Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Northern Lights

The members of asamisimasa Photo: Nicki Twang
Chamber-sized ensembles of young musicians interested in new music can be found just about anywhere you look these days. There are thriving communities of composers and musicians everywhere doing things their own way and questioning the old modes of the classical music business. And while places like Brooklyn and Los Angeles may leap to mind right away, you should probably also consider Norway. At least that was the project of the Monday Evening Concert series this week who invited the Norwegian collective asamisimasa to town for one of the most engaging shows of their season thus far. The six member group formed in 2001 with particular interest in new works and contemporary European composers, especially Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough. Given these guiding lights, the wild ride of Monday’s program with its use of electronic elements, unusual instruments, and the most extended of extended techniques went without saying. What was remarkable was how much puckish fun and surprise the players packed into the works, most of which were written specifically for them.

The evening started out with the only piece not being heard in this country for the first time, 3 songs from Alberto Savinio’s Album 1914. These surrealist miniatures were performed by Ellen Ugelvik on piano and soprano Silje Marie Aker Johnsen whose vocal lines were accompanied by her equally ferocious bass drum wailing. While this was easily the oldest work on the program and unrelated in many ways, it set the tone of surprise and aggressive energy. Norwegian composer Øyvind Torvund’s Neon Forest Spaces followed. A quartet for cello, clarinet, electric guitar and percussion, the seven brief moments of the work were all imbued with pre-recorded elements and amplified instrumentation. The percussion part was filled with the woosh of aerosol cans and the bubbling of air blown into a water bottle. Despite the seeming whimsy of these gestures, though, it was surprisingly effective in bringing the sense of endless forest noises to life.

The first half ended with one of asamisimasa’s signature repertoire works, Simon Steen-Andersen’s on and off and to and fro. The Danish composer revels in being a bit of an enfant terrible, and his trio for clarinet, cello, and vibes travels from unusual to bizzare as its sound world is predominated by the feedback and noise created by three electrical megaphones that are initially used to amplify the sounds of the other instruments, but then move on to create comical and sometimes ear-splitting feedback and siren noises. At the climax of the piece, the feedback from one megaphone is fed into the receiver of another in an unusual chain of processing. Yet there was something relaxed and sly about the piece. Instead of being ponderous and pretentious, the idea is given room to breathe and develop making it more playful than deadly serious. Steen-Andersen’s music has been recorded by the ensemble including this work, so feel free to check it out yourself. You can also hear clips of mos of the music mentioned here on their website.

After the break the players returned for Laurence Crane’s sharply contrasting John White in Berlin a quiet microtonal meditation that glowed and grew outward in a Feldman-like fashion. But the spirit that ruled the finale of the show was that of John Cage, who was just one of the many composers mentioned by name in Trond Reinholdtsen’s Unsichtbare Musik. Reinholdtsen joined the ensemble for the performance lending his vocals to the highly theatrical performance. The work begins with Reinholdtsen repeating a series of musical terms and phrases interrupted by single chords from the players. Soon the structure breaks down in both the text, which moves on to include the names of famous late 20th-century philosophers and composers as well as ideas and other items. The music, too, goes awry in multiple directions at once. Unusual accompaniment from deflating balloons and toys contrast against flights from both cello and clarinet. At times passages are recorded, processed, and played back providing the only “music” at any given moment as the live musicians look on following a transition so seamless it almost goes without notice. Reinholdtsen comes to the front of the stage and mimics an epileptic fit which is then followed by clarinet and soprano equivalents of piano 10 hands with all the other members of the ensemble coming forward to touch and alter the sound of the solo performer in each of these segments. Finally, the piece resolves in a series of faked asides or commentary from Reinholdtsen directed toward the audience. He tells the audience of his doctoral thesis and difficulty deciding on endings. He plays a snippet of “classical music” and asks, “Do you know this?” in a friendly conversational way. There’s a pre-recorded parody of a Grieg song performed in a chipmunk voice and a partially faked recording of Cage performing in Europe in 1958 just for good measure.

What all this means, I can’t tell you. But it was immensely fun to watch and was smarter and far denser than it seemed on its off-hand tongue-in-cheek manner. The enthusiasm was admirable, but it was made even better by a sense of polish from the asamisimasa players. This was serious business, but one that still managed to seem spontaneous and off-handed even when it wasn’t. It was also exciting to see a glimpse of what’s going on farther from these shores among another community of young artists interested on building new things in the world of music. Hurray for Monday Evening Concerts for bringing them to these shores and here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long to hear from them again.

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