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MATA Festival 2009, Concert III: NOW Ensemble, Bing and Ruth.  (Le) Poisson Rouge, New York City, 3.4.2009 (JE)


NOW Ensemble:

Logan Coale (double bass), Mark Dancigers (electric guitar), Michael Mizrahi (piano), Sara Phillips (clarinet), Andrew Rehrig (flute; substituting for Alex Sopp), (Patrick Burke, Mark Dancigers, Judd Greenstein, composers)

Jascha Narveson: Nice Boots (2008)
Patrick Burke: Hypno-germ (2006) 
Gregory Spears: Quiet Songs (2006)
David Crowell: sCrAmBLe SuIt (2007)
Missy Mazzoli: Magic With Everyday Objects (2007)

Bing and Ruth:  
Chris Berry (percussion), Patrick Briener (clarinet), Mike Effenberger (synthesizers), Myk Freedman (lap steel), Greg Heffernan (cello), David Moore (piano), Jeff Ratner (bass), Jean Rohe (voice), Becca Stevens (voice), Leigh Stuart (cello), Jeremy Viner (clarinet)

Music by composer/leader David Moore

Broad Channel (2005)
Put Your Weight Into It (2007)* 
…and then it rained (2007)
Rails (2008)
City Lake/Tu Sei Uwe (2009)*  2009 MATA commission

Broad Channel/Little Line in a Round Face (2009)

* with projected original film by Sebastian Cros

During the third evening of the annual MATA Festival, a cutting-edge concert series devoted to young composers and presented this year at a trendy new
Greenwich Village club, (Le) Poisson Rouge, a wag was overheard suggesting that new music is the only authentic performance practice.  So it seemed throughout the event as the sound of acoustic instruments, extended techniques, electronic instruments, amplification, computers, and multimedia arose from the hum of everyday life.  In making New York a better place for contemporary music, MATA is playing its part as is the venue, a nightclub whose programming mixes the zest of the legendary Village Gate, which once occupied the space, with the expansive longings of the contemporary music world.  The thirst for new music — the third night featured NOW Ensemble and a group called Bing and Ruth — was apparent as the crowd poured downstairs into this painted-black dimly-lit, but somehow flashy club. The mostly young audience settled on bar stools or at tables, or stood: rattling drinks, crunching snacks, conversing softly, hailing servers. The clatter of the club felt authentic (the wag was not tipsy after all), as did the enthusiasm for NOW Ensemble when they took the stage.

The vibrant sound of NOW Ensemble — clarinet, double bass, electric guitar, flute, and piano — does something more than offer composers an alternative to the ubiquitous "Pierrot ensembles plus singer or percussion."  It breathes the air of this planet: the musical air of indie rock, rap, jazz, pop, and minimalism variously synthesized by classically-trained composers and instrumentalists. Three of NOW’s founding members are composers, and a community of 35 like-minded others have responded to the opportunities NOW embodies: to defy specialization, reject alienation, and inspire deft musicians to convey a sense of private amusement that enlivens the music they perform.  They also embrace entrepreneurial daring, to a degree that might give economic theorists palpitations if they were not otherwise occupied revising their model of human nature.

NOW began their effectively paced performance of five recent compositions with Jascha Narveson’s Nice Boots (2008), a work that feels like an invigorating etude, although it is not an exploration of an isolated technical difficulty. It investigates how much can be made out of a relatively straightforward musical idea — its quiet repetitions become breathtaking as if a sheet of paper folded into a complex geometric shape.  It does much with little: rhythmic excitement doubled and bent into driving energy that is all the more startling because it seems remembered from child’s play. And from a very different part of childhood — its end — Patrick Burke’s Hypno-germ (2006) seduces with a sinuous flute solo abruptly interrupted by clipped, engagingly repetitive ensemble; it is Debussy’s faun awaking to an absurdist animated television cartoon like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” After sprightly ensemble interplay, the music slows, the melodic lines elongate into lyrical introspection, the flute slyly emphasized; the faun was never really asleep—just stoned, and more than a little melancholy.

A composer with an exquisite, distinctive voice, Gregory Spears describes Quiet Songs (2006) as an elegy.  Using recorded bells and trumpets, its two movements, titled “Let the Trumpets Bray!” and “Let the Bells Toll!” evoke in ripples and waves — Morton Feldman and Mahler — a tidal surge receding into the ocean of music.  The movement titles are imperative commands, alluding to Henry Purcell — or Gilbert and Sullivan — but the music feels subjunctive, reflecting the overall title: wishful, regretful, and wistful; it is rapt resignation, gazing out from music’s seashore.  Kicking Quiet Songs out of the pool, David Crowell’s sCrAmBLe SuIt (2007) is a splash of jazzy joy; minimalist-inflected motifs buoyed by interchanging rhythms, absorbing crescendos, and abrupt dynamics. Suddenly I am dried off. Listening to fast-rising composer (and MATA executive director) Missy Mazzoli’s Magic With Everyday Objects (2007) is like embarking on a languid journey by train: a pensive piano solo is jolted forward by the ensemble’s minimalist momentum, and by echoes of wistful rock and yearning steam engine whistles — all wending their way alongside a brooding river, an inescapable reflection in the windowpane and unyielding memories; it is poignant music.

In the wake of a comfortably classical ensemble such as NOW, at home in a traditional concert hall, it would be easy to misunderstand the group Bing and Ruth.  The music of David Moore, the adaptable group’s composer and leader, might seem too sweet and too simple. For instance, the great John Adams described the music of many in the current generation of emerging composers as “so simple that it’s in danger of dumbing-down…creating a level of musical discourse that’s just really bland” (Newsweek). But such criticism misses something fundamental about this generation, of which Bing and Ruth is a remarkable example: in blending musical traditions, they turn the very act of playing instruments into a palpable and rewarding part of the auditory experience. The anxiety and joy of improvisation amplifies details, punctuating an otherwise ambient texture with restive hints of diverse musical origins. It is a psychologically compelling language for the iPod generation, "The Dharma at
Brooklyn." In the case of Bing and Ruth we hear Steve Reich (especially his Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices, and Organ), Witold Lutoslawski, Pauline Oliveros, John Coltrane — the approaches they represent — fused into an emotionally vulnerable and beautifully unfolding musical happening.

For the MATA Festival, Bing and Ruth performed a nearly seamless succession of six (seven if one counts the reprise of the first piece) works, differentiated from each other more by lighting effects and the accompaniment of two films than by their subtle changes of musical texture, harmony, and tempo. As they began Broad Channel (2005), I felt something alive and uncertain had been set in motion — reminiscent of jazz, surely, and minimalism, but without audibly organizing procedures; I felt something akin to Satie’s modesty and understatement. (I learned later that the works are mostly notated, but further shaped during rehearsals, the performers allowed several degrees of improvisatorial freedom.)

Put Your Weight Into It (2007), performed to projected film by Sebastian Cros, underscores the image of a runner’s shadow gliding over painted dashes dividing a paved road — a Morse code of white noise — and an analogue to the quickening pulse of the ensemble. Followed by two beautifully surging works …and then it rained (2007) and Rails (2008), each an ambient haze hovering over the jazzy inflections contributed by the performers. In City Lake/Tu Sei Uwe (2009), a 2009 MATA commission, memory and listening itself seemed tangible in plaintive sounds, especially the extended techniques for cymbal and the delicate strumming of lap steel, which accentuated the sense of loss in Cros’s grainy black-and-white film — disjunct images of an aging women in her kitchen, a house, a yard, flashes of color and light. Broad Channel/Little Line in a Round Face (2009) closed the program with calm resignation.

The music performed by NOW Ensemble and Bing and Ruth is innovative, bold, and communicative, which, impressively, is typical of the MATA Festival. The concert was also surprising:  it was suffused with nostalgia — an unusual mood coming from composers in their 20s and early 30s. But what are these composers nostalgic for if not their early memories; the comfort of childhood, the joy of discovering music, and the sense of limitless possibility. It is an unexpected sentiment to permeate a new music concert, but one that deepened the experience and has stayed with me. Is it nostalgia for what these composers once thought music — or life — was: a longing for a better past tomorrow? 

Jeffrey Edelstein

Mr. Edelstein is Director of New Music at Crane Arts Center in Philadelphia.

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