ensemble dal niente: Hard Music Hard Liquor

As the performers stepped onstage for the seventh of nine pieces on ensemble dal niente’s Hard Music Hard Liquor program Friday night, I whispered to my husband: “This is going to be a really hard concert to write about.” By the end of an evening this aesthetically diverse, your head is spinning a little.

The show was called Hard Music Hard Liquor–a boozy celebration of new music virtuosity–but the challenges that it posed went beyond the realm of technique. Many of the pieces asserted strong and provocative ideas about the dynamic between composer, performer, and audience. These pieces asked us to consider important questions such as: How far can a composer push a player? Can a composer continue to assert himself in the performance of a piece, long after he’s handed over the score? What role do we play as observers, and how do our previous listening experiences affect the we hear these new works?

In Ray Evanoff’s Negotiating the Absolute Location of Buoyancy, we heard growls, groans, and whimpers–an arresting, ultra-subdued mad scene for solo French horn, spoken like a captive struggling to speak through a gag. In this case, the gag was the horn. At times I felt Matt Oliphant was locked in mortal combat with his instrument. Given the horn’s notorious difficulty, this piece sets the audience on edge, with Evanoff challenging us to hear music in the guttural, unpredictable sound palette that can sometimes characterize “mistakes.”

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, performed by Mabel Kwan. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero #1, for midi-keyboard, video, and live electronics, also opens in a way that terrifies the listener. The video–a man dragging pieces of wood and metal across a piano frame–seemed to be skipping and malfunctioning. But as it turns out, the “scratched DVD” sensation is one of the most important elements of Piano Hero’s sonic assault. The piece contains a particularly unsettling moment in which the live camera fixes on pianist Mabel Kwan–so we finally focus on her, rather than the man in the pre-recorded video–but as she continues to play, the keyboard makes no sound. Before our eyes, the performer is silenced by the composer and the system he created. (Indeed, Prins’s website describes the pianist in this piece as “a mere operator in a world of bits and bytes.”) But if the piece was a battle between the performer and the composed system, it appeared that Mabel Kwan eventually won, silencing the muscular video man with a long “game over” buzz while he continued to flicker powerlessly.

Chris Fisher-Lochhead’s Shredhaus is endearingly titled, given its tiny, lean-forward-to-catch-every-moment sound world. I was reminded of an electric guitarist practicing without an amp as I watched Jesse Langen “shred” on his acoustic without the help of his right hand. In the piece’s amazing (anti)climax, Langen’s left hand climbed closer and closer to the guitar’s pegs–the opposite direction of typical guitar heroes. The piece felt like a rock guitar solo turned delightfully inside out.

How far is Ferneyhough from Schubert? In Lemma — Icon — Epigram, Winston Choi played with an elegance and panache that made me feel that they’re closer than ever. How do we reconceive the virtuoso violin showpiece in the 21st century? Austin Wulliman presented the instrument’s brilliant colors and hard edges in Lee Hyla’s Passegiata.

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

Malin Bang’s Turbid Motion, performed by ensemble dal niente. Photo by Ryan Muncy

After more than an hour of solo (and one duo) performance, it was a joy and a relief to see nine members of the ensemble gather onstage together for Malin Bang’s amazingly textured Turbid Motion and Fisher-Lochhead’s fantastic, zany arrangement of Frank Zappa’s The Duke of Prunes. Watching the ensemble interact with each other–smiling, cuing, provoking–was a stark contrast from watching them engage in lonely battles with ultra-challenging scores. It was a testament, I think, to the huge difference between what a solo piece can convey and what music scored for an ensemble can deliver. After a night of intense soliloquy, the evening ended with the sounds of a party.

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