Oh, MATA Festival, how you tease me. You come into my life for but a brief week, cause my heart to flutter, stomach to clench, instigate an insatiable hunger for the broadest swath of new music, only to go away again for a whole year...
Ok, perhaps that's a bit melodramatic (MATA's presence is felt year-round), but this year's festival did seem to outdo years past in both scope and energy, as exhibited by composers who spread across the musical grid like points of a scatter plot. (You can find our coverage of MATA's Thursday night program here.)
Each of the festival's three nights at Roulette began with one of the three videos in Jacob Cooper's Triptych—a series that reappropriates video of operatic and musical performances into a mash-up that unfolds into a single, self-contained scene.
Wednesday's concert featured the Berlin-based Quartet New Generation (QNG) and New York's own JACK Quartet. While JACK has more indie-classical cred in this town than it can shake a bow at, I was a bit apprehensive when I learned that the other quartet was a recorder collective, with memories of early grade-school music education spent playing "Greensleeves" on a chipped, plastic recorder suddenly recalled to mind.
My unenlightened preconceptions placed the recorder in a lower caste of instrument; a silly bit of woodwind bigotry immediately contradicted by the first notes of the evening. QNG opened with Qin Yi's Sound Shadow, taking full advantage of the recorder's ability to create idiosyncratic sounds. The melodic content shifted between a well-placed diatonic center and romps on the fringes of tonality, giving nods to both Britten and Penderecki in separate spots.
Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri's Untitled IV (atemlos) came next, developed in collaboration with Swiss artist Pe Lang. Ambitious in conception and thoroughly nuanced in execution, the work was written for prepared recorder quartet: Each of QNG's four players manipulated a disassembled recorder, rigged with elastic membranes and threaded through the center with nylon. (QNG's Heide Schwarz was kind enough to provide a video demonstration of the apparatus.)
JACK Quartet took the stage (with Caleb Burhans filling in for Ari Streisfeld) to perform Huck Hodge's re[(f)use], accompanied by the composer on melodica and electronics. Taking the melodica's peculiar overtones and waveform as a point of departure, re[(f)use] created a pleasantly disorienting atmosphere through temporal shifts and hard panning of the electronics.
Oscar Bianchi's Crepuscolo stood out on the April 18th program, as it was the lone work for soloist, featuring QNG's Susanna Fröhlich on contrabass Paetzold recorder. Executed with precise attention to timbral detail, Crepuscolo mined the depths of expression that the modern Paetzold recorder (invented in 1970) had to offer, further enhanced by electronics and directed amplification.
The Friday concert opened with a bare stage, with the exception of a podium, a wall of sheet metal, and the maverick vocalist, Melissa Hughes. While performing David Coll's Position, Influence, Hughes spoke, sang, and otherwise vocalized portions of a 1968 speech given by Charles de Gaulle, which was then picked up via laryngaphone—a device that picks up sound directly from the throat—and head-set microphone. Similar to Papalexandri-Alexandri's piece, this work could have easily become one in which the initial idea proved more interesting than the musical production, however Coll found a fine balance between idea and execution.
Mellissa, mid speech. Whats the French term for "absolute baller"? (Photo: Alex G. Knight)
Kathleen Supové performed Ivan Ferrer-Orozco's Traces IV: Anamnesis, a duo between Supové and a projection of something similar to a modern player piano. While Supové's performance did not fail to impress, the visual component of the piece felt a touch light in its contribution to the experience.
Alex Freeman's Magnolia provided a welcome respite from the previous sonic palettes, offering listeners a more subtle treatment of the acoustic atmosphere. Composed for the Kantele, a Finnish folk instrument akin to a zither, Magnolia made good use of the instrument's signature sound—a unique, gossamer timbre. Semitone levers on the instrument's left side allowed for sliding tones and chords, a novel adornment that never sacrificed the piece's musicality for mere effect.
The final piece of the evening, Francesco Filidei's Ballata No.2, set the festival's high mark in terms of scale of instrumentation and color. Members of Signal Ensemble came equipped not only with their primary instrument, but an array of auxiliary percussion that included everything from an object bearing resemblance to a hacksaw to bubble wrap.
Feeling a bit like a revisionist telling of Lindberg's Kraft, Ballata No.2 advanced through twelve sections, each organized around one of the chromatic pitches. SIGNAL's flautist embarked on winding, melodic explorations while other players underscored the Byzantine melody with balmy chords. Spinning tubes whirred while the hacksaw spun, until finally, the sonic amalgam pared down to a few notes and then just the bubble wrap, popped under blankets to dampen the attack—a fitting end to such a festival.