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MATA Festival 2016 Wrapup

by Steven Pisano  2016 MATA Festival, Ryan Muncy, Dixon Place(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

As one of NYC's leading contemporary classical and experimental music festivals, the MATA Festival was back in town last week for six nights of innovative works by composers from around the world. On average, the directors of the festival receive about 1,100 submissions each year, out of which only 25-30 are usually performed. And yet, the fact that the number of submissions, from over 70 countries,increases each year, speaks to the need for a forum for young composers to share their work.

MATA's focus is on work by early career composers, many of them in their 30s. This year's festival saw works from more than a dozen countries, including Israel, Argentina, Turkey, Hungary, and Iran, among others. To perform these works, MATA arranged for top flight performers and ensembles to come to New York, including Ensemble neoN (from Norway), Ensemble Linea (from France), and the Rhythm Method Quartet

This year's offerings, although still "out there" in many respects, were much more unified in approach than the wildly divergent styles at last year's festival. With so many pieces performed over the week, in venues such as Scandinavia House, National Sawdust, and Dixon Place (not to mention an ice-breaker at the Paula Cooper Gallery), it is impossible to describe them all. Here are some highlights.

2016 MATA Festival, Ensemble neoN, Dixon PlaceThe opening program at Scandinavia House contained a number of well-conceived pieces. Sean Clancy's "Fourteen Minutes of Music on the Subject of Greeting Cards," scored for piano, flute, and violin, and performed by members of Ensemble neoN, featured a slowly varying musical theme accompanied by projections of 55 phrases culled from greeting cards. Throughout, slight variations in the basic theme, particularly on the piano, quietly underlined the emotional arc of an average life. At first, it was bouncy and cutesy as the phrases announced the birth of a baby and subsequent young birthdays, followed by joyous occasions such as graduations, weddings, and new jobs. But, there were also sympathy messages marking the disappointments of life: careers and marriages lost, illness and, finally, death. For me, this was the most memorable piece of the entire festival.

2016 MATA Festival, William Schimmel, Dixon Place

Jan Martin Smordal's "All Play" also used a screen, this time projecting a performance by heavy metal guitarist Daniel Meyer Gronvold playing in a very physical, head-banging style, but without hearing his guitar. Instead, a quartet of flute, clarinet, piano, and cello (again from Ensemble neoN) provide the sonic accompaniment. What was interesting was how well this classical quartet came close to approximating the wall of sound of a heavy metal guitarist. Seeing the guitarist looming large over the stage, but hearing the classical instruments, made for a compelling counterpoint.

In Neil Luck's "Bubbles," that the composer himself stood ready at the microphone to sing, with Ensemble neoN backing, was not unusual. What was unusual is that he was holding a 2-liter bottle of Coke. Singers often carry a bottle of water--but soda? The musicians began to play, then Luck twisted open the bottle--pfffttt--then took a long slurp of the carbonated drink, then began to sing--or more accurately, belch and hiccup--the words to the song. In some ways it was like an old-fashioned performance on a 1960s TV variety show such as The Ed Sullivan Show. In other ways, it was a serious exploration of gases and breath and air and the human voice.

2016 MATA Festival, Neil Luck, Scandinavia House
Matthew Welch's tender and beautiful "Comala's Song" was a narrative aria sung in a glistening soprano by Silje Aker Johnsen. Based on a series of epic Gaelic poems, it tells a mournful, if not entirely clear story of love and war and death. There was nothing experimental, quirky, or deliberately offbeat about this work: it was a piece of lush, romantic song that could have been part of a longer, fully realized opera.

At National Sawdust, Scott Wollschleger's "America," written for solo cello, and performed spiritedly by Johannes Burghoff, offered a slow crawl of sound meant to represent a hopeful outlook for the power of art on our country in the face of the spiritual void represented by strip malls and gas stations, like the soulless landscapes near Wollschleger's native Erie, Pennsylvania.

At Dixon Place, Carlos Codeiro played the little-heard bass clarinet in German Alonso's "Time In & Out," written as an homage to the early 1960s jazz great Eric Dolphy. Yi Zhou played the fretless zither-like instrument called the qin in composer Zhou Quian's "Qu Shui Ming Yun."

2016 MATA Festival, Yi Zhou, Dixon Place

But the highlight of Friday night's concert was accordionist William Schimmel playing both solo on Nicolai Worsaae's "Upon Your Body I'm Crawling" and in a duet with oboeist Stuart Breczinski on Maxim Kolomiiets "Re-Pulse." When Schimmel walked out of the shadows to center stage, the audience naturally welcomed him with polite applause, but he shot a gruff look back and waved his arm to hush them. With the large accordion around his neck, and a harmonica brace over his head looking more like an instrument of torture than helping him blow, Schimmel had a leaden, world-weary look, accentuated by his thick glasses and spiky tufts of silver hair on his balding head. Inspired by the story of the Italian tarantella--that a victim bitten by a wolf spider must sweat away the toxins by dancing--Worsaae's compelling piece gives the musician the physically tiring task of squeezing the accordion while simultaneously trying to maintain enough breath to blow the harmonica.

2016 MATA Festival, Ross Karre, Dixon Place

On the final night of the Festival, saxophonist Ryan Muncy was riveting on Edgar Guzman's "After Tomorrow." With his shaved head, shiny black boots, and skin-tight back clothes, Muncy--who is the saxophonist for the extraordinary International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE)--looked like a soldier firing his weapon.

For those interested in the direction(s) in which contemporary classical and experimental is going, the MATA Festival is instructive not only for the music performed, but because most of the composers are on hand to talk about their work in short post-performance interviews. Often quite eloquent about the inspiration and hard work that goes into their compositions, the composers offer useful insights into what music can achieve in today's world.

(More photos can be found here.)