HYENA, a concerto for orchestra and narrator, recounts the life story of writer and storyteller Mollena Lee Williams-Haas. The autobiographical narration, delivered by Williams-Haas herself, follows the journey of an alcoholic who confronts her worst demons in an uphill battle toward sobriety. The narration was accompanied by the orchestral score of Georg Friedrich Haas, one of the leading figures in spectral music. Jeffrey Means led Sound Icon Friday at the ICA under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Boston University Center.
Hass composed his violin solo piece, de terrae fine during a time when he experienced great turmoil at one of the most beautiful places in Ireland. His pre-talk described it as feeling like the end of the world, comparable to the transition from Episode 7 to 8 in Star Wars, as well as textures mimicking his own speaking voice. In the 18-minute composition, the solo violin builds from a low “B” microtonally upwards, finally reaching approximately a high “C sharp.”
The frequent use of microtones in the piece creates a repeated, meditative, and exploratory atmosphere that freezes time and space, transporting the audience to a soundscape where equal temperament loses its meaning. As the piece progresses, the concept of being “in tune” becomes irrelevant, leaving only sounds, overtone harmonies, textures, and gestures. Harsh, agonizing dissonances cry out from the stage, and eerie slides fill the hall. In Hass’s sound world, whether a note was a G or G sharp becomes inconsequential. He effectively traps the audience within his musical realm. One feature of the piece made the listening experience less effective: the frequent repetition of certain motifs, which detracted from the overall impact of the composition. Towards the end, a scale-like figure with micro-tones and approximated intonation appeared three times. The first time, the sudden change in texture and unexpected tangibility caused some laughter (though perhaps unintended by Hass.) The second time, some chuckled again, but by the third, there was no reaction, which reflected the inefficacy of repetition in this genre. While the motifs were phenomenal, the duplicated gestures and extended playtime detracted from the piece’s core spirit.
De terrae fine was delivered with poise, infinity and curiosity by violinist Gabriela Díaz. Díaz vividly conjured the microtonal universe and fearlessly landed heart-ripping dissonances throughout the piece. The intention behind programming De terrae fine as the only standalone composition besides HYENA was not clear. While it was not necessary to provide an explanation, some context would have been appreciated. Did they intend it to serve as a long overture or to establish the sonic space for HYENA?
Williams-Hass’s delivery of her story was brilliantly charming, hilariously engaging and absolutely lovable. “I cannot tell you when it was I woke up, wondered into my bathroom, and saw my dead eyes staring back at me.” At the beginning of HYENA, the Sound Icon sinfonietta played a dissonant chord while sliding up and down with trills, creating a disorienting sonic atmosphere that perfectly matched the piece’s theme. From the high to low ends of the orchestra, Hass’s score produced a dizzying effect that resembled the smell and impact of alcohol. This texture continued as a prominent motif throughout the entire composition. “In my head, I was screaming: please…please ask me!” Williams-Hass whispered “screaming” and the latter half of the sentence, creating a beautiful juxtaposition. The Sound Icon responded by producing the same woozy texture as before, but in extreme softness. This was an effective instance of tone painting and an engaging display of different art forms working together seamlessly. Another example of this occurred when the words “Good morning! Good morning!” were met with almost five minutes of a beautiful, microtonally managed overtone series on E flat ringing throughout the orchestra, perfectly matching the text artistically. These remained rare instances of the script and music working cohesively until the end of the performance. The shift in intention and attitude towards the middle and end of the piece felt mysterious, as if the music suddenly stopped serving the script halfway through.
After the intense timpani pounding that followed the line “It’s hard to shock Health-Care professionals…,” Hass successfully used the instrument to separate the story into chapters. However, the brutal and loud nature of the timpani was not convincing enough. As the script progressed, the music began to derail from the storyline. Despite Williams-Hass’s descriptions of enrolling in the detox program or joking with therapists and patients, the chromatic sliding, long dissonant chords, and tremolos of the strings remained constant, with very few exceptions. Whether the script referred to eating a tomato, craving vegetables and sugar, or choosing between TV shows like “Deadliest Catch” or “Finding Nemo,” the musical texture remained largely unchanged. The music’s disorienting and intrusively chromatic nature was often jarring, even during moments of humor or casualness that elicited laughter from the audience.“The day I walked out of rehab I was alone…” As the storyline drew to a close, the music grew sparse, featuring Bartok pizzicatos, infrequent chords, and small gestures here and there. However, once again, the music seemed to have been composed and performed without direct connection to the story. At the end of the script, the sliding chromaticism, perfect intervals, and overtone series all returned separately, and the low growling bass clarinet resembled the sound of Williams-Hass’s inner Hyena. Bravo to Jeffery Means and the Sound Icon for their relentless motions, bold gestures and sharp execution of Hass’s score.