“How deep is the sea?” wondered the Criers and their friends the composer collective Oracle Hysterical on Thursday night at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. To explore not just the physical answer to the question but also philosophical, poetic, and metaphorical aspects, A Far Cry brought their New York-based colleagues to Boston for the world premiere of the fascinating new song cycle, collaboratively composed by the members of the collective to texts drawn from the Sea edition of the literary magazine Lapham’s Quarterly.
The premiere of The Sea: Tales of Lapham marked the latest Stir concert at Calderwood Hall, the Museum’s series featuring “an adventurous mix of contemporary art, music, and performance.” The concert was sold out, fantastic news for this vital, genre-bending series which represents, along with the Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions, the Boston branch of a particular “downtown” new music aesthetic, epitomized by labels like New Amsterdam Records, clubs like Le Poisson Rouge, and ensembles like Roomful of Teeth and Brooklyn Rider. Bravo to all; the Boston music scene is richer for their courage. A Far Cry shares this lust for going out on a limb, for trying new ways of presenting music that transcend concert conventions and reach new audiences. Again they took advantage of their role as Calderwood resident ensemble to push boundaries in programming and destabilize the traditional experience.
Oracle Hysterical boasts four composer-performers, the twin brothers Doug (bass guitar, vocals) and Brad Bailliett (basoon, vocals), as well as Majel Connery (vocals, piano), and Elliot Cole (piano, vocals). The “half band, half book club” wears its erudition on its sleeve. Their appetite extends from sound to text, so a prestigious literary magazine like Lapham’s Quarterly, that draws from an array of sources from different eras to illuminate a common theme, is both an obvious source of inspiration and a decent description of the collective’s aesthetic.
The concert began untraditionally with A Far Cry alone, starting to perform The Sea Concerto (also written collaboratively) but without their Oracle Hysterical co-conspirators fleshing out the rhythm section. The concerto’s musical language set the tone for much that followed. These composers approach writing music from a postmodern perspective, their works unfolding episodically and drawing on styles from disparate musical eras and traditions. Sometimes they combined incongruous elements to create new textures, and sometimes they kept them separate, letting sections unfold like chapters from an anthology. Much of the music featured a pop-inflected, tonal core, wrapped in gauzy chromatic blankets of delicate orchestration. As the concerto progressed, the members of Oracle Hysterical entered midstream, in the same way a front man enters after the band has warmed up the crowd. Once the drums kicked in, the music matched the convention, and the hall seemed to be transformed into a neo-cabaret or mellow rock club. Quick-changing time signatures diversify the language even further, especially when they duck into minimal and post-minimal styles. When the songs featured the rhythm section, these virtuosic changes tap a kind of prog-rock quality or “progressive chamber pop”.
Majel Connery’s voice took center stage as she navigated treacherous music with ease, style, and confidence. Her indie-inflected voice first graced “The World Is a Sea”, a setting of text by Donne treated to complex orchestration adorning a smoothly tuneful foundation. Oracle Hysterical is not without a sense of humor, and the ironically sunny setting of lines like, “All men change in their bodies, they fall sick, they grow poor, become sad, they wonder” foreshadowed tricks and jokes to come, especially in their final song of the evening, a setting of Homeric extracts entitled Strait of Messina. Helpful supertitles in attractive fonts splashed across vivid projections of abstract images. These were the first of many stylish projections, designed by the composers and cued by Nicholas Tolle, that contextualized the songs of the Lapham cycle.
The projections reached a height during the ensemble’s efforts to explore the question How Deep Is the Ocean? While post-minimal ostinatos slowly cascaded from higher registers to lower, decorated by sweeping orchestral phrases, Doug Balliet read scientific facts pertaining to particular depths. Especially dramatic was the moment when the journey crossed into those light cannot reach. Suddenly the illumination in Calderwood Hall dropped, to leave only a few dark-blue pars on the ground floor. It was as though the audience suddenly found itself in an artfully constructed, sonically sumptuous Omni Theater.
Sometimes Oracle Hysterical’s love of text interrupted the musical flow, but not in Sea Musics, a piece that poetically conveyed existential awe at the power and mystery of the ocean. A muted, rather banal 6/8 tune, played by Jason Fisher (viola) and the principal group, depicting the provincial, attenuated perspective of humanity, is repeatedly interrupted by gloriously colorful and detailed ensemble swooshes, large waves crashing onto the shore, representing some naturally more complex and beautiful reality.
Occasionally the straightforward tonal aspects of these songs overshadowed the artful ones, and so some songs with weaker arrangements and weaker performances, like A Black Day, shifted the aesthetic from a successful sort of Baroque cabaret to a less successful progressive Broadway effect. But without taking chances there are no great successes. A Far Cry brought us another evening of surprise with many triumphs, and introduced Boston to another group of vital artist voices playing in the spaces between and among the borders of traditional genres.
Matthew Heck is a musicology doctoral student at Brandeis.