New York’s MATA Festival 2011, “A Burst of Blinding Clarity”

MATA Festival 2011, “A Burst of Blinding Clarity” : Mary Mackenzie (soprano), Luca Piovesan (accordion), Doug and Brad Balliett (narrators), Andrew Cyr (conductor), Metropolis Ensemble, (Le) Poisson Rouge), New York, 12.5.2011 (BH)

Remmy Canedo : Instantanea 6 (2007, US premiere)
Marko Nikodijevi
ć : Music Box / Selbstportrait mit Ligeti und Strawinsky (Und Messiaen ist auch Dabe! (2006, US premiere)
Ryan Carter
: Skeuomorphic Tendencies (2011, World premiere)
Brad Balliett & Elliot Cole
: The Rake (2011, World premiere)

For the final night of MATA’s rigorously unconventional festival at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the Metropolis Ensemble unleashed four works, none less than fascinating. MATA’s artistic director Yotam Haber took some big risks and in general the gambles paid off, helped by some adroit playing from the group conducted by Andrew Cyr.

Remmy Canedo (b. 1982) is a young Chilean composer with an ear for electronics. Instantanea 6 is the latest – for violin, cello and voice – in a song cycle based on poetry of Chilean writer Renato Irrazaval. Mary Mackenzie was the soprano, maintaining serene composure in the midst of cavernous splashes of glittering noise from the amplified musicians, their sounds processed by computer in real time and taking flight around the room.

A striking offering (and with the festival’s longest title) came from Serbian composer Marko Nikodijević (b. 1980) for a small ensemble of about 10 players: Music Box / Selbstportrait mit Ligeti und Strawinsky (Und Messiaen ist auch Dabe!. Nikodijević’s canvas bursts with short, nervous fragments – minute gestures and sputterings that now and then find a calm oasis, but relaxation never fully takes hold. At one point the energy slows down to a magical creep, with quiet brushed cymbals, strummed piano strings, high sighing woodwinds and bell-like interjections from the large percussion array. Luca Piovesan, the accordionist with L’arsenale (the Italian group from one of the previous nights) provided just the right intriguing tang.

Similarly jittery, Ryan Carter’s hyperactive Skeuomorphic Tendencies (commissioned by MATA) begins with an asymmetrical rhythmic overlay leading to a drum-accented march. The word “skeuomorph” is generally used in design, referring to a feature copied onto another, dissimilar object, e.g., decorative shutters on a house – shutters that don’t actually do anything. Here Carter explores the relationships between acoustic and electronic music, and a fascination with textures. The intriguing results include a lovely aqueous ostinato, over which muted trumpet and trombone linger.

I can’t imagine the confidence needed to make a new piece with a debt to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, but Brad Balliett and Elliot Cole seem to have plenty. Their grin-producing conceit takes an isolated moment near the opera’s end, when Tom Rakewell realizes the sordid mess of his life and recalls the details in a stream of consciousness, blurting out words in “a burst of blinding clarity.” Balliett and Cole have created a short “hip-hop opera,” in which the verbal flood effectively communicates Rakewell’s sudden epiphany, with flashbacks, self-analyses, doubts and revelations all colliding, and poor Tom unable to do any more than allow the hemorrhage to occur. With precision timing by Mr. Balliett and his twin brother Doug – one dressed in a black suit with white vest, the other in white with black – they gave a vivid, very funny impression of the tormented Tom in furious dialogue with his dissolute doppelganger. Musically, the metric invention might have been greater; my beef with some hip-hop is that the rhythmic patterns tend to be conservative verging on dull. And despite the entertaining graphics projected on screens, the text whizzed by so quickly that I can’t even recall a snippet to quote here. But in an amusing way, The Rake made its point with beguiling slipperiness, and the packed crowd gave the creative trio – and the musicians – repeated ovations.

Bruce Hodges