IN: Reviews

Envisioning New Music Mosaic


The final Sunday in February found five musicians of New Music Mosaic’s Boston cohort nestled cozily among paintings and sculptures in the Out of the Blue Community Arts Gallery in Somerville, ready to share eight wild, visionary pieces by living composers (including six world premieres) with expressive bravery and dedicated precision.

The New Music Mosaic collective, founded in fall 2021 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, gave two simultaneous concerts on  February 26th—one in Illinois, and this event in Boston, which featured viola, cello, clarinet, saxophone, and percussion.

A premiere of Curious and Illimitable (2023) by Stephen J. Caldwell opened the show. It alternated between two moods: one chaotic, energetic, and bass-heavy; another quietly quivering and unsettling. The players spoke words of a poem interspersed among these musical worlds— first in plain recitation, then repeated in mixed-up combinations. The combination of the jumbled poetry and starkly contrasting sonic palettes felt disorienting yet engaging. Clarinetist Walter Yee’s flutter-tongue on the bass clarinet and saxophonist Walter Poffenberger’s heavy low baritone sax blasts were particularly hard-hitting; percussionist Ryan Chao’s strong, aggressive tom-tom rhythms kept the groove under control.

Daniel Newman’s Lola’s Cookies (2021) followed, for viola, cello, and fixed media (cassette tape loops of songs about madeleines sung by the composer’s great-grandmother, Lola Ipin). The two string instruments played delicate harmonics and glissandos against the fragile, crackling backdrop. How fitting that Cookies concerned madeleines, the famous cake of Proust’s writings on involuntary memory. Violist Elsie Bae Han and cellist Olivia Katz played the quiet strokes with strong focus and control. Lola’s Cookies offered an understated but moving paean to memory, bridging present, past, and future.

In another premiere, Nest Piece (2023) by Victor Gischler for clarinet, viola, cello, and vibraphone set a more tonal and picturesque environment than the rest of the concert. Soulful melodic fragments were surrounded by sustained sounds like open strings and bowed vibraphone notes. Flowing, folklike bits gave an adventurous and even cinematic feel, ending on a mysterious set of unrushed arpeggios in the vibraphone. A pleasant, bite-sized aquarelle.

The members of the ensemble cleared as Katz prepared to give Daniel McKemie’s Cadenza (2011/2022) for solo cello. Slow glissandos fell from great heights, transitioning into more crunchy, harsh material with overpressure and sul ponticello playing. Cadenza oscillated between these gnashing, intense passages and more quiet phrases, with harmonic glissandos rising into the stratosphere. But even in these softer passages, one still felt on edge, as if right before a jumpscare in a horror film. Katz performed with masterful dramatic flow, having clearly prepared well for the work’s extreme difficulty with solid technique. Cadenza ended with a shadow of the initial falling gestures, like an episode of anger or psychosis gradually trailing off unresolved.

The musicians called up Erin Power, a member of the audience, to act as conductor for the premiere of The Sound of the Weekend (2023) by Treya Nash. Aleatoric and theatrical, it called for a conductor to direct the ensemble through six sets of sonic instructions cued by flash cards with symbols. The group went through different moods, including not only sounds from instruments, but also the sounds of talking, laughing, and crying. It was a joy to watch the improvisation; the quintet committed to the bit with cries of “Kettle corn!!” and loud snoring sounds. This was an uncanny carousel of scenes and parodies of scenes, wacky and unpredictable. One might have hoped for more silences from players at times to allow for different combinations of actors and instruments, but we nevertheless welcomed the humorous cacophony.

The energy calmed down with the premiere of Timothy McDunn’s Nocturn (2023) for solo vibraphone. Calm, practiced repetitions of a central theme left ringing echoes in the room. Phrases proceeded, punctuated by contemplative pauses, mesmerizing the audience. Chords blossomed and decayed, ripples vibrating intensely upon our eardrums as Nocturn built in energy. Chao’s intimate, intentional touch endowed every note with its own attention and resonance. Though perhaps one or two fewer repetitions would have sufficed to make the statement, I appreciated that the composition allowed ample room for the materials to settle and breathe.

The full ensemble reconvened to premiere A Tale of Two Twenties Two (2022), a collaboration between Brian J. Hinkley and Cody Alexander Paul. As the notes indicate, it consists of “44 two-measure fragments of 22 different musical ideas, written independently by two composers without any correspondence.” Accordingly, the ensemble put across these 44 ideas with sudden pauses in between each of them. Each two-measure bit was a pithy bite apart from the rest, ranging from jazzy to groovy to urgent to unsettling to new-music-gesturey. Many (if not all of them) were parodic quotations, not all of which I recognized, but I did notice quotes of Mozart, “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” Quartet for the End of Time, Final Fantasy, and others. The materials zoomed past like rapidly changing channels, or — to use a more 2022-apt analogy — like scrolling through a social media app newsfeed. The players artfully depicted our boxed-in sanities of the contemporary era, with every moment of attention collected and scheduled with little or no time to breathe — a 44-paneled portrait of the modern malaise of 2022, still full of character and humor.

The full quintet dispatched Marcel Castro-Lima’s Fales Symmetry (2023), the final premiere of the night, a composition of wide-ranging contrasts. In the first movement, a rhythmic groove was speckled by popping sounds throughout the ensemble. The wind players commanded attention here with high notes in the clarinet and percussive hits in the saxophone. A chorale of five voices in high register colored the second movement. The unisons resulted in phantom low notes, probably resulting from the play of overtone series and our ears’ pitch perception. At the end, the clarinet and saxophone players raised up wind chimes and allowed them to rattle into the air. As the other players receded, the ringing wind chimes slowly became the final utterances of the concert. Fales Symmetry interestingly explored sonic possibilities, from bangs to whispers. A funny moment occurred when the wind players had to finally put down the wind chimes ― impossible without them jingling on the way down ― giving way to applause and smiles.

New Music Mosaic presented these eight pieces with true dramatic and artistic commitment, boldly leaning into the multicolored moods with full intention. It was a treat to see these players pull off virtuosic performances, ranging from serious to comedic, always with style and spirit.

As for future plans, New Music Mosaic has an ongoing podcast series called the Mosaic Reviewcast, where hosts review a variety of genres. They are also planning “Timbre,” an event pitched to me as “composer-performer speed dating,” set to launch online in August with in-person events in September and October.

Julian Gau is a Boston-based conductor, currently pursuing a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.

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