In performance: Changes: Seasons
New ensemble for new music explores National Gallery atrium
by Charles T. Downey
Is the problem with some contemporary composers that their music is more interesting as described in the program notes than performed in actual sound? That theory trumps practice? The promising inaugural concert by the new National Gallery of Art New Music Ensemble on Sunday night, called "Changes: Seasons," presented new compositions "at the crossing point of music, architecture, technology and art," although whether that was true of what was heard is open to debate.
American composers Roger Reynolds and Steve Antosca created a program supposedly crafted to the peculiar architectural and acoustic space of the National Gallery of Art's East Building atrium. Placing speakers at strategic points throughout the building, they aimed to surround the audience with a location-specific sound, using a computer program that captures the amplified sound of instruments played by live musicians and processes it electronically into something new.
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With guidance from computer musician Jaime Oliver, the computer took the squeaks and growls from Lina Bahn's violin and Alexis Descharmes's cello, the flutter-tongued purring and avian tittering of Lisa Cella's flute, the low-throated bass clarinet of Bill Kalinkos and the frantic jangle of Ross Karre's various percussion instruments and spit them back out into the room. The first time that those sounds, a digital whirr or whine or whistle, sped around the space like a comet trail, it brought a smile to one's face. After 90 minutes, one was ready to hear something else.
The concert explored many of the same concepts as the 2007 performance of Reynolds's new work "Sanctuary." Fortunately, in "Seasons: Cycle I," Reynolds includes instruments other than percussion, giving the sound greater variety. He also uses more easily understood rhythmic patterns, so that some of the sections at least had a perceptible sense of meter. The putative theme of the work was "change and consistency through the four stages of human life and the four stages of weather during a year."
A "performance" of Edgard Varèse's groundbreaking "Poème Électronique" was made possible by Kees Tazelaar's restored version of the recorded track. It was exciting to hear this infamous work presented in a way similar to its premiere performance at the 1958 World's Fair, with the sound emanating from various corners of the building, controlled by the computer musicians who raised and lowered speaker levels. Two pieces by Xenakis showed the connection of Antosca's work, as well as that of Reynolds, to one of the pioneers of site-specific musical performance.
The music began almost an hour late, to allow the audience of a film being shown in the auditorium on the lower level to leave the building. To fill the time, Stephen Ackert, head of the museum's music department, led a wandering panel discussion that only reinforced the impression that the connections among music, art, architecture and technology -- the evening's vaunted grand themes -- were more nebulous than specific.
-- Charles T. Downey
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