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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Ecomusic, Nature’s New Sounds: Modernworks, The Museum of Arts and Design, New York City, 20.4.2006 (BH)

Peter Zummo: Improvisation (2005)
David Tcimpidis: Wolf Moon (2005)
Judith Shatin: For the Birds (2005)
Matthew Burtner: Fragments from Cold (2005)
Paul Rudy: Degrees of Separation “Grandchild of Tree” (1999)


Madeleine Shapiro, director / cello
Paul Rudy, amplified cactus
Peter Zummo, didjeridoo

All week I’ve been making jokes about going to hear a piece using amplified cactus, and now it appears that I’ll have to eat my words, since the instrument in question (and its caretaker) produced some of the most stimulating sounds I’ve heard in a long time. (And in New York, the variety of sounds can be frightening.) But more on that in a minute.

This extremely well-conceived program – with its perhaps surprising focus, to accompany an exhibit called Beyond Green: Toward a Sustainable Art – began with Peter Zummo, a virtuoso on the didjeridoo, creating low, primal tones droning from the back of the room as he walked to the front of the audience. A traditional Aboriginal instrument usually made from fallen eucalyptus branches hollowed out by termites, this model was made from PVC pipe, perhaps as a tribute to the abilities of found materials which can be pressed into musicmaking. (Plus, as Zummo notes, it offers “individual sonic character, is tunable, and disassembles for transport.”) He offered a short improvisation, with the low rumbles interrupted occasionally by breathy, short puffs of higher sounds, creating a timeless, ancient character.

David Tcimpidis’ Wolf Moon is the first of a series of electronic works he plans to complete over the next few years. The “wolf moon” appears in January, when hungry wolves look for food during the harsh, relentless winter. His desolate palette began softly, for electronics alone somewhat resembling howling winds, in time reaching a gnawing climax that reminded me of the roar of an aircraft overhead. His empathy for cold environments is shared by Matthew Burtner, who grew up north of the Arctic circle. Burtner’s Fragments from Cold uses shivering vocals – “sh-sh-ch-ch” – from the cellist, coupled with bowing on the edge of the instrument, and faint rasping sounds, all combined with taped sounds of snow. Although the museum room was bright enough, in Ms. Shapiro’s hands it assumed an icy, desolate cast – palpably making one imagine “a skier moving across the snow.”

In between came Judith Shatin’s For the Birds, for amplified cello and electronics, in four vividly characterized sections using taped sounds of birds found in Yellowstone National Park. “Songbirds” uses tremolos, harmonics and shrill chirps; “Sapsuckers” asks for pizzicato and tapping to evoke their percussive rhythms; “Birds of Prey” uses sharp squeaks and glissandi; and “Water Birds” uses bowing below the bridge, as if the instrumentalist is summoning an ancient melody, coupled with cawing and cackling sounds. Similar to Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, this work (commissioned by Ms. Shapiro) is immediately appealing in its voluptuous blend of nature and electronics.

For Degrees of Separation “Grandchild of Tree” I wish I could report that the small, barrel cactus, sitting in its pot rather unassumingly all night, had been specially flown in from the Arizona desert, but no: it came from a Home Depot store in upstate New York. As composer Paul Rudy added with a perfectly straight face, “I met this cactus about 10:00 this morning.” Inspired by John Cage’s Child of Tree (1975), also using an amplified cactus (plus pea pods), Rudy positions an amplifier in contact with the plant, and then almost magically, a mere flick of a finger on one of its spines creates a unique sort of “boing” sound. Using his fingertips, he traveled around the cactus, with different portions creating slightly different timbres. Occasionally he used one of the Museum’s metal visitor buttons as a kind of cactus guitar pick, and near the end (making me grit my teeth in mild anxiety) placed his hand over the prickly top of the plant and slowly turned his palm, creating a soft explosion of muffled popping sounds. To say that it was entertaining, riveting and compelling is an understatement, helped in no small measure by Rudy’s hilariously straightforward introduction before he began his delicate maneuvers. As he finished, I fully expected him to rush backstage in search of bandages, but no – he had plenty of time for graceful curtain calls in front of the cheering audience – many, like me, grinning with pleasure and no doubt a host of unanswered questions.

Bruce Hodges




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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)