Surrounded by the multicolor, mural-laden walls of The Lilypad, Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble began its season Friday with, exclusively, the winners of its recent call for scores competition. Headed by ensemble founder and bass clarinetist/baritone saxophonist Nicole DeMaio, Emma Staudacher on horn, Aaron Michael Smith on viola, Daniel Lewis on percussion, Bradley Frizzell on clarinet, and soprano Katherine Beckvold put forth an extensive and impressive array of new works both for solos/subsets of their core instrumentation and full group. Beer flowed, too.
Tuvan by Francesco Scalfani and Chace Williams, provided the first exemple of a running theme for the night: the use of graphic notation scores. Seeing only a density curve and timings, the ensemble had to improvise within set parameters. What happened could only be described as a graphic notation product. Smith opened as the only voice at first, bowing his viola senza vibrato while shortly after being joined by Beckvold. The rest of the members joined in progressively as the texture thickened, and the piece slowly took on an aggressive character. Given the nature of the material, everyone in the group played well, if not always actively. It takes a lot of concentration and ensemble unity to perform graphic scores, as passages will not be preceded by anything marking an entrance point. The slow build Black Sheep got, then, testified to how well developed as a collective they are. As for the controlled improvisation itself, while certainly entertaining to hear the peaks of the volume (dynamics is definitely the wrong term here) and technique, it was nothing completely new, well within the vein of the Earle Brown-style aleatory from the mid-20th century.
DeMaio soloed on her baritone saxophone in Huracàn by David Voss. After an angular start full of leaps, a composite melody developed, creating a series of statements that would finish in stagger. The baritone sax gave a slight jazzy edge as it poked its way through with it distinctive colors. DeMai dispatched the solo with surprising ease, given how much she was jumping registers on such an unwieldy and notoriously hard to control instrument; many notes were laced with the hiss of escaping air, showing how much had to go into controlling the beast. Yet DeMaio sounded too polite while she hammered at the chunky solo, her dynamic palette not being wide enough to reach the extremes the composer demanded.
Adam Scott Neal’s Tèarmunn started from an odd place. The duet consisted of horn and vibraphone prepared with sets of metallic beads draped over the bars, creating an ethereal, buzzy sound from the vibes. Two instruments that, ostensibly, would not go well together were paired up, and the result was pretty convincing. Lewis arguably was the focus, having the majority of the moving lines, while Staudacher provided responses on her horn. Both sounded fine, especially Staudacher, who shaped smooth phrases with ease. What was more interesting than just the execution, however, was how the piece shaped itself. Rather than using traditional harmonic motion and creating interest from any particular tonic, fundamentals became the key in Neal’s harmonic series and shaping. Taking cues from spectralists like Grisey and Murail, the vibraphone centered itself on different bass fundamentals and strengthened them with upper register work, supplemented by the horn, which created an independent melody from several higher overtones. Motion from the different fundamentals suddenly drew listener attention back in, creating a hybrid between stasis and motion that could change without warning.
Smith and Lewis took a duet on Jacana by Andrew Sigler. In a melody over very active rhythmic accompaniment, what seemed to be predictable, turned on its head. Lewis on the rhythmic accompaniment took control, and, though Smith played admirably, the viola became mostly drowned out by the percussion. Considering the wide palette, including tom-toms, woodblock, cowbells, suspended cymbal, and a large triangle, it’s not hard to see why. The viola simply could not compete with the more overwhelming timbres like tom-toms and woodblock. The most interesting sections came from when the two instruments would alternate with each other, allowing the audience to really listen to what the viola was doing as opposed to getting small glimpses at what Smith did. That might have been a result of the hall too: Lilypad reinforced high-pitched loud noises.
One of the longer works we heard, Vaporous Air by Daniel Fawcett, was also one of the three premieres on the program. Aided by the full ensemble, Beckvold sang several limericks by the Canadian poet Paul Cameron Brown and lit up a chain of LED lights around her neck in near darkness. The fantastic timbres, included some rarer percussion like a lion’s roar and toy xylophone notes as auxiliary instruments for the other members and suspended the ensemble in stasis similar to the first composition. The conceit of the lights held interest for a while, though the constant strobing got to be tiresome. The lights proved to be the work’s biggest flaw, however, and mostly detracted. Black Sheep has done visual elements to their pieces before, but this one fell flat. The music itself, however, was very spacious and slow burning, effective in text painting.
The entertainingly titled Eat Your Vegetables by Jonathan Russ brought Frizzell out of the ensmbel for the only time. Rhythmically echoing the Voss saxophone solo, Frizzell utilized more of the extended color palette of the clarinet, resorting to the infrequent but welcome flutter tongue periodically as well as overblowing and multiphonics. The actual notes did not fall into the trap of focusing on the extended techniques, and instead, incorporated them into a second rhythmically intense line. Frizzell had little trouble still shaping an interesting interpretation from the very active melody. Essentially giving us rock for clarinet, Russ brought grittiness and dirt into the clarinet akin to an electric guitar.
Grave Numbers by Clare Shore, the second premiere, brought Beckvold and Lewis together into the most traditional setting Black Sheep offered in this concert: an art song with keyboard-based accompaniment, allowing the performers more expressive latitutde. This song cycle, probably the longest on the concert, clocked in at around five fully formed movements.
Lyricaly and tenderly yet also confidently, Beckvold delivered several dark texts while the vibraphone gently backed up her line. The effective text painting made it easy for Beckvold to shape her melodies and get personal with the text. Lewis on the vibraphone has to be commended. He provided everything Beckvold needed to succeed while not overpowering her, something that takes time for even the best collaborative pianists to develop; the vibraphone helped quite a lot in how its attacks are far less defined than a piano, almost sounding like a music box as a result. The song cycle proved to be a much-needed diversion into a more traditional setting.
The final piece, From the compass, a dream by Daniel Grantham, returned to the graphic score idea. This time, however, the graphic score resembled a Rorschach inkblot, lines splayed in all directions with small interspersed boxes for text that Beckvold delivered. Performers had to fit themselves in whatever they saw on the inkblots, taking whatever role they believed themselves to be in at the time. DeMaio, on bass clarinet for this one instance, provided a lot of support on the bottom with a blended bass register, welcome in something so esoteric and unformed. Contrasted with the first graphic score, however, the improvisations felt far more controlled, forming actual structure despite the aleatoric basis. Effects from each player fanned out into the ensemble rather than speaking once and never returning. Lewis acted as a conductor, indicating section changes to keep the improvisation moving. In many ways, this form of aleatory held interest far longer, it encouraged progression in how the textures changed. Each person stayed on point, setting ideas into motion within the group while reacting to what was coming their way. As a capstone, this final graphic score ended well.
Black Sheep Contemporary Ensemble is shaping up to be a strong new player on the Boston scene. Here’s hoping they continue to innovate; once they find their niche, they will be quite a success story in Boston, potentially up to the heights of the venerable Boston Musica Viva.
NEC graduate student composer Ian Wiese, a new-music aficionado, loves attending and supporting concerts of living composers’ music and the ensembles that champion them.