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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Look and Listen Festival 2005 (II): Robert Miller Gallery, New York City, 16 April, 2005 (BH)



Joshua Hilson: untitled (2005, Festival Ambient Piece)
George Perle: Critical Moments 2 (2001)
David Lang: Little Eye (1999)
Steve Reich: Drumming, Part I (1971)
Jennifer Higdon: Zaka (2003)
David Gordon: Drops (2003)
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together (1972, realized by Matthew Albert in 2000)

eighth blackbird
So Percussion
Wendy Sutter, cello
Salley Koo, violin

For the final night of the Look and Listen Festival, organizer and composer David Gordon enticed two ensembles, eighth blackbird and So Percussion, to deliver a white-hot concert notable for both the caliber of the playing and the breadth of the composers. Tonight’s untitled ambient work was by Joshua Hilson, and perhaps I was immersed in conversation, but I confess it was so ambient (i.e., quiet) that it mostly escaped detection. (Perhaps that was the intent.) In any case, I will take this opportunity to thank Mr. Hilson for his outstanding work as expert sound engineer during the festival – and given the surfeit of electronics, this is not an insignificant role.

I have heard George Perle’s witty, concise Critical Moments 2 several times, but not as astonishingly as here, when eighth blackbird amazingly played it without music. In nine brief sections, Perle shows an elegant, Webern-like sensitivity to texture, but with more florid lines – and much more humor. I especially like Perle’s deadpan snare drum (here, the exacting Matthew Duvall), which comes and goes like a shy guest at a party who unexpectedly spills a drink and then doesn’t know what to do. In any case, I can’t imagine a more persuasive reading, with each of the six players listening to and cueing each other in a model of chamber music rapport. The balance of the group, all marvelous, are Molly Alicia Barth on flutes, Michael Maccaferri on clarinets, Matt Albert on violin and viola, Nicholas Photinos on cello, and Lisa Kaplan on piano.

David Lang is infatuated with brake drums, or so it might seem in the wake of Cheating, Lying, Stealing (in which drums are struck with sticks) and in tonight’s gorgeous Little Eye, in which the four percussionists rub the metal surfaces, producing what the composer describes as a “dirty sparkle.” It is a totally intriguing sound, here used to evoke the sense of time passing, perhaps gently but a bit aimlessly. With Wendy Sutter giving solemn weight to the introspective, slightly melancholy cello line over the percussion, one could imagine someone practicing Bach upstairs, while someone downstairs is puttering around, clearing away dishes. Like Morton Feldman and others, Little Eye celebrates contemplation, boredom, and languor in a seemingly static ritual that is actually teeming with tiny events.

Just prior to the highly anticipated performance of Steve Reich’s rarely done Four Organs, So Percussion suffered an equipment malfunction, but mild disappointment quickly disappeared when Douglas Perkins, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting, and Lawson White ripped into the blitzkrieg that is Part I of Reich’s Drumming. Their ferocity was highlighted in the first five minutes, when one of the drumsticks split in half and flew into the audience. Reich’s hypnotic masterpiece of phase-shifting is even more effective in the context of the entire hour-long piece, but I doubt anyone could resist the precision and energy here.

In a talk before the second half, I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Lang, composer Aaron Jay Kernis (whose Trio in Red was performed on the previous night), and artists Judy Glantzman and John Torreano, all of whom contributed humorous insights discussing the crosscurrents shared by art and music. When the concert resumed, eighth blackbird upped the energy level with Jennifer Higdon’s pulsating Zaka, with some vivid flute shrieks by Ms. Barth. This likeable work has fast-forming melodic lines sailing over an irresistible rhythmic drive. The title is an imagined definition of the word zaka: “To do the following almost simultaneously and with great speed: zap, sock, race, turn, drop, sprint,” and all of these seemed to be happening in eighth blackbird’s nonstop fireworks.

By contrast, David Gordon’s Drops is a shimmering study for violin and percussion inspired by the “dropping” of sticks on a bass drum, creating a delicate shower of small sounds. Violinist Sally Koo and percussionist Jason Treuting (of the So players) created a sometimes hushed catalogue of timbres. Ms. Koo often explored the lustrous upper reaches of her instrument, while Mr. Treuting gently drew a bow across bells and drum edges. The quiet, mirrored surface was a perfectly timed oasis after the Higdon.

Rzewski’s Coming Together uses as its burning core, a letter written to the New York Times by Sam Melville, a political prisoner killed in 1971 in the Attica prison riots. The eight implacably powerful sentences follow:


I think the combination of age and a greater coming together is responsible for the speed of the passing time. It’s six months now, and I can tell you truthfully, few periods of my life have passed so quickly. I am in excellent physical and emotional health. There are doubtless subtle surprises ahead, but I feel secure and ready. As lovers will contrast their emotions in times of crisis, so I am dealing with my environment. In the indifferent brutality, the incessant noise, the experimental chemistry of food, the ravings of lost hysterical men, I can act with clarity and meaning. I am deliberate, sometimes even calculating, seldom employing histrionics except as a test of the reactions of others. I read much, exercise, talk to guards and inmates, feeling for the inevitable direction of my life.

Rzewski originally conceived the work for a single speaker who intones the text, with the instruments in long repetitive phrases which build as the entire ensemble gradually escalates to the stormy ending. Mr. Albert, who is the violinist for the group, has distributed the text amongst the six musicians who are outfitted with head microphones, which amplifies the emotional intensity. The piece began quietly, but inexorably reached an almost hysterical pitch, with portions of the text being shouted within the squall of ostinatos. I can hardly imagine a more appropriate ending to this festival – jarring, virtuosic, and memorable.

Bruce Hodges

For more information: www.lookandlisten.org

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