Sculptural Experiments at the MATA Festival

United StatesUnited States  MATA Festival 2012, Concert II: Soloists, Roulette, New York City, 19.4.2012 (BH)

Jacob Cooper: Triptych: II. Black or White (2012)
Cecilia López
: Mechanical Music for Sheet Metal (2010)
Kate Soper
: Only the words themselves mean what they say (2011)
Lesley Flanigan
: from AMPLIFICATIONS (2008-2012, world premiere)
Eli Keszler
: Cold Pin (2011, New York premiere)
Matt Marks
: Five Songs from The Little Death: Vol. 2 (2012, world premiere)

Alejandro Acierto, clarinet
Jeffrey Gavett, baritone
Andy Kozar, trumpet
William Lang, trombone

Additional artists:
Cecilia López, percussion
Facundo Gómez, percussion
Kate Soper, vocals
Erin Lesser, flute
Lesley Flanigan, electronics
Eli Keszler, percussion
Mellissa Hughes, vocals
Matt Marks, vocals
Michael Carter (Preshish Moments), electronics
Rafael Gallegos, stage director
Mary Rowell, host

In the 1950s, Paris-born brothers Bernard and François Baschet began creating musical sculptures (“structures sonores”) made of aluminum and steel, and their legacy lives on today as an educational enterprise ( On the second night of this year’s eclectic MATA Festival (imaginatively curated by directors Yotam Haber and David T. Little), Roulette played host to devices that might be considered descendants of the Baschets.

In Mechanical Music for Sheet Metal, Cecilia López explores the drama of these mysterious, often larger-than-life objects. Using two enormous cocoons of Argentinean steel (called chapas, each amplified), she created unearthly murmurs when the structures react to sounds from trombone, trumpet and voice (through a bull horn, with loadbang’s Jeff Gavett). Timbres were mostly delicate, shivering with metallic overtones. Over the long span, I found the installation promised more than it actually delivered—more structure may be the answer—but there’s no doubt that López has an ear for the netherworld generated by the confluence of acoustic instruments and reverberation.

Jeffrey Gavett and Alejandro Acierto (of loadbang) in Mechanical Music for Sheet Metal by Cecilia López (Photo: Alex G. Knight)

Even more impressive was Cold Pin that began the second half. Composer Eli Keszler had built a black L-shaped frame stretching across most of the Roulette stage, with piano strings, tuning pins, rods and motors—able to generate sound on its own, without human intervention. (In a brief interview with host Mary Rowell, Mr. Keszler said he has created similar but larger devices with wires as long as 250 feet.)

During intermission, the structure began to groan like some kind of monstrous dulcimer, and when the second half officially began, the ensemble loadbang re-entered with Mr. Keszler. The four loadbang musicians (Alejandro Acierto, Mr. Gavett, Andy Kozar and William Lang) added mostly long, sustained tones on clarinet, vocals, trumpet and trombone, with the composer on drum set, peppering the house with some ecstatically brittle clattering. I heard the term “mad genius” used to describe Mr. Keszler, which is no doubt slightly hyperbolic, but also not completely off base, either.

Other works were simpler in means, with varying degrees of success. Five songs from Matt Marks’s The Little Death: Vol. 2 were performed with zest and vocal agility by the composer and soprano Mellissa Hughes, with electronics by Preshish Moments (a.k.a. Michael Carter). Described as a “post-Christian nihilist pop-opera,” the piece has Hughes as an evangelical woman apparently trying to seduce Marks (as an evangelical man, albeit possibly confused), singing their tribulations in a style that seems to be a mash-up of 1960s pop, rhythm & blues, Broadway, Gershwin, punk and possibly more. Directed by Rafael Gallegos, Marks and Hughes sang (and danced) with intrepid resolve—Ms. Hughes seems virtually unflappable in any situation—but ultimately the satiric territory seemed too well-trodden to have the impact intended.

The concert began with Black or White, the middle film of Jacob Cooper’s Triptych, which takes a video of Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl performance and subjects it to visual transformations, slowing down the action and bleaching out the colors. (The first and third films, presented on their respective nights at the festival, use death scenes from Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s La Bohème.) It was enjoyable on its own laconic terms, but may have revealed more meaning when viewed in the context of the other two.

Lesley Flanigan in AMPLIFICATIONS (Photo: Alex G. Knight)

One of the evening’s high points came with Kate Soper (co-director of the Wet Ink Ensemble), who contributed Only the words themselves mean what they say, with texts by Lydia Davis. As Soper vocalized, sang, chattered, whispered, wheezed—sometimes syllable by syllable—flutist Erin Lesser intertwined with her in clicking, hissing counterpoint. In a novel stroke, sometimes Soper mouthed words actually being spoken by Lesser, as if Soper’s voice had been abruptly hijacked—a sort of weird ventriloquist feat. There is real joy in seeing a composer experiment with a new language. And to complete the first half (almost a mini-seminar on women currently working with electronics), Lesley Flanigan arranged loudspeakers on the floor—she called it an “electronic choir”—for selections from AMPLIFICATIONS, then gently nestled microphones near them to create a mélange of feedback. Coupled with some vocalizing into a microphone (apparently subjected to further electronic processing), the sound mass grew into a roaring chorus that dwarfed the diminutive setup, before receding into silence. The ghostly ritual ended as Flanigan knelt with her head to the floor, spent microphone in hand.

Bruce Hodges