Cleveland: No Ingenuity Gap Here

name
Zachary M. Lewis
Photo by Nowell York

Normally, Cleveland’s Old Arcade, an ornate, Victorian-style shopping mall downtown, is dead quiet during non-business hours. So quiet, in fact, that it can safely house part of the Hyatt Regency Hotel that’s adjacent to it.

But for one memorable night during Labor Day weekend, this beautiful, underused venue rang out with a screeching musical depiction of war loud enough to wake all the neighbors.

The occasion was Cleveland’s first Ingenuity Festival during which a string quartet from the Cleveland Institute of Music performed George Crumb’s 1970 masterpiece Black Angels.

Curious festival patrons on their way through the Arcade stopped to watch and listen as violinists Andrew Sords and Maisie Swanson, violist Michelle Paczut, and cellist Charles Tyler wailed on their amplified instruments, shook maracas, and ran their bows along the rims of tuned water glasses. Hotel guests, presumably disturbed by the strange sounds, emerged onto their upper-level balconies and remained there.

A program note and a pre-concert speech clearly explained the connection between Black Angels and the Vietnam War. They drew attention to its structure, its numerological symbolism, and its musical references to the Dies Irae chant and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden.” The musicians, competent in all respects, delivered a deliciously abrasive performance.

Strangely, though, no one mentioned the work’s powerful relevance to the year 2005. Just as when Crumb wrote Black Angels 35 years ago, people are dying every day in an endless land war in Asia and the political establishment is trying unsuccessfully to claim everything’s fine.

In other words, Crumb’s original justification for the piece still applies: “Things were turned upside down,” he said. “There were terrifying things in the air.” Meanwhile, we’re still reeling from one of worst natural disasters to ever hit the nation.

Maybe this point didn’t need to be made verbally. Maybe every listener was thinking it. Maybe that’s why the music literally stopped so many of people in their tracks.

At the far opposite end of the emotional spectrum—and across Euclid Avenue—was Phil Kline’s Symphony for 21 iPods, a musical installation which had its debut during the Ingenuity Festival at Cleveland’s ArtMetro gallery. In this case, however, the charm was mostly atmospheric.

Think of it as an updated, indoor version of Kline’s Unsilent Night for 12 (or more) boomboxes. Twenty-one incredibly tiny iPod Shuffles, devices known for their random-play feature, hung from the gallery ceiling by small lengths of wire. Attached to each was an equally minute speaker. Kline programmed the players with dozens of short, original MP3 files then set them all to “random.”

What resulted was a pleasant cacophony of fairy-like sounds. Melodic wisps flew through the air and rhythms crossed paths unpredictably. Silence reigned briefly in corner of the room after another, creating the effect of electronic crickets chirping at each other across some enchanted field.

It wasn’t the first Kline work to be mounted in Cleveland. Earlier this year, Kline and his colleagues in the Ethel string quartet premiered his Meditations in an Emergency with Red {an orchestra} and its director, Jonathan Sheffer. Compared to that rocking, high-energy piece, the Symphony is a delicate lullaby.

As it happens, Sheffer, too, took part in the Ingenuity Festival, presiding that same evening over a mini-concert at the Cleveland Trust Rotunda that essentially served as a sampler of Red’s eclectic programming. It didn’t include any world premieres but there was at least one hors d’oeuvre from 20th century America.

Seven musicians—a string quartet plus oboe, flute, and Sheffer on synthesizer, all amplified—performed Sheffer’s orchestration of a Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of the Fugue, a few minutes of Morton Feldman’s Ixion, “Eleanor Rigby,” and the unaltered version of an Allegro from Mozart’s Oboe Quartet.

The concert involved giant video screens, a digital film collage, microphones, funky lighting, and computerized sound effects. It wasn’t the most musically rewarding concert that weekend but it had to have involved the most cables and electricity. Perfect for a festival subtitled “A Fusion of Art and Technology.”

***

Zachary Lewis is a freelance arts journalist in Cleveland, Ohio. He covers music primarily but also dance, art, and theater. He writes regularly for the Plain Dealer, Cleveland Scene, Angle, Dance Magazine, and Time Out Chicago. Lewis studied piano performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music and holds degrees in English and Journalism from Ohio University and Case Western Reserve University, where he will conduct a Presidential Fellowship in arts criticism in the fall of 2006.