IN: Reviews

How To Play the Cactus


Amy Advocat warms up on her bass clarinet

“Cocktails or cactus?” the man asked as I walked into Short Path Distillery on Thursday night.  I answered decidedly, “Cactus.” The distillery sits an industrial park in the most unassuming area of Everett, hidden from view by a short strip of construction. A bass clarinet whomp flooding out the open door mingled fleetingly with the building noises.

Keith Kirchoff’s brainchild Original Gravity Concert Series featured compositions by Steven Snowden, interpreted by Transient Canvas (clarinetist Amy Advocat and percussionist Matt Sharrock) and Snowden (cactus). The Gravity events typically take place within, or like this one on the patio of, a brewery or distillery, pairing alcoholic beverages with contemporary music. “We like our listeners to be well-lubricated,” Sharrock explained afterward.

Left of the Dial, for percussion and live electronics, mimicked tuning a radio dial, switching between stations, focusing between channels, which is where the percussion flourished. Using real radio sounds, taking a page out of John Cage’s book, Snowden’s placement of beats creates its own, entirely unique rhythm. A mix of ambient sounds and radio anecdotes form the first few minutes, but eventually this builds into, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, a sick beat.

Although Sharrock typically can be heard performing vibraphone with his clarinet other-half Advocat, his duet partner here was electronics, making for much less forgiveness, as being even a fracture of a beat off can cause a train wreck. Whether or not Sharrock’s technique is spot-on never seems to be a question; his affinity for the music astounded, the purely acrobatic movements of the work enough to amaze. Sharrock fully caught the humorous, matter-of-fact character of the piece.

Extracting sounds from 1970s payphones and landlines, exploring their hisses, hums, and clicks, Long Distance was perhaps the most compelling work of the night. Snowden explained that he used a hacker-collected mixture of dialtones, static sounds, and operator voices from various cities, which he used: Monroe, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; Panorama, Virginia; Brooklyn was not featured. Splicing these findings together into one movement per city, Snowden composed a vibraphone duet by way of dialing and echoed voices meandered into its own lyricism.

“Monroe, North Carolina 1977” began with a prestissimo busy signal, matched by the vibraphone. This theme expanded with a muted, rich pace, transitioning to lengthy dull dialtones, echoing endlessly as the vibes continued a softer busy signal that eventually developed into a charmingly contrapuntal conversation. Sharrock’s delicate approach to the emerging tones, combined with the virtuosity of the busy signal, felt mindboggling yet looked effortless.

“Atlanta, Georgia 1972”’s playful energy and inquisitive nature mirrored operator voices, at times sounding like a new take on Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach with its repeated numbers and weather reports. However, when operator voices fragmented into brief consonants, a percussive bassline formed, transforming the movement into a pleasing, articulate, techno dance music.

“Panorama, Virginia 1976” completed the set, exploring the huge sounds of the open network, using a combination of bowed and mallet vibes. Subtler than the previous two movements, “Panorama” proved itself to long toward that new open American sound which Copland and Barber strove for, expanding their meaning to the telephone, a communication method for the entire country that brought together people from East to West in a moment’s time. The movement did not depict the prairies Copland wrote of but instead explored the vastness of the phone network. Sharrock’s sensitivity stunningly showed an introspection informed by richly toned romanticism.

Steam Man of the Prairies brought together Sharrock and Advocat, although an unfortunate turn of the weather caused Advocat to stay in the bar, else her clarinet production would not have survived the wind. That did not much stop the ever communicative and poignant duo from performing beautifully, although the usual thrill of seeing the two in proximity went missing. Steam Man of the Prairies combines industrial and natural, demonstrating Reichian minimalist ideas, circling and expanding, perhaps even referring to Different Trains. Although not planned to add to the performance, the bar sounds that Advocat’s mike picked up added to the work’s modernized, industrialized sense. Snowden explained that its title refers to the first-written depiction of a humanoid robot, a steam man gallivanting around the old American West.

Steve Snowden bows an amplified cactus

The spectacle of the night was next: Cathy the Cactus. Written as dance collaboration with choreographer Rosalyn Nasky, Land of the Living explores the notion of playing a living being. Snowden composed the work in Texas, where he admitted that it felt quite natural to compose for amplified cactus (it has been done before), attaching microphones to the plant’s skin and plucking the needles to resonate the interior.

What does a cactus sound like? Snowden’s cactus (coined Cathy) sounded prickly and crunchy, yet almost like muffled water droplets. Use of electronics added night sounds, crickets, twanging guitars, and harmonics to the performance. Strumming the needles delicately with his fingers, Snowden relied on his compiled circuitry to support the gentle sound, giving pitch to the unique sonic colors. Eventually he pulled out a bow, pulling it across the cactus and managing to deliver a satisfying wash of harmonics.

It was the most wildly intriguing sight and sound I have experienced at a concert. While I will leave it to philosopher Nelson Goodman to decide whether this was performance art or art music, the entire experience left me feeling taken aback—astonished and unexpectedly emotional. The idea that a living thing other than the human voice could serve as a musical instrument felt like a newly gorgeous concept. At the conclusion of the piece, Snowden joked, “Only lost one needle!”

Advocat punched into the end with Snowden’s Shovelhead, written for bass clarinet and live electronics. Though likely composed before Snowden and Advocat knew each other well, the piece seems perfectly suited to Advocat’s style, whose eclecticism and energy on the stage are unsurpassed. Decorated with laughter, car noises, and “Hey, papi”s, Snowden’s signature bass drop returned and Advocat’s confident, sarcastic tone ripped through all.

Original Gravity is not to be missed.

Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.

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