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Roulette Celebrates 35 Years of Adventurous Performances

by Robert Leeper

Love Is a Good Example 2

Varispeed [Photo credit: Steven Pisano]

When Roulette was founded in a TriBeCa loft in 1978, New York City was bankrupt, subways were covered in graffiti, and the city, more than ever, needed a place for artists and audiences alike to call home. A place where—as the emcee of Thursday night's performance, David Garland, said—audiences could come "to hear something new, to be surprised, and to be engaged."

Last Thursday, Roulette celebrated 35 years of adventurous music making with an evening entitled "Sound Bites," a reference to the snapshots of different work that had previously been done at Roulette, all compressed into one night. And, as if to further commit to the idea of accessibility, their celebratory evening was only $25 (though a $35 ticket came with a tote bag, like any quality nonprofit organization), and full of extraordinary performances.

What was particularly adventurous about the programming, however, is that it was a concert of new music without a single world premiere. While there is always a desire for new, envelope-pushing work, Roulette doesn't create new works and then leave them to gather dust; they are devoted to creating a new canon of regularly performed works by living composers.

Finishing off the first half of the program was Tristan Perich's Formations, a true highlight of the evening. Perich's tinkering and toying with speakers and electronics have earned him residencies, awards, and even an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art last summer. Formations hearkens back to the minimalist electronic sounds of Terry Riley and Brian Eno, and the rippling maelstrom of single-bit sounds bombarded cellist Mariel Roberts as she punctuated the flow with her cello. The piece closed with an almost stately cello line that blended into the electronics, leaving them to serve as both accompaniment and melody.  


Mariel Roberts [Photo credit: Steven Pisano]

Like Perich's piece, what one noticed about Mario Diaz de Leon's The Flesh Needs Fire is the inability to delineate foreground and background. Instrumental gestures from TAK Ensemble blended synthetic sounds in restless strands of ever-shifting color and vigor.

In addition to electro-acoustic experimentation, there were a number of different explorations of languge—its rhythm, meaning, and relationship to music. The evening started with Darius Jones's The Oversoul Manual, a work for vocal quartet that explored the transference of information beyond words. True communication goes beyond words and our approach of using a tribal language format, and Jones presented this concept as an alien birthing ritual using an equally alien language. The performance was startlingly beautiful, creating syntax and speech patterns so different from our own. It was a portrait of vocal intensity performed with precision and grace by vocal quartet Elizabeth-Caroline Unit.

Exploring a different form of language, the late Robert Ashley's Love is a Good Example forsakes melodies in favor of exploring the rhythm of everyday speech—even, but interspersed with human inconsistencies. The result was a meditative review of a wide range of subjects, from physics to schizophrenia, with the title phrase humorously interrupted by the word "sure." Members of the new-music collective Varispeed brought a quiet energy which never faltered, and kept the pacing and humor in tact in an absolutely captivating close to the evening.

The Flesh Needs Fire

TAK Ensemble [Photo credit: Steven Pisano]