Editor: Marc Bridle
Webmaster: Len Mullenger
Seen and Heard International Festival Review
Lincoln Center Festival 2005 (III): Icebreaker, The Allen Room, Time Warner Center, New York City, 23 July, 2005 (BH)
Conlon Nancarrow: Player-Piano Study #2b (ca. 1950, arr. James Poke)
Frank Zappa: Moggio (1983, arr. James Woodrow)
Madness: Cardiac Arrest (1982, arr. Thomas Adès, b. 1971)
Erik Bünger: Variations on a Theme by Casey & Finch (2002, United States premiere)
David Lang: Slow Movement (1993, United States premiere)
John Godfrey: Gallows Hill (2001, United States premiere)
Louis Andriessen: Hoketus (1977)
Artistic Director: James Poke
Conductor and Music Director: Richard Craig
Sound Design: Ernst Zettl
James Poke, flutes, pan-pipes, keyboard programming
Rowland Sutherland, flutes, pan-pipes
Richard Craig, saxophones, bass clarinet, congas
Christian Forshaw, saxophones
Gradley Grant, saxophones, clarinet
Dominic Saunders, keyboards
Andrew Zolinsky, keyboards
Ian Watson, accordion, keyboards
Emma Welton, electric violin
Audrey Riley, electric cello, keyboards
Dan Gresson, percussion
James Woodrow, guitar, bass guitar
Pete Wilson, bass guitar
Few settings in New York can match the view from the Allen Room, one of three new venues in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle and now home to Jazz at Lincoln Center. Behind the stage is a fifty-foot wall of glass soaring from the floor to the ceiling, with distractingly glamorous views of Central Park and the skyline stretching into the distance. And on this occasion it made a perfect setting for the urbane sensibilities of the British new music group, Icebreaker. Artistic director James Poke’s arrangement of one of Nancarrow’s player piano studies had wit to spare, including some sly instrumental combinations, with a smart role for Ian Watson, the group’s accordionist. It is notable that Nancarrow’s compositions, although designed for a player-piano, have enough meat in them to be adapted by arrangers around the globe.
This short delight was followed by three more: James Woodrow’s interpretation of Frank Zappa’s Moggio, from his 1983 LP, The Man from Utopia, and then a suave updating by Thomas Adès of Cardiac Arrest, originally by the ska band Madness. Erik Bünger’s Variations on a Theme by Casey & Finch was the second-prize winner in Icebreaker’s 2002 Composers Competition. Mr. Bünger is a Swedish artist and composer, perhaps best known for his innovative Web project called "Let Them Sing it For You," in which one can input any text desired and hear it sung by popular artists, thanks to Bünger’s database housing thousands of words sung by pop stars. Mr. Bünger has a dry sense of humor, and his amusing piece uses a popular song by KC and the Sunshine Band from 1975, "That’s the Way, I Like It," with tiny sampled fragments of it that keep popping up like vaguely recalled memories from a late-night party.
As a friend reminded me at intermission, Alfred Schnittke used to say that a negative reaction to a piece was preferable over a neutral one. But it was still surprising, immediately following David Lang’s striking Slow Movement, when the afterglow of Icebreaker’s concentration was disrupted by a loud hiss, followed by an even louder "boo" that seemed to momentarily startle the musicians. Thankfully a contingent of those who appreciated Lang’s conception chimed in.
Lang’s idea was to write a piece in which "nothing happens." One way of entering his world might be to imagine the sound of a foghorn, a jet engine and a train whistle all playing simultaneously, and held for about twenty minutes, at a sustained, moderately loud volume level. But this "wall of sound" is actually teeming with internal detail, gently pulsing like some huge shimmering object in the middle of the room. The chords seem to change as if in slow motion, pausing now and then as if stopping at the climax of a Bruckner symphony, or perhaps Barber’s Adagio for Strings, and then freezing it in place. Similar to the languor in the composer’s Little Eye (which I heard earlier this year), Slow Movement is concerned with the passage of time, and how music organizes that time. The Icebreaker crew kept it hovering in the air with impressive solidity, not to mention a great deal of unusual colors, and on its own terms, was probably well worth booing – but more worth cheering, as I and others certainly did.
John Godfrey’s ominous Gallows Hill is featured on the group’s latest recording, and it was powerful enough to warrant a more careful hearing. With a title that refers to the site where Salem witches were brought to be executed, Godfrey’s larger, grimmer inspiration was the 2000 crash of the Concorde, and his thought that the passengers "must have known for quite some time that they were about to die." With some relentless, funereal drum pulses at the core, Godfrey adds glissandi and other effects to searing effect, creating a work of unutterable sadness. Even without knowing his sources, the overwhelming feeling is of tragedy, compounded by helplessness. It is a dark journey.
On a much lighter note for the finale, Richard Craig began wrapping his hands in silver duct tape, adding, "It’s not a fetish, honest!" (The tape protected his hands while pounding a set of large drums.) He then went on to explain that the group had not played Andriessen’s Hoketus for five years, but one might think they performed it every week, given this virtuosic reading. As with many of his works, this one is deceptively difficult, with harrowing rhythmic patterns that slightly change in each bar, defying musicians to take anything for granted.
Based on a technique dating back to the 14th century, Hoketus feels like some relentless ritual. It is scored for twelve amplified musicians – divided into two groups of six on either side of the stage – and is one of the finest examples of Andriessen’s output. Although each group plays virtually identical chords or tones, neither plays at the same time as the other, creating a shifting texture that rocks rapidly back and forth. It is hypnotic, but just as you are lulled into thinking that the next few measures might be the same, Andriessen jolts the game by slight alterations in the pattern, or suddenly speeding up the tempo, demonstrating once again that great minimal works are larger than the sum of their parts. This piece must be an absolute devil to play, and Icebreaker’s totally commanding performance was a stunner. It didn’t hurt, either, that as the work progressed, a gorgeous, wheat-colored moon, visible through the wall behind the musicians, floated up in implacable splendor, as if summoned by Andriessen’s masterpiece.