by Zoë Gorman
Kettle Corn New Music is all of the prestige with none of the pomp.
An inviting atmosphere, complete with signature, sweet popcorn, the small Spectrum upstairs was packed to the gills Thursday with an audience of about 100. Full seating didn’t stop spectators from standing, however, rapt and sweaty, throughout the two-hour lineup of inventive, new art songs performed by pianist Lisa Moore and soprano Mellissa Hughes.
During brief intermissions and after the show, audience members could casually chat with the mix of unassuming-yet-award-winning young composers and approachable veterans in attendance, including the likes of Martin Bresnick and Yotam Haber.
While art songs—operatic and structurally contained—have a danger of boring young audiences, this concert explored engaging compositional techniques, vocal styles, and, in one case, electronic effects. Pieces stayed more-or-less within the art song genre stylistically, but each composer interpreted song structure and progression in a unique way.
La Fraisne, a world premiere by Ryan Harper, set Ezra Pound's poem to voice with finger symboland electronic loop. The piece—which made ample use of overtone variance to produce rounded and then dissipated sound, well-placed bell tones, and tongue fluttering—saw Hughes applying loops that played back snippets of what she had just sung into the microphone. The effect was a build up of repeated and constantly developing sound reminiscent of a fugal chorus.
Excerpt of “La Fraisne” world premiere
Refreshingly innovative, Ted Hearne's Intimacy and Resistance pushed the boundaries of art song by taking the listener on a journey of vocal styles. Hearne transitioned Hughes’ vocal line from the traditionally operatic to soulful, bluesy waves, feautiring solemn decrescendos, light staccatos, and a strong crescendo on the monosyllabic “na.”
Alex Weiser structured his piece, Marks, around the interval of a third. Building suspense with repeated, chime-like thirds, Weiser used the interval as a launching point to explore fresh melodic material, reverse the direction of the third, and introduce soaring vocals before scalomg back the texture to foreshadow a more forceful and rhythmic concluding segment—albeit without a punctuated finish. The piece employed word painting, implanting a full, bright chord over the lyric “brightness of moonlight,” and effective interruption, with overlapping hands on the piano and sudden chords or disjointed, jarring high notes cutting into the lulling thirds.
Comical, intense and expressive, Chris Rogerson's Three Children’s Poems of Eugene Fields presented an unconventional interpretation of a series of bedtime-story poems that would more likely keep children clinging to their sheets for hours than send them drifting to dreamland. Filled with lyric melodies and chords, the songs mixed tender, expressive vocal swells with terrifying sustained notes in harsh, minor modes. The songs had effective openings and closings—upsweeping, legato vocal solos and piano fadeouts that delicately reiterated one note or rolled through a central chord.
Samuel Barber’s medieval-sounding Hermit Songs, Aaron Jay Kernis' Morning’s Innocent, and Haber’s Once the Ocean Takes You—which layered with diction and relentless, knocking patterns introduced in the piano and culminating in the voice—balanced the impressive rookie lineup. Moore also played a solo piano piece, Ishi's Song, by her husband Bresnick. The piece evoked a sea song with upward, rolling gestures, modal variation, and calming arpeggios.
Kettle Corn’s fun, accessible approach to showcasing some of the greatest minds in modern music might help the ensemble expand to larger venues, generating some more seats for its burgeoning following. At future concerts, the hosts might also consider allowing for some variety in instrumentation, perhaps a string trio with optional woodwinds, to keep pieces fresh. Kettle Corn’s next concert has yet to be announced, but keep checking their website or Facebook page for future offerings.