The Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente consistently rises to the challenges of presenting the new music of this still emerging century. Their 2011-2012 season opened with a pair of contrasting concerts that explored altered states of mind and perception, from the psychedelic to the psych-acoustic. They began with the Chicago premiere of Fausto Romitelli’s sprawling tour de force Professor Bad Trip, presented at the nightclubish Mayne Stage in the neighborhood of Rogers Park, followed by their “Sounds Seek People” concert at the more reserved Nichols Concert Hall in Evanston.
Ensemble Dal Niente draws its personnel from the ranks of the music faculties at Northwestern University, DePaul University, and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. Since 2004 they have presented world-class performances and world premieres of music so new that the proverbial ink has yet to dry on the .pdf files. Their concerts offer a glimpse into the sounds and aesthetic directions just now being realized.
Fausto Romitelli’s Professor Bad Trip has an unusual buzz surrounding it in new music circles. Few contemporary chamber works develop the kind of word-of-mouth that preceded the “must hear” experience of its Chicago premiere. And it is a standout composition in the relatively unexplored territory between art music and rave, deftly bridging the gap between the “modern” music of the previous century and the throbbing nightlife of the last thirty years, Over the span of three movements, called “Lessons,” Professor Bad Trip builds a trance-like texture over a persistent g-natural drone. It is conducted to a click track that allows the live instruments to synchronize with a pre-rendered electronic track.
Professor Bad Trip brings a concentrated dose of amplification and trance state to chamber music. It also treads a fine line between art and kitsch, occasionally drifting closer to the kitsch side with moments of fully notated, clichéd electric guitar solos embedded within its expansive texture. Most of my new music friends have strong opinions regarding this piece that tend toward the extremes of love and hate. Yet none deny that it is a significant work.
The strength of Professor Bad Trip lies in its hybridization. The lessons Romitelli learned at IRCAM and from the French Spectralist movement were absorbed without turning a deaf ear to the sensibilities of underground dance cultures. It is music composed with a full awareness of the plurality of progressive rock, dub step, and a lifestyle steeped in ecstasy. The live processing of each instrument and the mixture of different reverberations applied to individual instruments adds to a sense of disorientation similar to the loss of balance and sense of space that accompanies inebriation.
Professor Bad Trip also comes with several of the uncomfortable aspects of hybridization. Chamber and orchestral music has a checkered history of aesthetic colonialism: music that draws inspiration from other cultures and emulates its sonic character while somehow ignoring the sociopolitical implications of the exchange. La creation du monde by Darius Milhaud is an example of such a work. It’s a piece inspired by the jazz music heard in Harlem in the early 1920s that was composed as a ballet based on African folk mythology. The piece sounds nothing at all like jazz to contemporary ears, but it raises several uncomfortable questions about the role of a French composer (albeit an accomplished French composer) having any kind of legitimate claim to the cultural materials of an oppressed people. The music of Colin McPhee is another example of such a hybridization—in this case, a Canadian composer drawing from the music of Indonesia—that feels like an unequal exchange. With Fausto Romitelli the exchange is between “high art” and “low culture.” And while Professor Bad Trip does manage to avoid “elevating” one form over the other, there is the nagging suspicion that the end result manages to be great chamber music and bad trance music at the same time. It’s an important piece that cracks open new territory. One hopes that composers will push even further toward realizing music that exists along even deeper roots of electronica music and its culture. I suspect that some of the most compelling works that span this same aesthetic gap will involve building a bridge from the other side of the chasm. While Milhaud’s La creation du monde constructed an important span between classical and jazz, it is Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America that more convincingly brings the sensibilities of the improvising musician into the orchestral medium. While Colin McPhee’s gamelan inspired pieces are pleasant on their own, the music of I Wayan Sadra is much more compelling, coming as it does from a composer who was hardly an outside observer of Indonesian culture. The next piece that fires a shot across the bow that Professor Bad Trip hinted at will probably emerge from within the culture of trance music.
The decision to program arrangements of music by Carlo Gesualdo between the three movements of Professor Bad Trip was a curious one. They were works from a completely different dimension that managed to dilute the ringing drone and other-worldly qualities of the full, uninterrupted Romitelli experience. Nearly lost in the program was Franco Donatoni’s fantastic About for violin, viola, and guitar. A quiet, understated work made up of odd, asymmetrical repeated phrases.
The “Sounds Seek People” concert took a decidedly less urbane approach toward altered states. Featuring works composed within the past six years that take multiple avenues toward new sonic territories, the program showcased music that explored psychoacoustic means toward altered perceptions rather than the references to drug use in the text for Professor Bad Trip (a text that was ultimately cut from the final arrangement of the piece). “Sounds Seek People” opened with After Tomorrow by Edgar Guzman. It is an astonishing work for solo amplified saxophone and electronics that explores a soundscape of multiphonics. Ryan Muncy gave an amazing performance of this physically demanding piece as he navigated its swirling eddies of sound. After Tomorrow ended with an amazing exhaling of breath on the alto saxophone (minus its mouthpiece) that was a fitting coda for a piece that spans such a wide dynamic and timbral range.
The standout composition on the program was Ethers for horn, cello, and percussion by Ensemble Del Niente founder Kirsten Broberg. It was a beautifully understated, spectral piece that built up harmonic constructions with a sharp ear for the timbres of the instruments. Matthew Oliphant, Chris Wild, and David Skidmore gave a nuanced performance that allowed this delicate and restrained piece to soar. I’d like to hear more works by Broberg.
Another remarkable work on the program was Countenance by Edward Hamel for alto flute, English horn, baritone saxophone, violin, viola, cello, and bass. It was a piece that developed along a taut tension of drone and silence with plenty of compositional detail within each texture.
The dedication of Ensemble Dal Niente was remarkable. Their tight, well-rehearsed performances allow one to hear the details lurking within these new works. There was more than enough in these two concerts to draw these ears toward further performances.