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MATA's Young Composers Now! Festival at The Kitchen

by Steven Pisano

Mata Festival at The Kitchen(All photos 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!

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Opera Cabal Performs Ken Ueno's AEOLUS at National Sawdust

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There is a change happening in opera. Once the province of coloratura sopranos and heldentenors belting at the top of their lungs, opera is beginning to embrace all sorts of singing and instrumentation, including colloquial styles you might associate more with Music Hall of Williamsburg than the Met. Du Yun's Angel's Bone, which just won the Pulitzer Prize, weaves together everything from plainchant and Renaissance music to screaming punk rock songs (sung by Elysian Fields' Jennifer Charles.)

Ken Ueno's AEOLUS, which had it's premiere last Friday at National Sawdust, is a series of impressionistic scenes cobbled together from Greek mythology, literary fragments and Ueno's own hazy memories. Ueno appeared throughout, both in ponderous voiceover and in person, wandering around the stage mumbling and throat singing through a megaphone, occasionally playing a drum sample on his iPhone. FLUX Quartet played music that alternated between eerie dissonance and Morton Feldman-like drone. 

But, the clear standout of this performance was Majel Connery, who sings in a sultry, low voice that sounds like a cross between Fiona Apple and Portishead's Beth Gibbons. Connery's stylized voice is many things: intoxicating, exotic, hypnotic (as in the song/aria/whatever "There is No One Like You"). What it is not, by the narrowest of definitions, is operatic, though Connery did demonstrate moments of lyricism as she navigated AEOLUS' higher ranges. 

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Attacca Quartet Plays John Adams at National Sawdust

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"I can't tell you how much I love this quartet. The way they play this music is just amazing. I actually just sat with them backstage and told them: 'We have the same DNA.'" - John Adams 

After two days of rain and cold, the sun finally popped out Sunday, and I was tempted to spend a lazy afternoon in my back garden, just starting to bloom with crocuses and tulips. All I wanted to do was read a book, or catch up on some other things I'd been putting off. But, I had a show on the calendar, and so I dutifully put away the lawn furniture, packed up my bag and trudged off to Williamsburg. 

The moment I surfaced at Bedford Ave, after a painfully long ride on the G train, I wished I'd never left my garden. The crush of iPhone-blinded hipsters and wide-eyed tourists made it nearly impossible just to walk down the street. But, I pressed on, past the hordes of buskers and brunchers to National Sawdust, where the Attacca Quartet (Violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Nate Schram, cellist Andrew Yee) was already halfway through their first piece, John Adams' String Quartet No. 1 (2008). I sat quietly upstairs in the balcony; almost of the cocktail tables downstairs were full.

The Attacca tore through the music, mixing stop-and-go rhythms with gentle melodies before ending with a Bartòk-like stretch of haunting dissonance. During the applause, they acknowledged a slight white-haired man standing directly beneath me, applauding vigorously. I almost dropped my notebook when I looked down and saw that it was Adams himself. Did he really fly all of the way from Berkeley just to be here? Not exactly: turns out Adams was in town for both the St. Louis Symphony's performance of The Gospel According to the Other Mary at Carnegie on Friday, and the star-studded Bob Hurwitz/Nonesuch Celebration at BAM on Saturday. Still, it's not every day that you spot one of the world's greatest composers sitting in an 80 seat theater in Williamsburg.

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