Last night the San Francisco State University (SFSU) School of Music hosted a recital by the A/B Duo. This is the bicoastal pair of percussionist Christopher G. Jones, from Rochester, New York, and Bay Area flutist Meerenai Shim. Shim is also an alumna, having received her Master’s degree from SFSU in 2005.
This was one of those events that began as soon as one entered Knuth Hall in the Creative Arts Building, where the recital took place. The stage offered a panorama of instruments, mostly from the percussion family. However, there were also four sizes of flute (including the piccolo), the most noticeable being the contrabass instrument, which immediately draws attention for being taller than Shim herself:
As the performance progressed, one discovered that even what appeared to be a decorative tapestry turned out to be one of the instruments.
The program consisted of five compositions performed without an intermission. The first three of these came from the duo’s Variety Show album, which was discussed on this site a little over a year ago. These were Ned McGowan’s “Ricochet” and Drew Baker’s “Limb,” both composed on commission from A/B, and Ian Dicke’s “Isla.” These were following by Shim’s own “Seriously,” which she finished last month. The program then concluded with Ken Ueno’s six-movement “Building….”
Beyond the visual impact, what made this program impressive was its diversity of approaches to performance. As might be guessed, “Ricochet” was an intricately conceived piece in which events bounce back and forth between the two performers. However, as I had observed when writing about the album, it also involved Shim deploying the contrabass flute almost as if it were a pitched percussion instrument. Indeed, taken as a whole, the program amounted to a thoroughly engaging exposition of the different ways in which pitched and non-pitched events interact with (and sometimes blend with) each other.
There was also a laptop on stage, and digital processing figured in a few of the selections. This included that aforementioned tapestry. which was the interactive graphic score for Shim’s “Seriously.” In addition to reading from this score while playing alto flute, Shim also touched areas of the score; and synthesized sounds responded to her touch.
It is also worth observing that all but the final composition were relatively brief in duration. In each of these cases, the composer knew how to say her/his piece without wasting any time and also knew when (s)he had said enough. On the other hand the six movements of Ueno’s piece were a bit more of a stretch. There was a generous amount of innovation in his work, particularly when it involved a variety of techniques for playing different pieces of the contrabass flute. However, there was little sense of an overall unity within which each of the pieces had its own role to play. Instead, each of the individual movements emerged as going on for a longer period of time than any of the other works performed.
Nevertheless, the evening, taken as a whole, was definitely a satisfying one. Furthermore, even with the experience of having listened to Variety Show, it was an experience in which the “visual channel” was stimulated as much as the auditory. This was an evening “about making music,” so to speak; and bearing witness to the acts of making bore as much significance as listening to the results of those efforts.