Tufts New Music Ensemble, 4 December 2009
This past Friday, I went to the Tufts New Music Ensemble Concert, led by Donald Berman and John McDonald. I have a special feeling for college-based new music groups, since some of my earliest memories of thinking about music critically were made while attending contemporary music concerts at Northern Illinois University.
The program was entitled “Not Just Sitting Here,” a reference to the central organizing piece of the program, Alvin Lucier’s work I am Sitting in a Room. This piece uses live signal processing to progressively feed back a simple string of sentences until they become increasingly unlike speech, and more like the undulating rhythms of a whale song. The text includes the explanation: “We are recording the sounds of our speaking voices and we are going to play them back into the recital hall again and again until the resonant frequencies of the hall reinforce themselves so that any semblance of our speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed.”
In other words, it is a set of variations which work themselves out according to a predefined process. Variation seems to have been a fixture of the programming choices for the evening: the concert also included Messiaen’s theme and variations for violin, performed by the inimitable Michelle Makarski (do you like the web site? I designed it.) Also split across the program was a multi-movement work entitled Tools of The Mind, composed by NME and, according to the program, a reference to “self-regulations skills gleaned from the teachings of Lev Vygotsky.”
I thought it was an interesting experiment to split up works like the Messiaen and the Lucier that seemed to dictate a continuous performance (the Tools of the Mind, sounding more like free-standing works, felt less problematic). I had only heard the Lucier piece once before, and wasn’t sure how it would work, since part of the pleasure of listening to it had been hearing the gradual loss of intelligibility of the voice. With each successive variation being separated by a number of other pieces, it felt more like a mediation on the musicality of the human voice, since by the end it was only a series of undulating waveforms that remained.
Makarski, a good friend who I am surprised to say I have never heard play live before this concert, gave a fine and highly impassioned reading of the Messiaen with Berman. Although the piece seemed positively conservative in the context of improvised and semi-improvised works, I was also surprised and pleased to see how carefully Berman and Makarski were able to rein in the sound of Distler Concert Hall, which can often be acoustically live to the point of splashiness. Berman rotated the piano so that is back was to the audience, and this seemed to help matters considerably.
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