NEC’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice continued its week-long concert sprint on Thursday night, June 23, with likely the strangest sounds yet: two hefty pieces for piano, percussion, and electronics. The substantial audience was plainly composed of veteran listeners of this sometimes-inaccessible sub-genre, ready to greet Stockhausen’s seminal Kontakte with relish and to evaluate the premier of John Luther Adams’s Four Thousand Holes.
Though I can hardly count myself among those in the know where electronic music is concerned, I did have the opportunity of hearing Kontakte live once before during SICPP’s 2009 concert series, and I have to admit that I appreciated the edge of mental preparation provided by previous experience. The world of sound created by the massed percussion instruments onstage — the piano alone was surrounded by microphones, cymbals, hanging wooden chimes, and a computer monitor) as well as the electronic surround-sound effects — demanded a very different mindset of the listener than the typical concert experience.
Kontakte is about the creation, manipulation, and relation of all types of sounds: a very logical exploration that is sometimes self-evident and sometimes obscured by sensory overload. Each sound is somehow related to the previous; for instance, the beginning tam-tam scrape sets off a string of harsh electronic distortions, and throughout the piece the collective timbre varies depending on the materials struck onstage .I tend toward agreement with one of my seatmates, who described the experience as highly engaging intellectually, but emotionally remote.
One aspect of the piece, however, was appreciable as one of the most basic elements of chamber music: the impeccable grace of contact between performers Steve Drury, on piano and percussion, and Stuart Gerber, on a whole lot of percussion. (The unseen mastermind was Corey Schreppel in the role of sound engineer.) One of the most compelling moments of the piece came near the end and involved only the two opposing sets of wooden chimes, producing a sort of hollow clacking, which Drury and Gerber seized with a synergistic intensity and eye contact that would put the most assimilated string quartet to shame. Gerber, a Stockhausen expert, was a constant pleasure to watch, conveying total engagement through stance and expression whether standing ready with a single mallet or ricocheting off every surface within reach.
After the circus-like intensity and clamor of the Stockhausen, how to readjust for the crystalline tones and focus of Adams? I suspect that a large portion of the audience faced this problem when returning from intermission to a stage stripped down to piano, two vibraphones, and a handful of power cords. The epigraph to the program notes, quoting the John Lennon lyric “now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall” and subsequent reminiscence on Rock and Roll led me to expect more excitement than the gentle groove (due again to the superb communication between Drury and percussionist Scott Deal) afforded.
However, upon returning home I gamely pulled up “A Day in the Life” on my iTunes and did indeed smile at recognizing one source of Adams’s material in the piano back-up chords and an exact parallel in the ending reverberation. Honestly, I find the quirkiness of Lennon and Co. to be the more moving (yes, it’s hard to be compared to the Fab Four), so again it seems as if Adams were engaging in an intellectual, rather than visceral, compositional exercise. Drury and Deal performed with unbroken poise, to the extent that Deal’s lift of the mallets seemed an exact reflection of the aural reverberation. The whole effect was certainly recognizable as the carefully spun, meditative environment that is Adams’s trademark; still, I cannot really blame my gut for wanting a bit more of an emotional punch than the handful of wistful pop-style modulatory moments provided. At the end, I left Jordan Hall a bit unsatisfied, but with food for thought — a fine memento, in any case.