Music of Reality is dedicated to the idea of the interpenetration of science and music: their most recent concert, “Beautiful Questions,” focused on cosmology, the science that attempts to explain the origin of everything. Wednesday evening at the Somerville Armory, it was an entertaining but awkward experience, combining brief lectures on cosmology with 10 musical performances. The lectures were delivered by Harvard assistant professor of physics Cora Dvorkin, whose specialty is “data-driven cosmology.” An engaging and energetic speaker, she succeeded in impressing on the audience one core concept at a time: the prevalence of “dark” matter and energy in the universe, for example, or the importance of the not quite homogenous quality of cosmic background radiation.
Four of the 10 pieces were MoR commissions and world premieres lasting little more than a minute, small sketches that left the memory almost immediately. The closing “work” was a performance by Table Manners, a group of four personable DJs who did some mixing and scratching that combined samples from other music on the concert with pronouncements by astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Of the five remaining works, only two really engaged the idea of cosmology. Music of Reality co-founder David Ibbett’s Beauty from Nothing is a concertino for piano and electronics. The composer credits John G. Cramer for his “sonification of the Big Bang and the first 760,000 years of [the] universe”. It’s unclear how much of the electronics are Cramer’s and how much Ibbetts’s, but the result was a kind of cosmic jazz, the electronics starting out with planetarium whooshing that acquired a rather poppy beat as it went on. Pianist Sophia Subbayya Vastek produced melodic lines surrounded cloudy clustered harmonies that recalled Bill Evans. It got loud and flashy, a touch of Vegas in the cosmos, before ending quietly. Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Surfing Cosmic Waves (one of the commissions / world premieres) explored similar territory, Vastek being joined by sonic realizations of the cosmic background radiation but on a much shorter timescale, with more understated material and with a simpler form that moved from soft to loud while increasing density.
Dan VanHassel’s fzzl attached electronics to a snare drum played by Matt Sharrock—when Sharrock played on the outside of the instrument, nothing unusual occurred, but when the head of the drum was hit, overtones and resonances were gently sustained. The initial impression was that this was ‘AutoTune for Snares’, as the source of the tones was hard to distinguish from the noisier components of the sound, but one learned to hear the melodic content. It was an interesting experiment but not quite an independent work of art.
The two finest works took as their subject our living world on Earth, and featured clarinetist Amy Advocat (she and Sharrock perform as Transient Canvas). Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s The Botany of Desire came with an extended apologia that explained its connection to Michael Pollan’s book of the same name, but the piece makes its case just fine without that extramusical explanation. It is an extended dialogue between clarinet and vibraphone, with the clarinet asked to play melodic lines using heavily ornamented nonstandard fingerings and microtonal adjustments. The vibraphone speaks a more conservative dialect, and the piece works by gentle opposition. The writing for the clarinet is impressive, the extended techniques creating create atmosphere filled with uncanny overtones. Sharrock and Advocat played with intimacy and keen attention to one another, even as the music itself kept them in separate worlds, alienated but not alienating.
Advocat returned by herself and breathed vivid life into the Lee Hyla’s Mythic Birds of Saugerties for bass clarinet. An extroverted tour de force of birdsong that uses the huge range of timbres provided by the instrument to great effect, it is Messaien’s Abime des Oiseaux with big muscles and a willingness to yell, and the performance was energizing enough to make one wonder why we don’t hear more solo bass clarinet.
As pleasant as the evening was, it didn’t seem that cosmology and music really had much to say to one another. When connections were made, they were at the level of fuzzy metaphor, Dvorkin describing background radiation and gravitational waves as a “cosmic symphony”, or the title of Surfing Cosmic Radio Waves. The composer is yet to be found who can make meaningful music inspired by Maxwell’s equations or by the theory of general relativity. Music of Reality is already planning its next season, and there was some hint of what would be covered. Perhaps cell biology will prove more amenable to interdisciplinary treatment.
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.