Boston Conservatory’s Contemporary Music Ensemble presented works by living composers at 132 Ipswich on Friday, the 31st. Ten players surrounding a table filled with items such as coffee mugs, cups, a large movie popcorn container, chalices, and other props started off the night with Alvin Lucier’s Opera with Objects (1997). For nearly half an hour, the performers used number two pencils to beat and tap quick, repetitive rhythms—at times interspersed with concise, imposing solos—on the various objects, circling the table slowly until each performer subtlety dropped out—until there was just one person left tapping. Then her sounds stopped too. The work had a meditative, trance-like affect, and reminded one of a sacred energy-raising ritual. Found, everyday objects could apparently serve musical, even consciousness-altering purposes. Meanwhile, guest conductor Jeffrey Means kept steadfast and meticulous time.
Georg Friedrich Haas’s Fukushima from Schweigen (2011), a wordless vocal work showcased sopranos Felicia Chen and Rose Hegele and incorporated extended vocal techniques. Unaccompanied by other instruments, the two created siren-like sounds that explored extremes of the vocal range. At times their harmonics created the aural illusion of a third instrument, and made one wonder where exactly the sound was coming from.
Salvatore Sciarrino’s four-movement Le Voci Sottovetro: Elaboration of Carlo Gesualdo of Venosa (2011) utilized elements of classical forms into a modernized pastiche style: one could recognize echoes of familiar solos, melodies, and cadences. Yet, the work’s aggregate sound was akin to a contemporary city’s dialect of the old, classical styles. In movements two and four, sopranos Hegele and Chen again channeled extremes of range. In movement three, the bass clarinet often carried the melody with copious trills. Singing of death, the Italian lyrics of the two vocal movements translate to “No, it is impossible to say nothing of the cruel torment which comes before death…and she who could give me life, alas, kills me…”
Boston-based composer Marti Epstein’s Troubled Queen (2011), inspired by Jackson Pollock’s painting of the same name, incorporates deep, diffuse sounds, including that of the bass flute. Opening with the rumbling pulse of an irregular and persistent drum, it sets an ominous mood from the outset, which gradually descends into a darkened sound space that purposefully lowers Epstein’s usual compositional tessitura. Silence is woven masterfully throughout, contributing to the aural dialogue of trombone, violins, viola, bass flute, bass clarinet, cello, piano, and percussion. Once again, Means’ unwavering direction moved the dedicated performers along their path. A long, dance-like period of interchange between piano and percussion created a hypnotic sound world, rejoined at last by the cello, which brought in the other players and signaled the beginning of the end. With its use of extended techniques, texture, and timbre Troubled Queen seemed to float in mid-air before fading out as mysteriously as it appeared. The composer was on hand to receive a large, enthusiastic ovation.
Harrison Birtwistle’s Liebes-Lied 1 and 2 (2008-2009), with baritone Joshua Scheid, pianist Jeremiah Cossa, and cellist Alexander Ullman showcased Scheid’s committed acting and creature-like interpretation of the German text by Rainer Maria Rilke: “How shall I hold my soul and yet not touch it with your own? How shall I ever place it clear of you on anything beyond?” With his asymmetrical hair, tall, robust build, sharp features, high forehead, piercing eyes, and over-the-top acting persona, the baritone delivered an exquisitely eerie interpretation of Rilke’s uncanny love poem: “Oh gladly I would stow it [his soul] next to such things in the darkness as are never found down in an alien and silent space that does not resonate when you resound.”
The closer, Sciarrino’s Introduzione All’oscuro (1981) made great use of aeolian sounds, beginning with what sounded like the ocean—the trombonist blowing toneless air into his instrument. Other players followed suit as a flutist panted through her instrument. Percussive lip smacks on the clarinet sounded like palpitations, as gristly slides on violins agitated. Whooshing taps and bowing over bridges conjured an organized cacophony that viscerally induced panic. Instrumentalists’ torso’s ballooned up and down with each heaving breath. A distinct heart beat emerged from the frenzy as more and more musicians added to the sound of heavy breathing, The heart beat became more prominent as the grumbling bass underscored its plight. Then the music just stopped. Was this death?
Stephanie Susberich is a soprano and composer living in Somerville. She writes about music on her blog, www.sopranointhecity.com