Pass That Bottle to Me

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Friday night’s Gaudeamus Music Week event was “The Night of the Unexpected,” an annual feast of eclectic fare at the Amsterdam club Paradiso. In the words of this year’s guest programmer Roland Spekle, it is “a special experience, an evening full of musical surprises in all sorts of styles and genres.” In past years, this has included featured free jazz, Gesualdo madrigals, wild improvisations on the sheng, heavy metal, Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna sung from the balcony, and Hungarian rap.

Unusually, one jury selection was also programmed that evening: Sambirano, an improvisation for solo flute over a tape composition by the German composer Stephanie Lepp, who performed the flute improvisation herself. The work is dedicated “to the last four hundred wild Amur tigers,” and featured a battery of growls, clicks, and pops—performed with psychedelic tiger-themed images projected behind. The piano duo Post & Mulder (who also performed on Tuesday afternoon) made an appearance, performing a conceptual piece with weights attached to their hands, pulling them away from the piano. A Xenakis electroacoustic work was heard with the score projected behind, and American Jeff Carey gave a performance of his loudspeaker quartet. After a few hours, I got unexpectedly tired and decided to take off, sad to have to miss the experimental cumbia slated for midnight.

Saturday brought two daytime concerts. The first featured assorted works for instruments and live electronics; the second was a demonstration of Wave Field Synthesis, a new and more flexible spatialized audio system which surrounds the audience with 192 speakers and 12 subwoofers. The program opened with Yutaka Makino, winner of last year’s Ton Bruny√®l prize (an electro-acoustic competition organized in conjunction with the Gaudeamus Foundation). Other highlights came from the Dutch composers Kees Tazelaar, the director of the Institute of Sonology at the Royal Conservatory at The Hague, and Casper Schipper, a student in his last year at the Institute of Sonology.

The evening concert began with two works by members of the jury: Sinfonia II ‘a broken consort,’ tribute to Monty Python, a work for solo cello and six spatially placed instruments by Peter Swinnen of Belgium, followed by Michael Daugherty’s Lex for electric violin and ensemble. The second half opened with Aura, a well-crafted work for four cellos and five percussionists by Vedran Mehinovic, a Bosnian composer now living in Santa Cruz, California, and a recipient of an honorable mention in the 2007 music week. Next came another jury selection, Splicing for three piccolos by Chieko Doi of Japan. The piece was full of intricate three-part writing, occasionally requiring the performers to sing into their instruments as an extended lower register, resulting in a subtle, reflective, and introspective work.

Now imagine the polar opposite, and you have the music of another Japanese composer, Hikari Kiyama. His jury-selected piece Luminous Orchestra closed the concert with a bang. Sixteen players drawn from Dutch new music groups LOOS, Ear Massage, and the Mondriaan Kwartet took the stage dressed in white t-shirts, shorts, flip-flops, and fluorescent face paint. With coordinated lighting, the ensemble unleashed a nine-minute barrage of high-decibel ruckus; several (if not all) of the instruments are processed with a heavy guitar-style distortion, filling the relentless music’s only rests with (controlled) feedback.

Earlier in the afternoon, while waiting for Saturday’s Wave Field Synthesis concert, I stumbled into another exhibit of the Klanken aan ‘t IJ sound installation festival: The Danish artist Mogens Jacobsen’s work Audio Bar, displayed on the first floor of the new Amsterdam public library. Visitors walk into a room resembling a trendy bar whose walls were lined with a couple hundred empty bottles. Each bottle bore a label marked with either a time period (“1980-1985″) or a spot noting its position on a continuum between two extremes—”controlled” to “improvised,” for instance, or “rhythmic” to “free.” The idea is that you select a bottle according to your tastes and place it on the center pedestal, triggering a clip of music tailored to your tastes (whose title and composer would be simultaneously projected, in case you want to buy or borrow the CD, I guess). It seemed a fitting parallel to the vast range of flavors and aftertastes represented at the festival, and a reminder that a successful showcase should always aim for maximal variety—a sometimes tricky objective that the Gaudeamus Music Week manages to achieve every year.

My train for Paris left at two on Sunday, so I missed the three o’clock concert by VocaalLAB Nederland—a group of six talented contemporary vocalists who’ve put on amazing concerts during the last two festivals—as well as the prize announcement and reception. And the winner is…

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