Avant Music Festival: Sine Waves and John Cage

United StatesUnited States  Avant Music Festival, Concerts I and II: Soloists, Ekmeles, loadbang, Wild Project, New York City. 10-11.2.2012 (BH)

Randy Gibson: curator, sine waves, percussion
Megan Schubert: curator, voice
Kryssy Wright: stage manager / lighting
Ben Manley: sound
Stephen Bruckert: video documentation
Oscar Henriquez: graphic design

Ekmeles Vocal Ensemble
Mellissa Hughes, soprano
Linda Lee Jones, soprano
Eric S. Brenner, soprano/countertenor
Patrick Fennig, countertenor
Matthew Hensrud, tenor
Jeffrey Gavett, baritone and director
Michael Weyandt, baritone

Alejandro T. Acierto, clarinets
Jeffrey Gavett, voice
William Lang, trombone
Andrew Kozar, trumpets

Additional guest artists
Vicky Chow, piano
Gelsey Bell, voice
Drew Blumberg, violin
Nicole Camacho, flutes
Victor Lowrie, viola

Concert I
Randy Gibson
: Circular Trance Surrounding the Second Pillar with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of the Four Pillars (2011-2012)

Concert II
“Cage, Unlocked”

Living Room Music
Concert for Piano and Orchestra
(1991) with Beach Birds for Camera (1992)

Of the five-night Avant Music Festival, the two nights I caught seemed an almost ideal snapshot of what its curators – Randy Gibson and Megan Schubert – have in mind. On the first evening, listeners who entered the dimly lit Wild Project space (an appealingly intimate venue in the East Village) met a sensory catalog: the hum of a sine wave, the air slightly smoky with incense, microphones onstage surrounding a rug with two candles in the center, and a slowly evolving video by Oscar Henriquez – abstract shapes in reds, purples and greens – projected on the stage’s back wall.

Ekmeles in music by Randy Gibson Photo: Tear-N Tan

Gibson’s opus might have the longest title I’ve ever encountered: Circular Trance Surrounding the Second Pillar with The Highest Seventh Primal Cirrus, The Utmost Fundamental, and The Ekmeles Ending from Apparitions of the Four Pillars. Slightly over sixty minutes long, it was written for the vocal group Ekmeles, directed by Jeff Gavett, who’s also one of its baritones. As the sine wave continued, the seven singers slowly entered from behind the stage, quietly took their places and gradually began to join the electronic tone with their own syllabic chanting. (The texts are in Sanskrit, culled from the Rig Veda, an ancient Indian book of hymns.)

Gibson’s trance-oriented esthetic reflects his rāga studies with composer La Monte Young and his wife, visual artist Marian Zazeela, and (with a few reservations) I found the piece fascinating. Circular Trance is built on the vocalists’ ability to produce pure harmonies that combine with the sine drone, creating a shimmering cloud of sound. During the hour, the voices would ebb and flow – sometimes emerging from the drone, at others being engulfed by it. The effect was often hypnotic, and it was a marvel just watching the singers tackle Gibson’s minute changes in pitch, often with tones sustained for long stretches of time.

My sole concern was due to a program note, “portions of tonight’s performance may be at an extreme volume,” which made me apprehensive, worrying if the sound level would equal say, the atomizing charge of Rhys Chatham’s Two Gongs. As it turned out, the level was gratefully stable but still felt slightly too forward (on a 1-to-10 scale, maybe a 5 or a 6), like standing next to a loudspeaker emitting mild feedback. Despite the richness of the ethereal tones being produced, I wondered if the result might have been even more successful if the voices and electronics had been more equal partners. Nevertheless, there were still many moments of transcendence.

The second night was a tribute to John Cage, whose centennial is being marked all over the world. A soulful touch: a small potted plant – a cutting from a larger one that originally belonged to the composer – was carefully placed on the floor throughout the concert. Living Room Music was deftly performed by the four members of loadbang (Alejandro T. Acierto, Mr. Gavett, William Lang and Andrew Kozar), merrily smacking their palms on the floor, on books and magazines, on a coffee table. One section uses text by Gertrude Stein: “Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” If the performance here didn’t quite have the amusing context of a recent Juilliard version, the quartet scored points for clarity and simplicity, of which I suspect Cage would have approved – not to mention the book resting on the table: The Chicago Manual of Style.

Before the concert began, Gibson asked the audience to flip coins to help decide the lighting design (nicely handled by Kryssy Wright) for Concert for Piano and Orchestra. (The word “concert” is used deliberately, reflecting the composer’s intent that all members of the ensemble are to play at once, but without any particular relationship to each other.) Vicky Chow was the admirable pianist, immersed in an octet of musicians playing, talking, singing, whispering – but as if each were in a private world.

Next came the stark Ryoanji, with Lang on trombone, Schubert as vocalist, and Gibson carefully striking a drum and a wooden stick simultaneously, one with each hand. Ms. Chow returned for the glittering piano part in Nocturne, with violinist Drew Blumberg in icy counterpoint, figuratively skating above her. The program closed with Four3, one of the composer’s last works, with Blumberg, Chow, Gibson and Lang seated on the floor, each with an array of rainsticks (hollow tubes of various sizes with small objects inside, which when slowly tilted create a soothing replica of droplets falling). Periodically one of the musicians would rise and slowly walk to the piano, softly pressing a key or two, while on the back wall, Elliot Caplan’s film of Beach Birds For Camera flickered onscreen. As I watched the silence of Merce Cunningham’s dancers (filmed in black-and-white), the result took on a poignant cast that I could not have possibly anticipated.

Bruce Hodges

The Avant Music Festival continues through Feb. 18; more information here.