ICE provides primo advocacy to an array of fascinating new music

June 06, 2011
By Dennis Polkow

ICE performed a program of new music Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

International Contemporary Ensemble concluded the first season of its three-year residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art Saturday night with the first Chicago hearing of a program that ICE calls ICElab.

According to ICE executive director and flutist Claire Chase — who acted as curator interviewing the composers between pieces — ICElab is a “new model for creating and archiving new works.” Each work presented was an ICE commission and a Chicago premiere — and in one case, a world premiere.

Bells, a thirty-minute interactive ambient piece by ICE percussionist and composer Nathan Davis, opened the evening in the upstairs gallery and formed a compelling three-dimensional sonic mobile.

Ensemble members walked amongst the audience striking various bells and triangles that also became the cue for audience members to dial one of four access numbers that spotlighted various types of white noise and feedback actually generated by the calls themselves and the live performance.

Those with speakers on their cell phones became an audible part of the ensemble, or you could do as this listener did, and dial back and forth and place the sounds near your ear with passers by — often the performers themselves — stopping by to listen.

This may sound gimmicky, but it was surprising how effective and satisfying an experience this became: some of the audience stood still, but many emulated the roaming performers and began moving about in a quiet, quasi-robotic fashion.

There were deep pedal tones electronically generated that you could feel resonate throughout the room as a contemporary cantus firmus, as it were. The triangles and high-pitched bells that were also surrounding listeners served as the top voice, with an electronically manipulated clarinet playing multiphonics punctuated by flutes as the inner voice.

Downstairs in the theater, the program continued with Shanghai-born New York composer Du Yun’s The Last Post, music for the film by Shahzia Sikander, which was receiving its world premiere.

Commissioned by a Shanghai museum, the ten-minute film is a curious hybrid of Islamic-inspired geometric pattern art (Muslim art cannot be representational) with dashes of representational surrealism with a Western colonial theme.

What was difficult to reconcile was how — or more pointedly, why — the film and the music were meant to intersect. Yun’s music was ambient yet aggressive, the density building as the film progressed, but the succession and release of visual images did not parallel the buildup of musical textures.

Yun herself, also a soprano and performance artist, was wearing a circus-like gray Afro wig and began shrieking steadily in a trill-like fashion that built up in dynamics and intensity until both the music and the film abruptly ended.

Two song cycles filled out the evening: Nathan Davis’ On the Nature of Thingness and Chicago composer and Columbia College composition program director Marcos Balter’s AEsopica. Both spotlit the superb artistry of soprano Tony Arnold and both emphasized the acoustical properties of strings, brass, winds, guitar and piano.

Davis’ work included a hodgepodge of texts related to “thingness,” i.e., poetic and aesthetic attempts to explain metaphysical reality or non-reality, as the case may be, while exploiting the overtone possibilities of ordinary sounds.

The work is memorable not only for the thought it provokes, but for its sheer exploration of sonority. The opening movement, starting as it does at A440, begins almost as an expansive tuning session with the voice gradually darting in and out of the natural harmonics of the instruments.

One of the middle movements even features a romp of swinging jaw harps while the finale explores upper guitar tuning meets upper string harmonics with the human voice as the go between.

Balter’s AEsopica is a musical setting of several of Aesop’s fables, some told in a sprechstimme manner emphasizing syllables and sounds over specific pitches, and some movements functioning as instrumental interludes.

At times it is almost Webernian in its density and economy of expression, although the abrupt compact musical cells often morphed into fuller musical phrases, giving the piece a decidedly aural sense of pointillism with its shifting sonorities.

The piece is full of special effects mirroring details in the stories, such as muffled snare drum and punctuated vocal white noise used to evoke a cicada chirping. At one point, the bassoon is called upon to remove the top of the instrument and play high in a manner suggesting a malnourished oboe.

What was particularly satisfying about this invigorating evening is that there was not a single piece on the program that was not interesting enough to warrant a second hearing and further investigation. These were not the usual brief, new-music appetizer commissions, works of substance and meaning in each and every case.

So often with new pieces, players are often performing as if walking on eggshells, but not here. Not only was the technical precision and confidence level of the performances exceptional, but so was the level of nuance with all involved pouring themselves into sterling advocacy for each and every work.

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