This week, the MATA Festival of New Music returned to the Brooklyn Lyceum for the second year in a row, featuring a wide range of music by young composers for ensembles of all sizes and instrumentation. 2008 marks MATA's 10th year overall, and new directors Missy Mazzoli and Chris McIntyre clearly have some ambitious plans for its future.
The Lyceum is a turn-of-the-century bathhouse that makes for a visually striking performance venue, with exposed brick and high ceilings. But, the place has its quirks: on Tuesday night, the organizers seemed caught off-guard when an overflow crowd showed up to hear the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Staffers threw chairs wherever they could, including up on the rusted catwalk above the stage. (I settled for a step on the risers in back.)
All the works on Tuesday's program were written in 2008, and were having their NY Premieres. Alejandro Rutty's The Conscious Sleepwalker Loops mixed Argentine tango with American-style minimalism. Less interesting was Derek Hurst's relentlessly astringent Clades for orchestra and amplified quartet, dragging on for a full half-hour without seeming to head anywhere coherently.
Things picked up after intermission, when Ken Ueno took the stage to throat sing his own On a Sufficient Condition for the Existence of Most Specific Hypothesis. Terrible name, but terrific piece: Ueno was absolutely fearless, growling for long stretches while the orchestra played glissandi and repeating figures. At the start of Ueno's performance, he played a tape recording of himself singing 30 years earlier; he says he intends to repeat the process 30 years from now, and then again after another 30 years, when he'll be in his 90's.
Capping the evening was Lisa Bielawa's Double Violin Concerto, featuring soloists Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt. Bielawa, who served as MATA's founding artistic director until last year, took inspiration from the concerti of Bach and Vivaldi, while employing thoroughly modern effects.
The concerto, which received its world premiere in Boston last week, is divided into the traditional three movements. "Portico" was baldly romantic, full of dark and brooding textures. "Song" starts with the soloists gliding back and forth, but in an extraordinary moment, Kihlstedt began to sing an excerpt from Goethe's Faust while continuing to play violin. Bielawa's choice of text sought to validate her embrace of this old-world form:
"It's something that has long been done
To fashion little worlds within the bigger one."
The final movement, "Play Within a Play," leaves much of the soloists' playing up to improvisation, based on an "ornament library" Bielawa embedded in the score. At times, the playing approached that of Bartok's quartets; at other points, there were startling unisons. The capacity crowd gave Bielawa, Kihlstedt and Jacobson a long and well-deserved ovation.
On Wednesday night, The Knights took over, serving up music on a slightly smaller scale. Jennifer Fitzgerald's A Thousand Machines, a trio for violin, oboe and piano, was shrill and harsh, pounding away like a piledriver. Yet, there was a poignancy to the performance, reinforced when Fitzgerald didn't come out during curtain calls: she passed away last year at the age of 32.
Two composers offered works using the unusual combo of violin, cello, oboe and flute. Nico Muhly's I Know Where Everything Is was sweet and spiky, moving through "a cycle of chords in a pile," according to Nico. Judd Greenstein's At the end of a really great day had a sentimental, Chinois quality that didn't seem to develop beyond its initial promising idea.
The evening ended with Lithuanian-born Žibuoklė Martinaitytė's Polarities for large chamber ensemble. Right out of the box, the music vacillated between stark and spectral, pulsing and erratic. More than anything, Martinaitytė's score reminded me of Gyorgy Ligeti's tough, eerie, tribal sounds. For my money, it was the most complex and satisfying score of the festival.
That's not to say last night's final concert didn't set the room on fire. Either/Or took the stage first, performing co-director Richard Carrick's Towards Qualia: a sextet for piano, strings, percussion and saxophone full of bright glissandi and driving rhythms. Andrew Byrne's primitive and primal White Bone Country depicted the Australian Outback, using a combination of piano and table cymbals that at first sounded like Lou Harrison's gamelan music. Before long, percussionist David Shively created a piercing, almost unbearably loud drone that caused several audience members to stick their fingers in their ears. Pianist Stephen Gosling followed with a repetitive figure that, when later joined by Shively, sounded like the toy piano I had when I was five.
After a set change, David Little's Newspeak took over. Newspeak has carved out a unique niche for itself, comprised of half-rock musicians (guitar, synth, drums), and half-classical (violin, cello, clarinet, percussion). Without any pre-existing repertoire, they've had close to thirty pieces written for them that traverse the rock-new music continuum.
Missy Mazzoli's In Spite of All This (2005) was one of their first commissions. The deeply affecting music started with a gliding figure played by violinst Caleb Burhans, who you'll remember from my recent profile. The other players joined in one by one, slowly building a bigger and bigger sound until the entire ensemble blazed into a pounding roar. They brought it down, built it up again, then slowly faded out. Mazzoli, who seemed preoccupied with the details of the festival, dashed out for the quickest of bows.
It's not every day that you see a composer leading his work from the drumkit, but that's exactly what Little did for his sweet light crude (2007). Set to his own gothic poem relating a lover's desperate pleas, Little built a soundscape of searing intensity, mixing techniques from rock ballads and free jazz. Vocalist Melissa Hughes delivered an intense performance, ripping through the poem with a voice that mixed haunting and beautiful. Refreshingly, Little writes from his gut, not like he's participating in an academic exercise. Keep an eye on him.
Newspeak ended their set with Oscar Bettison's Breaking and Entering (with aggravated assault). Holy crazy ass shit: it was balls out, the kind of thing I'd expect to hear at some experimental rock venues in town. I don't know if people were screaming for the exits or not: I was too busy rocking out in my chair to care.
The festival ended with the combined forces of Either/Or and Newspeak in Sean Griffin's Buffalo '70, a MATA commission. The highly political piece was apparently inspired by a confrontation in Buffalo, NY between John Cage and composer/performer Julius Eastman, in which Cage objected to Eastman's performance of his Song Books. It didn't really make much sense, but the Harry Partch-esque music was interesting, and there were some solid dramatic performances by baritone Jeremy Lydic as Eastman and Caleb as Cage, who at one point threw an antique typewriter to the ground, smashing it to pieces.
Looking back over the three concerts, there were two key takeways. One was the superior quality of the contributions from women composers: Bielawa, Fitzgerald, Martinaitytė, Mazzoli. Forget about gender: these composers write works capable of both heartrending tenderness and searing power. It's as if they're making up for lost time.
The other is that bands like Newspeak are proving that there is a place in these sort of venues for music that doesn't sound like classical music, just like Riley, Reich and Glass showed us 40 years ago. And the correct place for that music is dead center.
Unfortunately, I only got to hear one of the installations: Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch, which I briefly wrote about here: http://www.feastofmusic.com/feast_of_music/2008/04/4108.html.