Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Percussion++ from Both Sides of the Continent at the Center for New Music

Last night’s program at the Center for New Music (C4NM) was shared by two duos, one from either side of the American continent. The opening set was taken by the local Inner Movements duo of vibraphonist Mark Clifford and cellist Crystal Pascucci (members of a larger collective of percussionists and string players). They shared the evening with the Bent Duo, visiting from New York and making its C4NM debut. This group has a fascinating symmetry, since pianist David Friend has training as a percussionist, while percussionist Bill Solomon has training as a pianist. The most apparent consequence of this symmetry was some fascinating work taking place at both the keyboard and the interior of the piano.

All compositions in the Inner Movements set, “Transverse Process,” “Echo Chamber,” “Ground at Night,” and “#2,” were composed by Clifford. However, the performances involved improvisation, as well as playing from notation. The relation between these two approaches was not always clear, particularly since Clifford’s score pages tended to require multiple music stands to occupy the length of his vibraphone. However, it was clear that approaches to performance involved far more than the notes themselves. Pascucci commanded a fascinating diversity of techniques for getting sounds from her instrument, while Clifford was clearly attuned to very precise detail, such as the rotation speed on the dampers on his vibraphone.

While Clifford’s approach to composition may not have been particularly transparent, his results were consistently engaging. He certainly knew how to establish key motifs, which could then endow each of his pieces with a sense of introduction, development, and conclusion. He may also have had a bit of wit, since the tape track for “Ground at Night” could have been taken as a “ground bass” over which both he and Pascucci elaborated their “divisions.” At the end of the set, Solomon joined them for “#2,” adding a bit of jazzy rhythm to Clifford’s exchanges with Pascucci.

The “main attraction” from Bent Duo was a performance of the first and last (fourth) movements from Pascucci’s sonata for prepared piano and mixed percussion. Pascucci introduced this as her first venture into composition, and the fourth movement was given its premiere performance. The respective titles of the movements were “Sick Day to Take” and “Acceptance;” and Pascucci explained that the entire sonata amounted to a chronicle of her personal experience with a serious illness. The final movement had less to do with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief and served more as the willingness to engage with the world again after the illness had passed.

The movements were played in reverse order with a break to allow time to rearrange the piano preparations. Thus, the lively conclusion was played first (definitely an energetic way to seize listener attention), followed by the more looming opening movement. This made for a highly satisfying listening experience, frequently driven by the physicality of both Bent Duo performers. In addition Pascucci joined the two of them in a performance of Aaron Siegel’s “Under Such Cover.”

The other Bent Duo selections were Hannah Lash’s “C” and Ted Hearne’s “One of Us, One of Them.” Lash’s piece had that same energetic approach to working with a single pitch class that recalled the first of the eleven pieces in György Ligeti’s Musica ricercata. However, Lash clearly established her own identity through both far richer rhythms and alternative strategies for dealing with other pitch classes. Hearne, on the other hand, was particularly interested in the engagement of the two players around the single piano. There were also connotations that the engagement process was one of failed diplomacy, since the title was chosen to reflect the dangerously narrow approach to foreign policy under the administration of George W. Bush. (Hearne composed the piece in 2005, probably not imagining that its underlying message would have even stronger impact over a decade later.)

At the end of the evening, all four performers joined forces for two vocal selections. Casey Anderson’s “possible round(s)” involved the simultaneous declamation of four different texts using Morse code rhythms with the result that sonority obscured pretty much all traces of semantics. The performers then seated themselves in the audience area for “One Word,” from Pauline Oliveros’ Sonic Meditations. This required each performer to think of a word and then allow it to emerge slowly through a gradual succession of the underlying formants and stop consonants. This was intended as a meditative process that would unfold over a very long time; but last night’s performance offered a brief “abstract” of the process, true to the spirit, if not the flesh.

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