in: Reviews

May 14, 2015

Strong Personalities and Formidable Techniques


Andy Costello (file photo)

Andy Costello (file photo)

At this point in the concert season fatigue sets in; the organizations and venues become a little too familiar, as does the repertoire. Perhaps that’s why it was such relief to find myself Tuesday in the Lilypad Gallery in Inman Square for a double-bill of new and unfamiliar work performed in a modified storefront concert space.

The Equilibrium Concert series presented pianists Karl Larson and Andy Costello, the former based in Brooklyn, the latter in Chicago (and previously Montreal). Both possess strong personalities and formidable techniques. Larson’s program had a familiar shape: a brief opening work, a major multi-movement work, and fireworks to finish.

The title of Scott Wollschlegler’s (b. 1980) Secret Machines no. 6 was just a more playful version of “etude” or “experiment.” His built his machine out of tremolos which held the ear while they were happening, but then quickly evaporated. The major work was Robert Honstein’s (b. 1980) Grand Tour, an evocation of Venice in a compositional style that evokes but does not mimic composers like David Lang in one movement and LaMonte Young in another. It is not minimalist; perhaps “micro-development” will give some sense of what techniques are in use here. The musical material recurs but with constant changes, and those changes feel driven by the composer’s need for expression or to delineate structure. There’s no algorithm or process that I could discern; to follow its argument the listener must pay close attention. The material is quasi-tonal, so that it rests in the ear easily and can be recalled without excess effort. The seven movements capture different qualities of experiencing a city; the first and seventh are entitled “Per”. They evoke the slow change of vista that occurs when walking through a city by using four-note cells over and over again, with a shared pool of pitches but with constant variation. “Palazzo” has passages that recall the French Baroque; “Cruise Ship” blocks out the sight of everything in terrible, slow notes that take forever to mount to something. “Lagoon” uses constant ringing tremolos to create a deep sonic space with resonating echoes. The work does constitute a real journey, and when one returns to “Per” at its end, you hear its simplicity with new ears, having learned something from the intervening travel.

The closest thing to a “war horse” this evening was Larson’s finale, Le Courlis Cendre, the third piece from the seventh book of Olivier       Messiaen’s massive Catalogue d’Oiseaux. Ostensibly a more or less objective attempt to capture the song of the curlew from field recordings, in Larson’s hands it was a restless, technically spectacular demonstration of quintessential Messiaen: repeated juxtapositions, chord clusters in the composer’s distinctive voice, all arranged to make a huge dramatic impact.

The pieces on Andy Costello’s program shared an unusual quality: they all were pieces for spoken word and piano. The first was the only one remotely familiar, and his use of it was mildly controversial. One of the sections of John Cage’s book Silence is entitled “Composition as Process: Changes” and is printed in narrow columns with long vertical gaps between chunks of text. The preface to the essay indicates that the gaps indicate places where his piano piece Music of Changes would be performed—the music has long periods of silence. Cage writes that “the music is not superimposed on the speech but heard only in the interruptions of the speech.” Costello performed a fragment of Music of Changes while reciting the opening of “Composition as Process: Changes”, but the two were frequently occurring at the same time. This made for a theatrical effect: the mind struggled to listen to the words (Cage was not an especially graceful writer) as well as to absorb the angular non sequiturs of the music. At the same time, as a spectator you were drawn to the spectacle of Costello playing this challenging work while describing its philosophical underpinnings. It was virtuosic, which put it almost certainly at odds with what Cage himself was trying to accomplish. It was no less effective for that.


Karl Larsen (file photo)

Six pieces, all brief and pointed in their effect, followed after the Cage: Brian Ferneyhough’s Opus Contra Naturam was academic and wry. Not all of the texts were equally interesting: Damian Rodriguez’ (b. 1963) …tre, va! made the most of the phrase “1, 2, 3, go!” in Spanish, a single idea wrung thoroughly of its possibilities; and Ofer Pelz’ (b. 1978) 1…2…3… worked with similar material but was a bit folkier, in a Ligeti-esque vein. The most ambitious work, or at least the longest, Clifton Ingram’s (b. 1983) Encolpius, set an English translation of a fragment of Petronius’s Satyricon. Said fragment included the title page and copyright notice, and was set to music that receded behind the text. It was an arch but introverted cabaret piece that never really let its hair down. Music is the art of memory, and Keith Kusterer’s (b. 1981) Trivial Surreal has a great payoff for those whose memory is engaged. I won’t give away the trick to this party-game piece, but the apparent nonsense of the work comes into focus with a comic bang at its end. David Grant’s (b. 1976) for provided a very brief pendant that ended the set. Costello’s readings of the texts were clear and forceful, his playing firmly in control with only a slight stumble in 1…2…3… belying the fact that talking and playing simultaneously can be confounding. Both Costello and Larsen produced a fairly hard, bright sound, which I think can be attributed to a piano that is probably built more for endurance that nuance. Whatever harshness came through in the climaxes of Le Courlis Cendre or …tre, va! was relieved by the joy of immersion in the sound the musicians were producing.

The small room was filled with a warmly receptive audience, and the atmosphere was rapt but low-key: the occasional obbligato added by the Cambridge Fire and/or Police out on Cambridge Street added some “character” to the evening, but failed to disrupt the proceedings.

Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.

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