by Steven Pisano
The MATA Young Composers Now! festival, ending a week-long run at The Kitchen tonight, turns 20 years old next year. Over that span of time, MATA has introduced audiences to what developing composers around the globe have been exploring. The results are often thrilling, sometimes bewildering - and never boring.
Tuesday’s lineup was entitled “Wow and Flutter,” and featured the Danish ensemble Scenatet playing works by composers from as far away as Germany, Turkey and Japan. A highlight of the festival is that most of the composers are actually on hand to discuss their work with executive director Todd Tarantino and artistic director Du Yun - who, in a happy coincidence, just won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Kaj Duncan David (England/Denmark) kicked off the festival with “Computer Music”, featuring the seven members of Scenatet seated at a long table as if at a banquet, with MacBooks in front of them. The music was a little like what you might hear in an old arcade video game: each time a tone sounded, one of the musicians lit up with a color. Think of the scene at the end of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, when the scientists and aliens communicate with each other through light and sound. If aliens land in New York this week, we can send out Kaj Duncan David to communicate with them!
Yu Oda's (Japan),“Everybody Is Brainwashed” sounded like a DJ trying to kickstart a party with a boppy beat. If there had been vocalists, one might have expected to hear the Pet Shop Boys. In his interview after the performance, Oda said that he believed his piece would stand out from all the rest. And, he was right, in the sense that it was more influenced by electronic pop music than any of the other works. Other composers on the program were Eric Wubbels (United States), Daniel Tacke (United States), and Christian Winther Christensen (Denmark).
Wednesday’s piano-centric line-up was cleverly entitled “88 Keys Open Many Doors.” Sojourner Hodges’ “Fire Command Room,” based on a poem by Edna St. Millay, was a beautiful expression of a woman on her way to Heaven who deeply misses her old life on Earth, and who struggles to come to terms with both. Soprano Sarah Brailey was riveting as the transcendent, yet tortured soul.
Adam Tendler, the pianist for Marina Poleukhina’s “for thing” looked like a man having foreplay with the instrument. He tenderly reached inside the piano and lovingly caressed and plucked strings with a blissful expression on his bearded face. Molly Herron’s “Full Blood Moon” was another instance of the musicians (Herron herself and Amy Garapic) reaching inside the piano to extract sounds, this time with an overhead video stream of the piano's guts from above, making it look like doctors operating on a patient in an old-time surgical theater. Karen Keyhani’s “Nightly Monologue II” was played by Bridget Kibbey on harp. Keyhani himself spoke to the audience afterward by way of Skype from Tehran, where it was 5 o’clock in the morning.
The highlight of the night, and indeed of the festival (so far!) was Michaels’ “Together in Perfect Harmony” played by the splendid and resourceful L.A. piano duo Hocket (Sarah Gibson and Thomas Kotcheff). Long after leaving the black cavern of The Kitchen, this piece still warms me with joy. Playing together furiously side-by-side at the keyboard, sometimes plinking keys, and most excitingly banging on the keyboard with both elbows like a pair of crazy monkeys, the piece was a rapturous expression of the pure joy that music can bring inside a person. In a word, it was FUN (and I mean those caps deliberately).
Closing out the night was one of the strangest pieces I have ever seen, called “collector” by Charlie Sdraulig and performed by Adam Tendler. Again with the overhead camera projecting from above, Tendler achingly moved his hands down the keyboard, sucking out dry percussive sounds, only occasionally punctuated by an actual note. There was no "music" by any definition I can think of, and yet this was one of the strongest compositions of either night. In a way that is hard to describe, the piece has some kind of poetic truth that nails part of the experience of a living thing trying to stay alive. The image I had in my head was someone coming out of a coma and trying to reacquaint themselves with light, touch, and their senses. In the program notes, Sdrauling says the piece “takes a hypersensitive approach to touch.”
MATA closes tonight with a performance by Trinity's NOVUS new music ensemble. Tickets can be ordered here or purchased at the door.
More photos can be found here.