into mysterious melody that adds a hint of tension. More ringing percussion now, the same bell chimes from Movement II. There is the feeling of standing on a high, windblown hilltop in Tibet. Lovely, yet vaguely ominous in its mystery.
The final movement opens with a strong piano chord that gives a definite sense of menace. High pitched, sharp tones appear – like shards of glass- and this adds to the anxious feel. Now a bell sounds, restoring some calmness. More chimes arrive – less tension but still an uncertain atmosphere. Stronger chimes now, with lighter, metallic bells above. The piano takes up the theme ending the piece with a feel of anxiety mixed with calmness. There is a definite sense of journey and mystery in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure that unfolds in a satisfactory arc across the four movements. Tension and restful calm seem to coexist uneasily together and the picture that forms is one of a distant, sacred space suddenly defiled. The playing is remarkable for its range and precision. The percussion was especially artful in both the scoring and the performance.
The second group of Symmetry Etudes begins with Etude I and this starts out with a single clarinet producing a sort of wavy sound. The violin takes this up, and now the other clarinet. The sounds oscillate in and out, eventually escalating to loud and piercing tones. Intense and high in pitch, this becomes almost like a whistling sound by the end. Just two minutes long, Etude I starts low and ends very high, one continuous crescendo of pitch and volume. Etude VI starts out softly but with high, sustained tones in all three instruments. There is a sense of relentlessness – like looking at a bright sunrise on a clear day. As this piece continues the sounds become more strident with zero beating occurring between the pitches. The playing is very precise here – as is needed to attain these exacting sonic effects.
Etude VII begins with a single clarinet playing a simple scale. The second clarinet joins in, but is offset by just a fraction of a beat. This produces a playful syncopation that is quite engaging. The violin now repeats the scale and a clarinet becomes the offset part. Only 1:40 in duration, the success of this etude springs from a simple idea that produces a complex and interesting result. Etude VII begins with a low, sustained clarinet tone that is almost electronic in its purity and constancy. There are slight wobbles in pitch, just as if from an electronic oscillator. A second clarinet joins at almost the exact same pitch to produce some zero beating. The violin joins on what sounds like a harmonic and the the three tones move about to various fixed pitches in a close approximation to the sounds produced by a series of oscillators. The purity and stability of pitch is impressive and this perfectly evokes the cool remote feel of electronics. This second group of etudes has a more synthetic and remote feel where the first group was more organic and pastoral. Overall the Symmetry Etudes are an impressive collection, evoking a wide range of feelings and gestures from just three players.
This collection of pieces in Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure combine impressive playing and excellent scoring with artful storytelling. The mixing and mastering by Nick Tipp, along with Ian Antonio and Ressell Greenberg are state of the art and have accurately captured the widely diverse dynamics and timbres.
Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure is available now from populist records.