in: Reviews

March 19, 2010

“Extended Techniques” at Tufts’ Composers March New Music Festival

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Creating a compelling concert program, in which individual pieces illuminate each other through the right balance of both contrasting and shared moods, sounds, and aesthetic concerns, is an art in itself. The challenge is even greater when programming works that are to be written for the occasion, as one can only hope that the composers will create pieces that work well together. Through either luck or foresight, Tuesday night’s concert of the Tufts Composers March New Music Festival, at Tufts University’s Granoff Music Center, achieved just such a balance.

In conversation after the performance, composer and pianist John McDonald, Tufts Professor and Director of the Tufts Composers Concert Series, identified “extended techniques” as the thematic thread around which the program was loosely organized. But at a deeper level, the works on the program also seemed to share a common approach to composition, based on the thorough exploration of a deliberately limited gamut of musical materials. Extended techniques were never deployed merely as “special effects,” but instead played an essential role in defining the sound-world of each piece.

The concert opened with Joshua Hahn performing his own composition, Index of Pick-Up Lines for a Single Flautist. From an opening of spacious long tones and silences, Hahn convincingly developed a variety of attractive timbral colors, bent tones, and vocalized multiphonics, which slowly grew in intensity and led to a brief section with a more rhythmic and motivic orientation. Just before a listener could wonder whether there was anywhere else for these ideas to go, a strong closing gesture brought the piece to a satisfying conclusion. Knowing when to stop is an under-appreciated but essential aspect of the craft of composition, which the evening’s composers all seemed to understand well.

Nick Hellberg’s Mud: For Prepared Trombones and Percussion actually used three trombones as percussion, with the performers (Monica Mowery, Eve Lifson and Nathan Curtis) tapping the mouthpieces with their palms while moving the slides to produce gentle low thuds at semi-specific pitches. Hellberg maintained a sense of development within this very narrow range of sounds by using the trombones in hocketting rhythms that moved in and out of unison to create intelligible phrases. The opening percussion accompaniment – played by Belle Haggett and Sid Richardson on washboard and crotales, sometimes dipped in water to effect glissandi – was imaginative and surprisingly effective. But in the second section of the piece, the trombones coalesced around an unvaried pulse, in unison with the washboard, which could not quite work as foreground but would not quite recede into the background, obscuring the bowed-vibraphone music that was probably intended to hold the focus of attention.

Mr. Richardson’s own composition, Scylla, for solo viola, presented music of a darkly expressive character that is a traditional strength of the instrument. Opening with unhurried dissonant double-stops enlivened by judicious use of left-hand pizzicati, the piece gradually extended through higher registers to a climactic slow melody at the top of the viola’s range, dissolving into high glisses and harmonics. The journey was then recapitulated in a single concluding gesture. Scott Woolweaver played with authority and conviction.

Inspired by the analysis of “microcosmic detail” within time-stretched sound, guest composer Filippo Perocco described his recent work as focusing on a “few objects to build up a sound-space continuum” in which “time becomes static.” In his Studio di profilo – terzo, premiered by Fred Seddon (electric guitar), Sid Richardson (contrabass – his third role of the evening) and John McDonald (prepared piano) and conducted by the composer, the limited selection of sound-objects and the microcosmic detail were clearly evident, but this listener did not find the result to be static at all. Despite the extensive use of repetition, Perocco maintained exquisite formal control and a strong sense of directed motion. Repeated gestures were never quite exactly the same, but were always slowly being modified, with a clear sense of development and phrasing created by the careful and incremental introduction of new ideas. Repeated low notes on the prepared piano, punctuated by percussive gestures in the guitar and bass, slowly gave way to more sustained pitches, and the perceptible rise in register and change in timbres further reinforced the impression of motion. The motion may have been directed deeper within the piece’s microcosmic world instead of outward toward new territories, but it was motion nonetheless, and it successfully sustained the large-scale form. It also helped that Perocco’s chosen sound-objects were themselves strangely beautiful.

Nine members of the Tufts New Music Ensemble (or NME, pronounced “enemy”) then introduced the evening’s final guest artist, Erin Gee, with a formally assured improvisation based, as McDonald explained from the stage, on “a little repertory of sounds” inspired by McGee’s music. Opening For / Homage To Erin Gee fully held its own as a composition on the program, convincingly evolving from an intriguing free-rhythmic texture through asymmetrical rhythm to regular meter and back. The NME players were clearly listening attentively to each other, and maintained a balance of activity in which attention shifted naturally among individual voices within the collective, without ever quite ceding the spotlight to any soloist

The concert concluded with Ms. Gee’s solo vocal performance of her composition, Mouthpieces. A set of four movements composed between 2000 and 2005, this was the only music on the program that had been previously performed. Based on isolated phonemes from the Sanskrit Rig Veda and from Japanese Noh theater, the Mouthpieces consist of a kaleidoscopic combination of whispering, purring, fluttering, lip-popping, and tongue-clicking, along with pure tones sung in head and chest voices. Though the gamut of available sounds in each movement remains relatively fixed, the weight and emphasis among them changes in a carefully controlled way to produce a compelling formal trajectory. The result is a beautiful auditory experience and an impressive display of both compositional and vocal virtuosity.

The Tufts Composers March New Music Festival concludes with a piano recital honoring composer Hale Smith on Friday at noon.

David McMullin is a Boston-based composer whose works have been performed by major ensembles in the United States, Europe and Asia. With degrees from Yale (BA) and NYU (PhD), he teaches music theory at New England Conservatory, directs the New England chapter of the American Composers Forum, and serves on the executive board of the International Society for Contemporary Music.

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