The ICA presented the US premieres of two string quartets by Keeril Makan, The Noise Between Thoughts and Washed By Fire, performed on March 17 by Either/Or, a new music group from New York City. The concert, introduced by ICA Music Producer David Henry and co-presented with FAST/MIT 150, was given as part of MIT’s celebration sesquicentennial of its “confluence of arts, science, and technology.
Performers at the ICA have the option of keeping the curtains open or drawn; in this case, the decision to allow the harbor visuals filter into the audience’s absorption of the music was a happy one: the full moon made glinting reflections and occasionally ghostly boat images came and went. The Noise Between Thoughts was the more aurally challenging quartet; the strings shrieked and grated, with gritty electronic enhancements and filters, though the notation was often in quasi-unison or ‘simple’ harmonies. The lines, often open-toned tutti, stopped and started and stuttered in crazed patterns, like ice-cracks, contrasting with the watery reflections from the harbor. My ear caught on agonizingly shrill tremolos under an ululating glassy lead violin. A section of feathery flicking of the bows brought textural relief, and some countrified sawing reminded one of Henry Brant’s string writing. The ending came on cat’s breath: the eerie whisper of muted high harmonics.
Percussionist David Shively, who premiered the solo piece Resonance Alloy three years ago, used a startlingly stark and unconventional set-up: the metallic surfaces of 12” cymbals (upturned and resting on a snare drum and small tom-tom) with a hanging 16” Chinese gong between them. These he stroked with fine metal wands in an unerringly brisk 8/8 rhythm, spreading hypnotic waves of shining sound through the steeply cambered room, echoing off the glass walls, and of course, interplaying with the water gleams. Initially intriguing, the piece kept up for twenty-five minutes with only tiny incremental shades of direction (switching to small mallets, then sticks); I found myself drifting off, watching the water rather than listening carefully. Perhaps that made a point.
Though the newest piece, Washed By Fire was far more traditional in line and theme, with a deliberately slow-paced introduction, a sequence of simple quasi-folk (Appalachian? Amish?) themes, and occasional thematic dips into Eastern modes (Iranian?). High points were a fast chugging hymn (a sample sound-byte is on composer’s on the website ) and a charmingly off-kilter hoedown. Originally conceived for Benjamin Levy’s dance company, the essentially simple suite might have fared better with choreography, though harbor traffic provided a little.
Trained as a violinist, Makan has degrees in music and religion; Brian Sacawa plays his baritone saxophone solo Voice within Voice on American Voices [Innova, 2006]; a CD of his music, In Sound [Tzadik, 2008] features Kronos Quartet and Paul Dresher Ensemble. See the composer’s website for local concerts this spring.