This year's MATA Festival of young composers surprises with unusual instruments and immersive sound-worlds
9:57 am Apr. 20, 2012
Jacob Cooper’s short video “Commencer une autre mort” (“Begin a new death”), which began Wednesday’s opening night concert for the MATA Festival for young composers at Roulette in Downtown Brooklyn, inspires extreme feelings. “I threw up and cheered at the same time,” one commenter wrote on the video's YouTube page.
Cooper’s video, indeed jarring and fascinating, transforms the familiar death scene in Bizet’s Carmen by splicing together video cuts from two different stagings of the scene in rapid-fire strobing. Time seems to both stand still and rush by as Carmen is stabbed many times over to a harsh, frenetic soundtrack sampling the final chorus of the opera. Projected on a large screen at Wednesday night’s concert, the destabilizing video skillfully toyed with the audience’s expectations and experience of opera, of staged death, of performance.
“Commencer” is the first video in Cooper’s recently completed Triptych, one part of which opens each concert of this year’s truly visionary MATA Festival. An annual festival of works by young, up-and-coming composers from around the world, MATA pores over more than 500open-call submissions each year to find the most interesting, high-quality new music and bring it to New York City.
“We wanted to represent the broadest possible picture of what’s happening now by young composers and to find things that you don’t typically hear,” said MATA’s Executive Director David T. Little during an interview on Wednesday. “We’ve succeeded if people who know this music really well are finding new things that they didn’t know about, new composers they hadn’t known about.”
By that standard, the opening night’s concert was a success. It was framed as a face-off between two stunning new-music quartets—New York City's own JACK Quartet and Berlin’s recorder-wielding Quartet for a New Generation (QNG)—and the pieces certainly challenged the audience’s assumptions about quartet music.
Two pieces for the recorder quartet explored the extraordinary range of sounds and moods that can be created by this versatile instrument generally abandoned by Americans after grade five. (Between its four members, QNG used fifteen or so different recorders, which ranged from giant wooden tubes producing deep shakahachi-like sounds to high-pitched, piccolo-sized pipes.) Qin Yi’s “Sound Shadow,” one of three works commissioned by the festival and the female composer’s first encounter with recorders, layered delicate flecks of pitched and toneless sounds and more energetic decorative bursts over gently undulating ostinatos. Despite shifts in register and timbre, the piece consistently maintained a dainty, playful, and altogether lovely soundscape. Gordon Beeferman’s “Passages” focused more on contrasts. Gesturally, sustained chords mingled with runs, burbles, and trills; texturally, dense ensemble playing alternated with open solo and duet sections; and moodwise, phrases alternately sounded anxious, aggressive, and calm.
Another two works on the program took the premise of writing for recorder to imaginative extremes. Composer Oscar Bianchi’s highly virtuosic “Crepuscolo” is written for solo contrabass Paetzold recorder—a bizarre-looking, boxy contraption invented in the '70s—and a backing track blending electronic sounds with recordings of crickets, a voice, and complex flute and recorder passages passed through various filters. As soloist Susanne Fröhlich attacked the massive, earthy-sounding instrument with flying red fingernails, the prerecorded track ricocheted around the theater using a 3D spatialization algorithm. The effect was one of standing in a rainforest, surrounded by fascinating, unfamiliar sounds, watching a rare creature perform an eery mating call of layered purrs, clicks, and flutters.
An immersive soundworld was also created by Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri’s “Untitled IV (atemlos).” Collaborating with artist Pe Lang, she invented a contraption using motors, nylon strings, and disembodied recorder parts covered with thin rubber membranes. The invented instrument created layered ticking patterns whose speed, register, and resonance were controlled by QNG members’ graceful tugs and touches. Together with an atmospheric backing track, the hypnotic piece sounded like a mechanical swamp, filled with the croaks of tin frogs and the creaks of swaying metal trees. A large mass of audience members, taking up Mr. Little’s invitation to come up on stage for the piece, watched raptly from up close.
The evening’s two works for string quartet also managed to subvert expectations. For his fascinating piece “re[(f)use],” Huck Hodge used the outdated melodica—a cheaply-made keyboard-cum-wind instrument whose chords frequently sound out of tune—as his starting point. During the piece, he filtered his own melodica playing through a range of electronic effects, while the incredibly tight JACK quartet created sounds eerily similar to the reedy melodica. Shifting in and out of tune with each other, the strings collectively sounded like a single instrument going out of tune, and during one particularly cool section, like an old, rusty playground roundabout—one of those spinning, metal discs you can stand on—grinding to a squeaky halt.
Hugi Gudmunsson’s “Matins,” the other piece for string quartet, also employed electronics, though this time it was a more straightforward backing track, an atmospheric drone that slowly crept up in register during the course of the piece before receding into the distance. Meanwhile, the quartet created an uncanny state of suspension by blending deep, bagpipe-like sustained tones with two-note ostinatos in wide-open voicings before following the register shift of the drone, compellingly evoking the glacial progress of the Icelandic dawn its title references.
The gorgeous final piece of the evening, “Estro poetico-armonico,” was written by MATA’s Artistic Director Yotam Haber for JACK and QNG to play together. Like the evening’s opening video, Haber’s piece cleverly transforms a musical work from a previous century—in this case, Baroque-era composer Benedetto Marcello’s setting of a psalm, itself based on transcriptions of Venetian synagogue music. In “Estro,” the lovely, spacious counterpoint of the psalm setting is passed among the various performers of the ensemble while the other instruments betray its calm beauty with muddling gestures: skittering or fluttering on pitch, bending out of tune, or sounding seemingly random notes out of turn. In his program note, Haber asks listeners to visualize a still-wet oil painting left out in the rain so that its colors run, an apropos image. Matins messerkvartetten live in Malmo by Hugi Gudmunsson by MATA Festival
Haber himself had a piece selected in a MATA competition several years ago, and said in an interview yesterday that the exposure helped launch his own composing career. MATA’s potential to propel its featured composers’ careers forward is something Haber’s very proud of, he said, mentioning Nico Muhly and Missy Mazzoli as popular young composers who got their start through MATA.
“You know, David and I like to say that we know how to pick ‘em,” Haber said with a smile. “And I felt tonight, listening to that piece by Hugi Gudmunsson—that was the string quartet and electronics, just very quiet and very beautiful—listening to it, I thought: this could be a masterpiece. This could be a piece that every single quartet wants to play. And in fact I went downstairs and I talked with JACK and they’re like, we need to put that on our next concert.”
In picking works for this concert, which involved a rather unusual ensemble, Haber explained that MATA followed the dual course of commissioning talented composers identified through the open call and drawing from QNG’s existing repertoire. The works on the other two night's programs resulted more directly from the open call.
Thursday night’s concert featured composer-performers, a breed strongly represented among applicants. The concert included three works for sculptural, hand-crafted instruments (one of them involving massive sheet metal), the sneak preview of a new pop opera, and a set to texts by the writer Lydia Davis.
Tonight’s final concert of the festival, Haber said, would be “a melange of pieces, just like the coolest pieces we could possibly find,” all performed by Signal, the tour-de-force new-music ensemble flexible in size. Pieces include a large-scale work commissioned from Francesco Filidei (a young composer currently “taking Europe by storm”), a viola quartet, a piece for soprano and electronics, and works for two uncommon instruments, the Kantele—a zither-like Finnish folk instrument—and the player piano.
If that’s not reason enough to check out the festival, go for the premieres of the final two videos in Cooper’s Triptych, based on footage of Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime show and of the death scene in Puccini’s La Boheme. Whatever your expectations are, they are likely to be shattered.
Tickets for the MATA Festival can be purchased through Roulette’s website.
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