Chris Bergson at Jazz Standard
New York Philharmonic Perform Sibelius and Brahms

Works by Paula Matthusen at the Avant Music Festival

by Steven Pisano

  Avant Music FestivalNow its in sixth year at Wild Project, the Avant Music Festival, curated by Randy Gibson and Megan Schubert, provides contemporary composers an opportunity to present their work in an evening-long concert. Last Friday's event explored the music of Paula Matthusen, 2014 winner of the prestigious Rome Prize. Matthusen's work explores bold sonic possibilities, incorporating field recordings and having performers of her pieces communicate with each other via smart phones.

In “protected by a world of dry leaves and furtive paths,” which derives its title from a short story by Julio Cortazar about illicit lovers plotting to murder the woman’s husband, Eleonore Oppenheim stood in a spotlight at the front of the stage and variously plucked and bowed the strings, accompanied by electronic background sounds. For “eden’s arch of promise bending, movement I,” Matthusen used field recordings of the Old Croton Aqueduct to explore the sonic possibilities of water and stone. Matthusen has a longstanding interest in how the infrastructure of cities throughout history influences contemporary life.

James Moore and Taylor Levine

Continuing along the same lines, “showing and hiding / showing and vanishing,” explored Rome’s system of ancient aqueducts. Each of the eleven performers from Mantra and Dither represented one of the aqueducts, and while they each explored their own music, they also did so as part of a larger network.

The last work, “of an implacable subtraction,” was performed solo by Dana Jessen on bassoon, accompanied by background electronics. The title comes from Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, in which he states: “If the volume or the tone of the work can lead one to believe that the author is attempting a sum, hasten to point out to him that he is face to face with the opposite attempt, that of an implacable substraction.” That could be a touchpoint for many of Matthusen’s compositions.

dana jessen

This was my favorite piece from a musical point of view, with more developed harmony than the other works on the program. The solo bassoon, removed from its place in a traditional orchestra, seemed to represent a living being, reminding me of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. At the very end, Jessen put the instrument aside and cupped her hands together to make what sounded like bird calls.

In her program note, Matthusen says that “The piece…engages with the idea of defining various points of focus and the salient nonlinearities that may emerge between them.” But, what I heard was a sublime expression of a living, struggling soul. It was utterly stirring, and a deeply fitting way to end the concert.

The Avant Music Festival continues this weekend with Imani Uzuri on March 6 and Randy Gibson on March 7. Click here for more information.

20150227-DSC_2708(All photos by Steven Pisano. More pics here.)