The venerable new music group Dinosaur Annex opened up 2018 Thursday at Somerville’s Third Life Studio, “a creative home to many who perform, teach, guide, quest, and heal.” In the intimate hybrid happening, Boston-area poet Allison Adair joined Dino veterans, violist Anne Black and accordionist Katherine V. Matasy, on “EcoMuse: Sustainable Music/Poetry/Video.” Composers (all of whom attended), performers, poets (four had been commissioned to write poetry after one of the pieces), and video artists came together with varied takes on the nebulous concept, from spatial composition to pollution.
David Owens’s Soliloquy VI for viola highlighted the intimacy of things to come. Black, having premiered it several weeks ago, showcased the odd dichotomy of styles inherent to the viola: lyricism and throatiness of the instrument’s tone color versus the strained yet charming virtuosity that Black powered through quite readily. Owens emphasized that dichotomy, placing the lyrical passages on the lower C and G strings of the viola, where the most recognizable timbre thrives, and moving the more technical sections across the D and A strings. No matter the situation, Black had the viola completely under control, beating the inherent technical challenges with ease. Owens also ensured his Soliloquy never became stale; on occasion, left hand pizzicatos enhanced the lyricism, and the active lines fell back into staid music frequently. Effectively, Owens avoided several pitfalls of modern viola composition through subtle additions.
Recession by Christopher Trapani used “environment” more concretely, turning the Matasy’s accordion into a spatialized synthesizer. Michele Zaccagnin manned a laptop and manipulated the live sound Matasy fed into his system, casting it out into a setup of four channel surround sound speakers. It stripped the accordion down to its most basic sonic parts. Low rumbles of indiscernible pitch, ascending and descending microtonal passages based on sixth tones (36 notes to the octave with a change of roughly 33 cents per step), airy whispers, and crashing accents surrounded the audience as Matasy both lead and reacted to the electronics. Suffice to say, coming from a reviewer who has experienced computer manipulation of acoustic instruments many times prior, this rendition struck a chord. Dialoging with herself in the work, Matasy executed her exceptionally difficult material quite easily, juggling both her part and a recording pedal to sample her sound signal into the computer. The balancing act never toppled, despite Matasy later admitting to several mistakes in her pedal sampling. Mistakes happen in these kinds of compositions, and the sonic reality never showed them, so they were inconsequential, at least to this listener.
The collaboration built up to We burned the care of our flies. Composer Victoria Cheah and videographer Pawel Wojtasik combined footage of a Hartford, Connecticut landfill with a subtle score to bring attention to human destruction. Interestingly, Cheah admitted the video had been edited to fit the composition in the following question and answer session. This revelation is interesting because, rather than the video seeming to follow the music as most score-to-video edits do, the piece emphasized beats in the video rather than preempted them. Stasis dominated everything, with Matasy holding long tones on her accordion leading into clusters while Black colored the harmonies rather than built upon them. The single idea appeared well controlled, though over time something else desperately needed to change the texture even subtly. By themselves, slow shifts in harmony felt wanting. They needed something developed in the viola over them, not only adding something new but better utilizing the viola as well. The video art, on the other hand, showed some interesting angles on both a trash compactor and a car crusher, letting the viewer experience a Buick (if the reviewer’s knowledge of cars is correct) being crushed into a cube for stacking and old computers being junked, complete with CRT screens smashing and plastic shattering. It felt right out of a modern art museum.
Poetry readings curated by guest poet Adair bookended each of the performances. Classics from Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm by James Wright joined modern writings and four newly commissioned Recession response poems from Sonja Johanson (who was in attendance as well), Jenna Le, Adair, and Brandon Courtney at Dinosaur Annex’s behest. That everything fit the theme is about as much as this reviewer can report.
Dinosaur Annex’s theme worked rather well. Has it has also sparked a new direction? The ensemble’s next concert pairs contemporary works with food, so maybe they have settled into an interdisciplinary niche pairing new music with other fields. We shall see.