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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Costumed composers provide an unsettling evening

Published: November 2, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.

Slosberg Recital Hall saw a decidedly strange performance last Saturday night. The first in this semester’s series of concerts hosted by New Music Brandeis, “Night of the Living Composers” showcased the compositional work of several graduate students in the Composition and Theory program, as performed by their peers. The most prominent composers of the evening included Travis Alford, Victoria Cheah and Jared Redmond, whose original songs were performed and served as instrumentalists for the songs of others. All of the players were dressed in Halloween costumes, lending the concert a certain air of nonchalance. Given the close-knit nature of the performance, much of the audience consisted of the friends and family of the composers and musicians. That fact, along with the costumes, made for an experimental and informal production.

While the performers are all singularly talented musicians, the songs themselves were, though enjoyable from a technical standpoint, largely inscrutable and unengaging. Especially in the first half of the concert, most of the performances relied heavily on dissonance as their main sounds, which would not be a problem if the pieces had a discernible structure or melody.

Each piece featured a different aspect that distinguished it from its contemporaries. The opening song, “Purple” by Yiguo Yan, made use of a computer to make Yan’s voice spectral, making her lyrics hypnotically unsettling. Yan used every part of the piano in her performance, plucking the inside strings and running a length of beads over them, cycling between series of notes and dissonant chords. “Quackers Get the Cone” by Frank S. Li was an immensely strange opera, with an absurd story about rabies and little to no lyrical rhythm, though Tina Tallon performed wonderfully as a soprano. “Os Justi” and “clancularia” (Cheah and Mu-Xuan Lin, respectively) build from chanting into rounds and create a spirit of invoking a greater power. Considering that “Os Justi” is adapted from a psalm, the comparison to spiritual and religious invocations is especially accurate. Rounding out the first half of the show was “Pas de replatrage, la structure est pourrie,” which roughly translates to “No replastering, the structure is rotten.” Composer Jared Redmond succeeded in conveying the sense of a rotten structure, oscillating wildly on piano and guitar and descending into total chaos by the end of the song.

The songs after the intermission suffered the same faults as those in the first half, though they had more structure on the whole. Rebecca Sacks’ “Theme and Four Variations on an Ewe Melody” adapts a Gahu song into the standard jazz format, with great success. Richard Chowenhill’s “Three Ricercares on a Chord” falls into the trap endemic to the first half with jarring chords breaking up an otherwise continuous piece, although Chowenhill’s use of silence borders on masterful. “Ricercare,” a word that in noun form is the Italian verb meaning ‘to seek,’ is a lovely title for the piece, as all three Ricercares meander from tone to tone, occasionally to strange and dissonant places. Similarly, “I Felt a Funeral” by Travis Alford bears resemblance to Li’s “Quackers,” but uses an Emily Dickinson poem in place of original lyrics. “Funeral” starts out with more structure than “Quackers,” but dissolves by the second stanza, in accordance with the poem’s structure and meaning.

The concert closed with two pieces performed by The Gentlemen’s Very (Very) High Art Society of South Waltham, consisting of Alford, Jessica Fulkerson, Peter Van Zandt Lane, David Dominique and Emily Koh, each member is a multi-instrumentalist. The first piece they performed was “Election Mu$ic,” composed by Lane. The song builds with staccato brass from Alford and Dominique, whose sounds are then manipulated by Lane to cue sound bites of politicians from his computer. The rest of the troupe continues to perform in jerky rhythm, making a tongue-in-cheek mockery of actual political debate. The night ended with Alford’s “Trickle Down Tango,” a sonorous, straightforward jazz piece that substituted Lane’s electronics skill for his talent with a bassoon.

All the compositions of the evening had artistic merit, but only a few of them came off as more than experiments. Nevertheless, New Music Brandeis does a fine job of showcasing the talents of the students in the graduate programs.