At Mostly Mozart, Three Women Offer Compelling Glimpses of Nature

United StatesUnited States Oliveros, Thorvaldsdottir, Lim: Wu Wei (sheng), International Contemporary Ensemble / Baldur Brönnimann (conductor), Merkin Hall, New York City, 14.8.2017. (KG)

Pauline OliverosEarth Ears: A Sonic Ritual

Anna Thorvaldsdottir aequilibiria

Liza Lim How Forests Think

As house new music ensemble with Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival, the International Contemporary Ensemble has carved a welcome position for itself. This year the group appeared with tenor Ian Bostridge in Hans Zander’s radical reworking of Wintereisse, and on 14 August at Merkin Hall, it responded to Schubert’s song cycle with a program not only less male-centric but less human-centric in its concerns.

The name and overarching concept for the concert, titled How Forests Think, came from composer Liza Lim, who in turn borrowed the idea from Eduardo Kohn’s 2013 book of the same name. Kohn argues for a non-anthropomorphic understanding of communication and relationships among plants and animals. Flutist and ICE founder Claire Chase took those cues and imagined a program depicting a winter’s journey without Schubert’s protagonist, or indeed any human interloper, chewing up the scenery.

It’s no surprise that Chase chose composer and sonic philosopher Pauline Oliveros to open the concert. She was a champion of listening to and engaging with the natural world, and Chase has been intent on keeping that spirit alive since Oliveros’s death last November. (Their relationship actually goes back much further. Oliveros worked with and composed for ICE, and long before that, Chase’s mother attended one of the composer’s Tuning Meditations—with Chase in utero.)

Like her spiritual forebear John Cage, Oliveros is at risk of developing a posthumous reputation as being “interesting” (read: not a real composer). Chase and ICE are valiantly working against that tide. Eleven days prior to this concert, they presented a free concert of the composer’s work as a part of the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. Here, they performed Earth Ear: A Sonic Ritual.

Oliveros often posits a communal relationship among players, and Earth Ear began with notes and phrases shared across the 15 musicians standing in an arc formation, as if inviting the audience to complete the circle. Using no conductor, the players found an ebb and flow, until reaching a tonal center they all could inhabit. How those waves were preordained—the musicians played without scores but Chase explained in a post-concert talk that the piece comes with extensive instructions—didn’t matter. No matter how many times they may have performed it, they conveyed a feeling of discovery and unity within a shared space.

The ensemble pulled out chairs and were joined by conductor Baldur Brönnimann (who had also led them in the Wintereisse concerts) for Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s aequilibiria, which quickly established a broad vista with streaks of light. Thorbaldsdottir has said that she draws much inspiration from the landscape of her Icelandic home, and it was easy to hear. As the sonic morning light grew, the figures got clearer and the melodic lines more pronounced. Isolated events occurred—a sustained high tone from the violin, repeating and disappearing piano figures—but the focus remained on that distant line of the horizon.

An alto saxophone opened Lim’s How Forests Think, and felt like the most formal music yet heard in an evening of improvisation, or at least natural occurrences. But outsider sounds weren’t far behind. Brushes deftly manipulated on drum heads and a volatile sheng blown by featured soloist Wu Wei allowed for some uncommon voicings. As trumpet, flute, clarinet, cello and bass all joined in, the percussion began to pound and a strange sort of momentum began—moving forward without having quite kicked in—born by the force of nature.

While the piece continued apace, almost violent and without center, the other instruments in turn matched the reedy sheng in pitch and tone. The effect felt rather like a gelatinous concerto rolled in gravel. Somewhere around midpoint of its 30 minutes, the storm changed course. A strong tonal center emerged, and then figurations within that center, with bright vibraphone lines, brought a sense of cohesion. A third section was built around Wu Wei’s throat singing and extreme dynamic shifts in the ensemble. The musicians began to improvise and after a few minutes Brönnimann left his position and sat with the players. The music, it seemed, had gained its own volition, not needing a conductor. The stage lights faded to cue the end, as if dusk had fallen after Oliveros’s midnight ritual and Thorvaldsdottir’s daybreak musings.

Kurt Gottschalk

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