Yet another major event put on the back burner by the pandemic is back. Founded by Philip Glass, MATA (Music at the Anthology) is back for a four-concert festival that opened Wednesday night at Roulette.
MATA is not just a presenter of new music: the festival has a global reach and focuses on young composers, and is therefore regularly a reliable survey of some of the latest, most varied and less academic thinking in music. contemporary classical music.
And so it was a real surprise, and a painful disappointment, to discover the narrow and limited focus of Wednesday night’s schedule, compounded by the fact that the music was mostly a secondary concern.
With the International Contemporary Ensemble and some superb guest musicians, the compositions were in excellent hands. But for most of the seven plays (including three world premieres), they weren’t asked much.
There was a significant amount of spoken word on the program, both live and on pre-recorded audio. This was at the heart of the concert’s biggest problem: the tracks simply told or described in words, leaving the music as an afterthought.
It started with the opening premiere, that of Michele Cheng Journals of Deans. There were four interpreters, each seated at a table, while fragments of audio diaries of four different women came out of the loudspeakers. As the audio played, the performers manipulated household objects on wooden slabs on the tables, pulling a tape measure, rustling bits of metal, scattering nuts and coffee beans. There was a fascinating sound that came from holding a tuning fork against wood.
Yet they were only timbres, none of which came together in a musical structure. Everything seemed supposed to respond to the audio, but the two ran in parallel tracks, with no sense that they were supposed to exist simultaneously. The dry, objective aesthetic of the performer part was a prism for the audio, taking very human stories and abstracting them into mere sonic objects that the part did nothing with. Stories, it seemed, were the thing.
This was also the case for The color of the house, by Nyokabi Kariuki, which had a percussionist performing with video of outdoor scenes, with a soundtrack of people discussing words and colors that meant home. Again, the audio was more interesting than the music, which followed the sounds of the soundtrack. We never heard a purpose for music, not even as decoration, much less the sense that gaming and video had a non-coincidental connection.
by Shara Lunon Examples #3: Why I believe in women and that of Nina Fukuoka Sugar, Spices and All Things Pleasant were discouraging. Using text, the two spoke about the experience of sexual harassment and institutional bullying, and misogyny – very real, painful and infuriating things. But these were both delivered as something like lectures, with very little musical purpose. Samples #3 had the added frustration of featuring phenomenal vocalist Fay Victor dueting with bassoonist Rebekah Heller. Victor was mostly asked to speak, and only towards the end was she allowed to sing. With wordless phases, she conveyed angst, anger and determination with far more clarity and expressiveness than words could handle. It was unclear to what extent this was Victor’s invention or the direction of the composer.
With a quintet of piano, accordion, percussion and violins, Sugar, Spices and All Things Pleasant was another piece with very little music, the instruments using almost nothing but effects against the story of a composer facing a misogynistic music department. The musicians took turns delivering the lines with varying levels of projection and articulation.
We don’t blame music with a message, but we expect that there is real music and that it works. The greatness of political music of the past, like Fred Rzewski and Charles Mingus, is that it is great music, and these musicians knew that the words only set the stage while the music delivered the complexity of the meaning, indignation and resolution, passion charging into the future. Wednesday night’s pieces were disconcertingly clinical, like preliminary sketches, mostly ignoring the political and social possibilities of music alone.
We also felt that these pieces were academic in their own way, made by conservatory and university students to be heard by other music students. That’s Milton Babbitt’s problem in a new formal form – the result being music that can be imagined as intended for the public, but in a way that speaks only to colleagues.
All of this was exacerbated by a huge error in judgment by the festival. Presumably to spell time during the scene fillers, MATA had a comedian play in between tracks. One problem with this is that “Neal”, as he identified himself, was not funny. His very presence amid these often dark works was garishly out of place, as he himself began to express himself as the concert progressed.
Still, there were real satisfactions in the concert, and some fantastic, unexpected music.
by Laura Brackney Knots, a solo bass piece played by Kyle Motl, was an invigorating mix of chaotic bowing in a larger, shapely form. Motl weaved his way through sounds and timbres, and released a subtle line of blues.
The last piece of the program was Of you, by Chris Ryan Williams, and featuring Lunon as vocalist and cellist Lester St. Louis and bassist Luke Stewart as guests. Williams, St. Louis and Stewart are talented and important figures in the improvised music community. Williams had an audio collage for his piece, with important quotes from James Baldwin, but used it as background and context, and brought his beautiful, mournful sound and the concentrated bustle of his cohorts to the fore. With Of you, the message was in the music.
The absolute highlight of the concert was Unnoticed glassesa superb premiere by Fernanda Aoki Navarro.
It was a kind of chamber monodrama, led by singer Alice Teyssier, with Heller, clarinetist Joshua Rubin and flautist Laura Cocks (each musician also played percussion). It started with Teyssier singing and struggling to form words, “I cried…”, before bursting into a full-bodied howl. She was interrupted by the other musicians walking down the aisles, spinning strings and other swirling percussion, throwing notes at their instruments. All the musicians then played glass harmonicas in a beautiful extended passage, before joining Teyssier on stage, where she spoke slightly surreal lines by Clarice Lispector, before the performance ended.
You can’t say in words how compelling it was. The combination of the haunting sounds and the mysterious, dreamlike logic made this suspenseful in the way of anticipating something new that would wonderfully knock the listener awry. Skillful, personal, having no clear track record, that was what new music really should be.
The MATA Festival continues Thursday at 8 p.m. at Roulette and Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at National Sawdust. matafestival.org