In New York, Two Quartets with Premieres and Sounds from Far North

Arctic Sounds : Mivos Quartet, Redshift, Kathy Turco (recorded sounds), Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn, NY, 29.6.2011 (BH)

Tristan Perich : Salt for string quartet and 1-bit electronics (World premiere)
Samson Young
: 17 for string quartet and electronics (World premiere)
David Lang
: Stick Figure (new arr.)
Richard Carrick
: Sonic Tapestry Communications
Garrett Byrnes
: Phasing Tides
Matthew Welch
: The Favrile Opalescence
Jad Abumrad
: Untitled
Kirsten Volness
: Bering Sea
James Holt
: Gallery
Max Stoffregen
: The Domain of Arnheim
Mary Kouyoumdjian
: Sedna, Beneath the Sea (Requiem, Above Waters)
Ryan Brown
: We’ll Go North When Springtime Comes

Mivos Quartet
Olivia De Prato, violin
Joshua Modney, violin
Victor Lowrie, viola
Isabel Castellvi, cello

Andie Spring, violin
Jeffrey Anderle, clarinets
Rose Bellini, cello
Kate Campbell, piano

This intriguing evening at Galapagos, titled Arctic Sounds, attracted a healthy crowd eager to hear two quartets, one bearing two premieres, and the other tackling an ambitious project using recordings of natural phenomena by Kathy Turco. Redshift, based in New York and San Francisco, commissioned ten composers to write short works incorporating one of Turco’s electronic tracks, recorded in the Arctic. David Lang’s Stick Figure keeps the ensemble in a Feldman-esque stasis over sounds of sea birds, while Richard Carrick imagines the violin, bass clarinet, cello and piano in subtle conversation with a tape of bears.

Water sounds were used in Garrett Byrnes’s Phasing Tides and Kirsten Volness’s Bering Sea. Byrne’s mellifluous timbres melded with a large, constantly moving ocean, while Volness used lanquid gestures combined with what seemed like waves lapping at the shoreline. Bird calls wafted through Matthew Welch’s The Favrile Opalescence (with a Welch bagpipe tune sneaking in), James Holt’s gentle Gallery, and Ryan Brown’s delicate We’ll Go North When Springtime Comes, with the clarinetist using a tray of small bells and wind chimes. And more animals inspired the lively, accented motifs of The Domain of Arnheim by Max Stoffregen, as well as Sedna, Beneath the Sea (Requiem, Above Waters) by Mary Kouyoumdjian. In the latter, the sounds of howling wolves illuminate a strange Inuit legend about a woman who marries her companion dog instead of her betrothed, who then drowns her.

But if the inspiration seemed worthy, the hour-long set was slightly sabotaged by the sound (which could have been the effect of where I was sitting), giving the electronic portion a clear advantage over the efforts of the musicians onstage. The net result was a sense of sameness, despite the relative variety in Turco’s recordings and the composers’ responses to them. Future performances may remedy the imbalance.

The evening began with the Mivos Quartet in Salt, by Tristan Perich, who is fascinated by the primitive timbres of 1-bit electronics (as he notes, “also the palette of aggressive electric alarm clocks”). With the soundtrack abuzz, the violins and viola offered mostly high pitches as the cello murmured in a more distinct melodic line. It’s a piece worth hearing again, in a situation that better shows the conversation between the instruments and Perich’s endearingly retro sounds. Samson Young’s 17, using a hyperactive ostinato that might have been dreamed up by Philip Glass on a particularly caffeinated day, was marred by (again) over-prominent electronics, which fairly well concealed the spirited work from the hardworking live musicians.

Bruce Hodges