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Seen and Heard Festival Review


Look & Listen Festival 2006: reviewed by Bruce Hodges

Concert I

Joshua Hilson: Petalwing (Look & Listen Festival Ambient Piece)
Maurice Ravel: Introduction et Allegro (1905)
Sarah Kirkland Snider: Stanzas in Meditation (2004)
Eli Fountain: Commotion
Anthony Davis: Rhythm Max
Lisa Bielawa: Kafka Songs (2005)
Osvaldo Golijov: Last Round (1996)

Panel discussion with Lisa Bielawa, Bill Henson, and Carla Kihlstedt, hosted by John Schaefer

Biava String Quartet
Grace Cloutier, harp
Jeremy Eig, clarinet
Conor Nelson, flute
Lisa Bielawa, voice
Sadie Rosales, voice
Percussion Discussion
Carla Kihlstedt, violin and voice
Daedalus String Quartet

Photographs by Bill Henson

Robert Miller Gallery
New York City


It is no surprise that contemporary listening habits are changing, and any of these three evenings at the Look & Listen Festival would be evidence that there is a growing contingent of music lovers whose tastes, while perhaps grounded in classical music, roam far and wide to include jazz, rock, folk, traditional ethnic “roots” music, and electronics, not to mention hybrids that don’t really fit into any of these categories. It was only mildly surprising that one composer with whom I spoke – whose physical appearance might tag him as a punk rocker – professed that his favorite composer is Chopin. Many of today’s listeners refuse to be boxed into categories, and happily leapfrog from Stockhausen to Thurston Moore, from Bob Dylan to Simon Keenlyside, from the Berlin Philharmonic to Radiohead. And the delightful Judy Glantzman reminded us again that she often paints while listening to country and western music.

This hyper-eclecticism is part of what gives the Look & Listen Festival its fascinating, occasionally wacky, always serious energy, and any of the three evenings could have claimed to best represent the aesthetic concerns of its founder, the cool and calm David Gordon, a composer with admirable exploratory tastes. To mark its fifth anniversary, the festival was dispersed among three different galleries on consecutive nights, mixing an often jarring (in the best way) blend of early 20th-century masterpieces (Ravel, Bartók) with the occasional modernist icon (Boulez), while veering off into jazz (Davis), folk-influenced music (Golijov, Gee) and works that create their own categories (Wulfson). The gimmick is that each gallery has its own pre-existing show that may or may not have any obvious aesthetic union with the music in its presence. One’s mind is free to make connections, whatever those might be. I couldn’t help but be slightly amused on the final night, for example, when the entire program was conducted against the backdrop of Alex Katz’ One Flight Up (1968), a horizontal array in oil painted on aluminum of thirty-eight heads in various cocktail-party poses, as if the audience had been slyly extended around the musicians.

Part of “letting one’s mind wander” is encouraged by the festival’s “ambient pieces,” by Joshua Hilson (Petalwing), Juliana Trivers (wallpaper II) and Ryan Dorin (RD Orchestra Presents) on respective nights. Different yet subtly emphatic, each of these was intended to engage the listener (or not), but inevitably I found myself paying attention, even while unconsciously acknowledging them as “background” music.


As the opening night salvo, the Ravel Introduction et Allegro perhaps made a surprising choice, but it was hard to resist the sheer voluptuous sounds that the Biava String Quartet created (with help from Jeremy Eig, Conor Nelson, and Grace Cloutier, all excellent), and somehow Ravel and photographer Bill Henson made a perfect pair for the moment. Further, as the program continued with Sarah Kirkland Snider’s graceful Stanzas in Meditation, with texts by Gertrude Stein, hauntingly sung by Lisa Bielawa and Sadie Rosales with Cloutier on harp, and ended with Anthony Davis’ pounding tribute to eighty-two-year-old jazz drummer Max Roach, the deliberate “non-thrust” of the festival became instantly clear. Snider’s deft interweaving of the two voices in close intervals, against a harp part that harked back to the Ravel, seemed to complement the slight echo of Stein’s words. Davis, whose opera on Malcolm X was premiered at New York City Opera a decade ago, prefaced his set with a “snare drum soundscape” by Eli Fountain, then flooded the Robert Miller Gallery with Rhythm Max, a pulsating score in ten sections or “steps,” each with a unique structure, such as Step V, with a 25-beat pattern (8 + 7 + 10) played twice, against a 25/8 pattern played four times. The talented members of Percussion Discussion seemed to have no problems with Davis’ intricacies.

Kafka Songs was born in Prague, where Lisa Bielawa found an edition of Kafka’s Meditation, and was inspired to write an extensive work for Carla Kihlstedt, an unusual artist able to play the violin and vocalize at the same time. The composer thinks of the songs’ eight sections as “journal entries,” and they display that medium’s brevity and spontaneity. The violin parts are graceful, slightly angular, with the voice overlaid in simple patterns, but it takes a special artist to navigate both parts. Kihlstedt is a striking performer, and I can’t imagine another musician tackling these pieces with the same keenness and fervor.

The program closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Last Round, whose peaceful second part was first imagined as a response to Astor Piazzolla’s tragic stroke in 1992. Later Golijov added the ferocious first section, as dramatic as a bullfight. The two quartets play standing up and facing each other (with a double bass at back center), in almost explicit aggression, and with the combined Biava and Daedalus String Quartets in white-hot tandem, I couldn’t help but wonder how all the fast-flying bows didn’t poke out any eyes. But the important news is that they gave a brilliant and in-your-face reading of one of Golijov’s best, most personal utterances.

Concert II


Juliana Trivers: Wallpaper II (Look & Listen Festival Ambient Piece)
Harris Wulfson: SensorBall (2006)
Erin Gee: Yama mouthpieces and Aki mouthpieces (2006 Look & Listen Festival composition prize winner)
Béla Bartók: String Quartet No. 5 (1934)
John King: Lightning Slide (2002)
Julia Wolfe: Early That Summer (1993)
Marcelo Zarvos: Memory (from Nepomuk’s Dances) (2002)

Panel discussion with Erin Gee, Dorothy Lawson and Judy Glantzman, hosted by John Schaefer

Paintings by Judy Glantzman

Betty Cuningham Gallery
New York City


Day two began with Harris Wulfson’s puzzling SensorBall (my personal choice for Winner, Best Festival Title), which suffered somewhat from high expectations unmet. Based in Los Angeles, Wulfson has devised a small electronic device, slightly larger than a baseball, with pressure-sensitive controls, all wired to a laptop computer and the results channeled through loudspeakers. As Elyssa Shalla perched on a stool, slowly pressing and rotating the ball, faint sounds would occasionally emerge, erupting apparently without pattern. But for much of the time there appeared to be no sound emerging, despite Ms. Shalla’s intent, focused manipulations, and the overall volume level was so low that it was sometimes hard to discern if the few sounds we were hearing were in effect, from the ball, or from the room’s cooling system, or from traffic outside the gallery, or from some other extraneous noise. Perhaps it might have been helpful to speak briefly about exactly what the device does, but in any case, I hope Wulfson gets another chance to demonstrate the capabilities of what is clearly an intriguing concept.


Composer/singer Erin Gee has been studying in Japan for the last few years, and her Yama Mouthpieces and Aki Mouthpieces are based on kakagoe, or “interjections used to mark the passage of time found in traditional Japanese music,” and specifically used in the edu nagauta ensemble. Gee’s creation takes these guttural sounds and links them together in a sort of animated syllabic flow, or as one person remarked, “like a sort of “hyper-Cathy Berberian,” referencing the great new music chanteuse who championed Berio, Cage and others. In addition a wide range of sounds, Gee does have some of Berberian’s natural, unforced spontaneity.

The first half closed with the Fifth String Quartet by Bartók, played with fiery zeal by the Borromeo String Quartet. If other ensembles such as the Emerson’s bring more polish, the Borromeo’s were almost terrifying in their gritty intensity. With each member digging in to the score as if it were being presented for the very first time, the group exploited its percussive side. And not incidentally, to be sitting scarcely ten feet away from the players reminded me that chamber music is often most explosive in small spaces.

The second half was a panorama by Ethel, the cheeky string quartet founded in 1998, of music by John King, Julia Wolfe and Marcelo Zarvos. Usually amplified, the group surprised many on this occasion by playing “unplugged” – with great success. Ethel has made its mark specializing in high-energy works played with equal force, and if John King’s exuberant extract from Lightning Slide perhaps sounded too similar to Wolfe’s Early That Summer, the result was irresistible. The final work, Zarvos’ Memory, ended the set on a note of slight melancholy. As an encore, the group offered Lighthouse by violinist Cornelius Dufallo, who must have been delighted with the elegiac performance by his colleagues Ralph Farris (on viola), Dorothy Lawson (on cello), and Mary Rowell (violin), the latter given a rhapsodic, blues-driven solo near the end.

Concert III

Ryan Dorin: RD Orchestra Presents (Look & Listen Festival Ambient Piece)
Thierry DeMey: Musique de Tables (1998)
David Lang: the so-called laws of nature (2002)
Pierre Boulez: Sonatine (1946)
David Little: Descanso (2005)
Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez: Luciérnagas (1999)

Panel discussion with Suzanne Bocanegra, David Lang and Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez, hosted by Bruce Hodges

Paintings by Alex Katz

Pace/Wildenstein Gallery
New York City


Thierry DeMey’s stunning Musique de Tables opened the final night, with Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird joined by Jason Treuting of So Percussion, all seated in a row, each facing a game-board-sized, amplified wooden slab. As the room darkened, each clicked on an overhead lamp, in unison, immediately telegraphing that the work is more than just the sum of its aural parts. Opening with a scrape of a hand, DeMey rapidly develops a flurry of complex rhythms that are tapped, thumped and knocked, all with bare hands and all intricately choreographed for maximum visual spectacle. Looking at the three players locked in mechanical precision, I could hardly believe what I was watching, and hearing.

Conceived for the four members of So Percussion, David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature is a three-part sonic extravaganza. The first section employs tuned wooden planks struck with a brittle frenzy of mallets, the second uses metal pipes, snares and Lang’s beloved brake drums, and the third calls for ceramic coffee mugs, bowls, flower pots and guiros (Mexican serrated gourd-like instruments that are scraped). Somehow the extravagant first section overpowered the Pace/Wildenstein gallery acoustic; I noticed some in the front rows shielding their ears from the piercing mallet blows, but the second part was a more moderate volume. (So Percussion’s excellent recording of this work is not nearly as loud.) The magical final section was about as wondrous as it gets, with the four players standing on elevated platforms facing the ceramics, making each bell-like tap and the occasional guiro rasp combine in tinkling rapture.


After intermission came a sensational reading of Boulez’s dense Sonatine for flute and piano, written when the composer was a young sprout of twenty-one. It has a young man’s shocking, nose-thumbing “see what I can do!” quality about it, as if he were trying to write in the most difficult idiom imaginable. But these days, musicians such as the superb flutist Pat Spencer and her pianist collaborator Linda Hall aren’t fazed by Boulez’s demands, and since they’ve performed it many times (and recorded it, on Neuma), one could only watch in admiration. This is not a traditional “flute-plays-melody-while-pianoo-graciously-stays-in-the-background.” At times the latter part is so difficult that it almost seems to transform the proceedings into a piano sonata with flute accompaniment, such as near the end, when Ms. Hall dispatched a long almost coda-like passage with impressive authority.

David Little’s Descanso (waiting) refers to the Spanish tradition of weary pallbearers placing a small cross, flowers or a stone on a spot where they stopped to rest. These markers then become sites of reflection for future travelers. Written for eighth blackbird, Little disperses the group around a darkened room, the players’ lighted music stands as little “markers” – the tiny oases in the title. As each gesture appears, it is passed around in turn, in the same way that friends might gently hold each other in grief. Eighth blackbird’s delicate yet fiery wizardry somehow evoked the composer’s reflections on sorrow and mourning, and given the gallery layout, perceptions of the piece no doubt varied depending on where one was sitting.

The harrowing closer, Luciérnagas by Carlos Sánchez-Gutiérrez, was inspired by a sober text by Carlos Henríquez, whose Luciérnagas en El Mozote describes a town where hundreds of innocent people were massacred by the Salvadoran militia. When Henríquez neared the town’s church, he was dazzled by the appearance of fireflies (luciérnagas), which a friend likened to the souls of those killed. Using this event he describes as “brutal, yet strangely poetic,” Sánchez-Gutiérrez has written a highly difficult piece with the ensemble in flickering motifs occasionally interrupted by disturbingly jagged bursts of color. Eighth blackbird’s virtuosic reading climaxed with Matthew Duvall kneeling on the floor, all but attacking a huge gong that concludes the work in a shockingly loud crescendo.

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)