Clad in their traditional white shirts and blue jeans,the Callithumpian Consort under direction of Steve Drury took to the Jordan Hall stage Monday. Guest artist Pablo Gomez-Cano from Mexico on both electric and acoustic guitar joined regulars, Jessi Rosinski, flute; Amy Advocat, clarinet; Gabriela Diaz and Ryan Shannon, violins; Eve Boltax, viola; Stephen Marotto, cello; Mike Williams, percussion; and pianist Yukiko Takagi, offered a spread ranging from incredibly recent to 56 years old that somehow shared an underlying thread.
Taking the stage alone, conductor Steve Drury opened the night with the smallest of all the works, NEC faculty member John Heiss’s Four Short Pieces for piano. After unnecessarily postulating politics in his introduction, Drury sang his way through the set of miniatures, the piano becoming an extension its player. The “Adagio” stayed mysterious and delicate throughout, as each note lingered in the air for several moments. Not long after, “Lento” brought forth a melodic figure, expanding the figuration but staying aware of the previous affectation. Drury put more weight in “Gracile,” the figures requiring a different interpretation than the previous sections while needing the same time space to shape each short phrase. Rounding out the set, “Lento” began heavy and weighted and then slid back into a quiet and contemplative state, finishing the miniatures in a similar fashion to how the cycle began. Despite clocking in at around five minutes, Heiss and Drury moved through several states of contemplation with each episode.
Textural ensemble works constituted majority of what followed. Alvin Lucier’s Braid saw strings and winds joined by Elizabeth England on English horn (Rosinski on alto flute rather than C flute). What was most interesting was how the players sat. The string quartet faced towards each other as a normal string quartet would, this time with a view of a laptop that had a timecode constantly scrolling on it, independent of Drury as conductor. The winds faced backstage as a monitor mirrored the timecode as well, leading a logical conclusion that it was written exclusively with time frames in mind, a composition style known as “proportional notation.” Laced with microtonal pitches, the strings quietly, slowly, and deliberately played glissandos up and down their strings, uncaring of what pitch generated as the winds responded with quarter tone trichords (three note harmonies independent of tertian harmony) at various timed entrances. The slowly unfolding result maintained interest for a long while; players rigidly focused on how their motions contributed to the resultant sound. The downside, however, was 16 minutes of this single harmonic shifting concept. Lucier’s distillation of lofty concept microtonality into an unending, uncaring palette of heightening/loosening dissonance and harmonic interaction had played its course by the 10-minute mark.
Taking influence from progressive rock bands like Yes, Genesis, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and especially King Crimson, Émissions Transparent by University of Northern Colorado composer Paul Elwood brought Gomez-Cano on electric guitar, NEC student Jacob Mason on the increasingly rare mellotron, and Ross Wightman monitoring electronics alongside Takagi, Williams, and Marotto under Drury’s baton. Upon debugging the inevitable malfunction of electronics, “L’ange de l’annunciation” Gomez-Cano passed motifs out into the other members of the ensemble as Mason provided accompanying harmonies. Every sound fed back into the electronics, which played double duty in the use of fixed media tape which manifested later in the work alongside a MaxMSP patch that altered and enhanced the sound and reverb of instruments via several connected filters. Marotto, amplifying his cello with a directional mic and feeding the output signal through the MaxMSP patch, had his tone altered the most; the cello nearly mirrored the rock sound of the electric guitar, especially when Marotto pushed the limits of the mic using sul ponticello and lacing his sound with as many overtones as possible. The first movement gave way to “Interlude: Magnificat” where semblances of melodic fragments drifted between piano/vibes and cello/guitar. A short and sweet piano solo from Takagi, marked by gently feathered chords and long spaces, fed into a pause bridged by the tape, taken from Apollo 11 moon landing radio transmissions. “Voiceless transit” followed, hearkening back to the thick texture from the first movement. Gomez-Cano shined here. Far different from “L’ange de l’annunciation,” through expanded use of guitar pedals, which heavily changed the output signal, the guitar could almost be mistaken for another synthesizer at some points. Marotto and Williams, now bowing bowls, imitated Gomez-Cano. Once again, the motifs fragmented in the piano, cello, and guitar, all feeding back into utterances from the tape.
“Shifting Points on Bending Grids” opened with a glockenspiel solo from Williams, echoed by Takagi whose piano inversely became an extension of the glockenspiel; both musicians remained in tandem. Gomez-Cano and Marotto once again responded in kind, acting as one voice trading lines between the guitar and the cello. Gomez-Cano in particular had a child-like quality to his sound in this movement. Williams then moved over to the piano, playing a threaded bow hair on a piano string, effectively pulling the sound out of the resonator. “Where burns the love that turns it” aggressed with large tutti chords from the pitched members of the ensemble, echoed by Williams on tom-toms and cymbals as the tape shouted back, far removing the soundscape from all prior parts. Once again, Gomez-Cano stood out among the thick texture, strumming on the guitar in rapid strokes to carry his amplified sound far above everyone else. Out of all the sound worlds Elwood wrote, this one was the closest the work came to overt progressive rock. Finishing the journey, “Ombres et Poussière” followed its predecessor with a guitar solo interspersed with short barks from the rest of the players. Unlike everything that came before it, Elwood granted Mason on mellotron a far more active role, now active in the group rather than supporting it or sitting idly waiting for the next entrance. As every entrance swirled around, everyone abruptly cut out as the Apollo moon landing tape returned, marking interruptions before the collective screamed once again. With what sounded like a few final throwbacks to Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the entire piece closed with a bang.
liquid, fragile by Marti Epstein returned to the staid. Advocat, Diaz, Boltax, and Marotto began far more tonally than anything before, referencing tonic centers that grounded the material. Before any phrase had a chance to complete, however, a long, almost awkward pause barged in, spacing all statements in direct proportion to their active length. After a few more tonally referential entrances, Epstein juxtaposed a pizzicato statement, mirrored by Advocat through staccatissimo, before another pause. Somehow the ensemble remained cohesive, while the composition deliberately was not; rather, Epstein explored different inherent playing capabilities and sound worlds in direct opposition to a previous style, creating a disjunct form. Other areas included an upwards glissando-driven cell, a downwards glissando-driven cell, and a passage of long held harmonies. In order to pull off something as esoteric as liquid, fragile, individuls had to lock in with each other; without a doubt, this foursome sounded it had been together for decades.
Closing the night, the embedded Pierrot Ensemble of Rosinski (doubling flute and bass flute), Advocat (playing exclusively bass clarinet), Shannon, Marotto, Williams, and Takagi welcomed Gomez-Cano on acoustic guitar for Luca Francesconi’s A fuoco, 4˚ sulla memoria. Fitting back in with the textural theme, Takagi muted her piano strings with a wood block as the bass flute and bass clarinet imitated the piano’s ring. Amidst what could be heard as aleatoric passages, Gomez-Cano on guitar stood out, no doubt due to the guitar’s distinctiveness. The highly independent material spouted by each person created a slithering reminiscent of Gyorgy Ligeti. Each member executed very active lines, amassing into ensemble playing that, perhaps oxymoronically, required near soloistic playing. Maybe due to having conducted many of Earle Brown’s less concrete aleatoric experiments over years, Drury skillfully kept everyone in line. The real interest came from the density of active notes amidst the framework, creating differing amounts of activity from each person. Marking a sharp departure from the evening’s theme, the tempo increased as the players united in one unanimous statement referencing the prior material, and leading through the climax to a quiet conclusion. The evening’s most notable departures placed one voice in another amidst the Pierrot, and directed change from constant color pieces to a more directed, less abstract composition.
Ian Wiese is a graduate student in composition at NEC, where he studies with Kati Agocs.