The Nieuw and the Unexpected

Thursday night’s concert featured the Nieuw Ensemble, a group known for the plucked strings in its lineup (harp, mandolin, guitar), as well as its frequent integration of non-western instruments (often borrowing players from its companion group, the Atlas Ensemble). The concert opened with the program’s only jury selection, Solar by the Mexican composer Francisco Castillo Trigueros. This short, colorful work was scored for a large ensemble including three non-standard instruments: the Armenian duduk, the Japanese shô, and the Arabic qanun.

Next came a piece by Marko Nikodijevic, a Serbian composer now living in Stuttgart, and the winner of an honorable mention at last year’s Music Week. In music box/selbstportait mit Ligeti und Strawinsky (und Messiaen ist uch dabei), Marko adds a harpsichord, celesta, piano, and accordion to the core group of winds, strings, and percussion. The result is a light piece which belies its computer-generated origins—a playful investigation of the composer’s “inferiority complex” when it comes to the composers mentioned in the title. The first half closed with the world premiere of my own piece, Üsküdar, a large-scale work dealing with time and memory that I wrote over the last year in Istanbul. Led by conductor Micha Hamel, the ensemble did a remarkable job with the piece.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Eurekafoon!, a project in which high school students were asked to design and build new instruments. The Nieuw Ensemble then commissioned short concerto-style works from Dutch composers to demonstrate these new instruments in action, and at the end of the concert a prize was awarded (yes, they are crazy about prizes in this country) to the most successful of the new instruments. The entries ranged from the impressive to the bizarre—from the aquadrup, an instrument controlled by releasing drops of water onto amplified metal spheres, to the kast, an instrument resembling and functioning very much like a wardrobe filled with random objects that were manipulated by a percussionist from behind the chest. The prize went to a more practical entry, a calliope-style instrument with a sort of keyboard attached to a gas tank called the luchtpiano, showcased in at atmospheric composition by Wilbert Bulsink.

Friday’s lunchtime concert began with two pieces from Oryx, a Dutch trio consisting of violin, ‘cello, and harpsichord. The more engaging came from Jacob ter Veldhuis, a Dutch composer who was featured last year in a mini-festival at the Whitney Museum in New York. His piece Doggy Steps used manipulated samples of audio bits from the well-known commercial and spun instrumental lines around the collage. Stelios Manousakis of Greece, another recipient of an honorable mention in 2007, followed with Two Poems by e. e. cummings. Soprano Stephanie Pan’s voice was distorted, amplified, and processed with live electronics controlled by the composer.

The final piece of the lunchtime concert was a jury selection: \_/ for amplified triangle by the Mexican composer Hugo Morales Murguia. As the solo percussionist took the stage, I remembered being taught in high school that it was impossible to get more than one sound from a triangle; this piece, an exhaustive exploration of the instrument’s timbral possibilities, swiftly dispelled that misconception. The percussionist uses a dozen different types of mallets, including what appeared to be a chopstick held lightly against the vibrating triangle, to created a sustained stuttering sound—something like a pianissimo fire alarm. For the first half of the thirteen-minute piece, the triangle lay flat on the floor, held in place by the percussionist’s foot which doubled as a damper. The amplification was done with microphones on the backs of the player’s hands, so its audibility varied with the range of techniques employed.

Parallel to the Music Week activities, Music Center the Netherlands is also hosting Klanken aan ‘t IJ, a sound installation festival in and around the Muziekgebouw. The most impressive of these works, on display in the fourth-floor BAM Zaal at the Muziekgebouw, is Dropper01 by French artist Arno Fabre. A central mechanism dispenses drops of water which fall in controlled fashion onto an array of instruments below, including a suspended cymbal, a timpani frame, and a set of flowerpots. These are all close-miked and amplified, and Fabre uses the surprising resulting sounds to create mini-compositions which are performed in sequence.

Tonight brings another annual event: “The Night of the Unexpected” hosted by Paradiso, a notorious Amsterdam club venue housed in a former church. I’ll cover this and the rest of the weekend’s events in a final post on Monday.

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