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Aggie Birdsong Smee
Anne La Berge
Juliet Kiri Palmer
Dave & Sue Poitras
Robert D. Polansky
Linda Catlin Smith
P. Kellach Waddle
The Blur of Insanity
Hunger Mountain Coop
Mad River Media
Play It Again Sam
Squash Valley Produce
By David Cleary
New Music Connoisseur, magazine and website
The Ought One Festival is the brainchild of Dennis Bathory-Kitsz and David Gunn, perhaps best known as curators of the Kalvos and Damian New Music Bazaar radio show (accessible weekly in an online format and via airwaves over WGDR-FM radio in central Vermont). While the events given this weekend occurred in four downtown Montpelier venues, a decent bit of the music presented would have nestled comfortably on Downtown New York style programs such as those encountered at the Bang on a Can series. As one might expect from an ambitious undertaking that spotlights a truckload of cutting-edge work, the concerts varied in quality, though there were a significant number of essential presentations. Your reviewer was able to hear thirteen of the thirty-eight offerings, regrettably having to forego live events by the '01 Composers Interactive Ensemble, Beth Anderson, Michael Arnowitt, Joseph Benzola, James Bohn, Joseph Celli/Jin Hi Kim, Manfred Clynes, Ensemble Uh Maybe, Ensemble VCX, Martin Alejandro Fumarola, Beth Griffith, Tom Heasley, Brenda Hutchinson, Brian Johnson, Phil Kline, Elodie Lauten, John Levin/Ill Wind Ensemble, Logos Duo, Loons in the Monastery, Michael Lowenstern, Martha Mooke, Odd Appetite, and Eleanor Sandresky, as well as installations by 17 composers because of time and scheduling constraints.
Three of Saturday's concerts proved to be of particular distinction. Combined Concert 4, one of six such catch-all presentations this weekend, boasted four strong entities. Bathory-Kitsz's fine RatGeyser, for MalletKat (an electronic marimba-like instrument) and playback, sports highly varied textures heavy on wild flurries of notes; its structure, a wedge downward which folds back upon itself, is both readily perceivable and cleverly delineated. QUIFF, a solo tape work by Jon Appleton, attractively blends warm organ-like sonorities and gently percolating figures within its haunting, atmospheric overall feel -- a highly alluring listen. The two alto saxophone solos by Keith Moore could not have shown greater contrast. A Feldman-like sparseness suffuses black box, an entry full of special effects, hushed dynamics, and lengthy silences. The earlier hiatus pitch is ebulliently virtuosic, disjunct in line, and generally terraced in dynamics, plowing a most satisfying middle ground between uptown craft and downtown abandon. Both pleased greatly. Percussionist Michael Manion wielded sticks with gusto, while saxophonist Taimur Sullivan's performance was a model mix of vigor and control.
Flautist Margaret Lancaster presented an ambitious and exciting evening of music, much of it for amplified flute and tape. Works scored for this combination included Rob Constable's Once-a-thon and Paul Reller's In Praise of Buddy Hackett (both busy, snappy selections oozing with style and attitude that would have benefited from judicious use of blue pencil but are otherwise highly worthy), Kaija Saariaho's Noa Noa (nervously disjunct and jaggedly atonal with highly understated electronic backing), Eric Lyon's Once-a-thon 2: The Kiss of Constable (an able reply of sorts to Constable's piece that would have been better suited in a different part of the program), and Paul Steenhuisen's cette obscure clarte qui tombe les etoiles (which manages to impart appealing sinuosity to its busy flute lines, further underscoring them with a stuttering tape accompaniment). Steenhuisen's two other selections were very brief; pomme de terre for solo piccolo figuratively spiral-cuts its title potato, producing a bubbly plate full of trills, while the solo tape work, Poland is not yet lost, is a promising idea (distortions on an old recording of that country's national anthem) that merits further elaboration. Piker by Larry Polansky is a duo for piccolo and electric guitar; the latter provides a droning platform for its active soloist, who plays a tune that first evolves from isolated fragments to frantic swirling lines and then juxtaposes the two extremes. Its sense of direction is as clear as spring water.
Appleton's Stop Time and Karlheinz Stockhausen's Zugenspitzentanz, solid listens both, ask the soloist to dance as well as play. The latter employs extensive modernist style choreography, while the former requires formidable tap dancing prowess -- often provided as rhythmic counterpoint to the taped playback of a just-executed flute line. Lancaster's performance was stunning. Her flute playing was most impressive, featuring a keen sense of linear shaping, nimble technique, and substantial tone, even when prancing about the stage or lying flat on her back. And special commendation is due for her accomplished tap-dancing.
Drew Krause's sensitively rendered solo piano recital brought an uptown flavor to the largely downtown feel of the day's proceedings. Fences by Stuart Saunders Smith was one of the day's highest points, an exercise in East Coast pointillism with roots in Milton Babbitt's keyboard style that contains a winsome charm, clarity of line, and supple craftsmanship. Outlining a clear-cut ternary form, it was wonderful to hear. Krause's Spoke Variations is a massive, ambitious selection on the order of Beethoven's classic essay upon Diabelli's waltz tune. Scalar yet still atonal sounding, it can perhaps be faulted for obsessively slow unfolding and a block-like rhythmic sense, though the work's ear for large scale clumping and earnestly genuine emotional feel stamp it as a winner.
The remaining events of the day had positive elements, but proved less essential to varying degrees. Bathory-Kitsz contributed a somewhat less successful piece to the concert given by the electrified PoJo Guitar Duo. His High Birds (Prime), coupling its players with a bird-call based tape playback, proves formally amorphous but exhibits an aggressively personable nature. Kimo Johnson's shape up, shape down, also for this grouping, festoons a hypnotic Joni Mitchell type ostinato guitar riff with clangorous interjections such as glissandi, punctuating verticals, and fragments of melody that often suggest snippets of rock solo breaks. This and ii-v-i for two guitars by Polansky were pleasing enough to experience if a bit shapeless. Polansky's work conjures up a static wall of sound that suggests process kinship without usually employing patterned material, asking the players to tune their guitar strings in microtonal increments as they go along. The solo mandolin closer Prelude by Ron Nagorcka, is brief and charming. Polansky and Johnson performed well.
Two members of Germany's Ensemble WireWorks, Jennifer Hymer on piano and Georg Hadju on electronics, gave a recital of avant-garde music mostly European in origin that contained more misses than hits. The best entities were Sparks for synthesizer and tape by Chris Brown (a brief piece in clear ABA format that suggests what Steve Reich might write for massed glockenspiels) and Tombeau de Messiaen for piano and tape by Jonathan Harvey (which cleverly intercuts and mingles sections of both showy flourish and microtonal embellishment of piano equal temperament). Manfred Stahnke's Malaita for prepared piano and real time electronics is jagged and colorful, painfully slow to unfold, but suitably effective for those with boundless patience. Notes by Vinko Globokar is an extended techniques speak-and-play piece along the lines of Tom Johnson's Failing; regrettably, the text is too dry and matter-of-fact (with overtones of a theoretical treatise) and the spoken material gets swamped when the pianist plays on the keys. Annea Lockwood's prepared piano piece Ear-Walking Woman proves nice to experience when one can in fact hear it, consisting of effects that involve softly scraped, rubbed, and plucked piano strings and altered sounds resulting from placing and rocking bowls, marbles, and other items inside the instrument. This fragile number proves nearly inaudible in a large hall such as the one in which it was given. Sadly, the piano and live electronics entry Zwei Studien by Dieter Schnebel is syllogistic, moves glacially, and lacks coherence. And Hadju's Fingerprints for piano solo, sorry to report, is weak in architecture, melodic appeal, and directional sense. Hymer's playing of the disparate keyboards was generally fine, though balances between live instrument and tape were not always optimal.
Combined Concert 1 featured two works each by two composers. The better of these were Turnstile and Enkidu for violin and electronic processing by Douglas Geers. Both exhibit expertly showy fiddle writing and a harmonic language that oscillates from triadic clarity to astringent dissonance; the former was fine, the latter a bit prolix. Violin soloist Maja Gerar was terrific, performing with charismatic flair and rock sure fingers and bow arm. The two Elaine Thomazi Freitas numbers, a falta que ele me faz for berimbau and electronics and Reflect for interactive dancer and electronics, proved imaginative in general concept but tough to listen to. Both suffered from monochromatic timbral palettes, shapeless structure, excessive length, and ear-splitting volume. Christine Towle's dancing seemed leaden and stiff, while berimbau player Gregory Beyer coaxed as much variety as possible from an instrument with the melodic range of a major second.
Sunday's events ranged from the heights of excellence to the depths of misfortune. The nadir was reached at Combined Concert 2, given over primarily to New Tonalist entries. The best of these was Greg Hall's solo piano piece For Graham Fitkin, an earnestly pleasing study in textures that expertly navigates harmonies ranging from Roy Harris-style polytonality to jazzy upper tertian aggregates. Imitations by Robert D. Polansky puts its four violins to work delineating quasi-canonic counterpoint to capable effect. Its sense of form is clear and its mood tellingly soulful. Louis Moyse's Introduction, Theme, and Variations for flute and piano, while not a bad listen in some ways, betrays an extremely close kinship to Debussy's sound world and suffers from a conception of variations as block entities without an overarching plan.
March Swale, a string quartet by Beth Anderson, can be cited positively for not taking its genre label too closely to heart and indulging in some well-controlled surprises. But regrettably, the piece lacks a certain level of distinction, veering perilously towards a kitch-like feel; perhaps Anderson means a tongue-in-cheek effect here, but your reviewer cannot tell for sure. Nancy Bloomer Deussen's Two Pieces for Violin and Piano unfortunately traffic by turns in mushy sentiment and fluffy superficiality, containing chord changes that sometimes sound arbitrary. And sorry to say, Improvisations for solo piano by William Harris proves to be an undistinguished set of style studies.
Moyse's work received by far the best performance, featuring excellent playing from flautist Karen Kevra and pianist Paul Orgel. Both Hall and Deussen turned in able keyboard presentations, which came across much better than Harris's diffident pianism. Sadly, the string players here (who will mercifully remain nameless) were decidedly not ready for prime time; slipshod technical execution, sloppy ensemble playing, and atrocious intonation were the rule.
Fortunately, the other concerts proved more satisfying. Combined Concert 3 featured two first-rate selections by electric violinist Mary Lou Newmark. Prayer & Meditation respectively suggests Hebrew cantillation and embellished Gregorian chant -- gorgeous, weighty, and evocative to experience. 3 on the Green is dandy in golf and, as it turns out, equally fine in the concert hall. Its triumvirate of movements, a rondo alternating pizzicato and arco sections, an entity wedding jazzy and virtuosic touches to plaintive music, and a perpetuum mobile with attitude, is most effective. Both pieces make memorable use of spare electronic enhancement, usually in the form of dense reverb.
4BC by Mary Jane Leach, scored for four bass clarinets (three of which appeared on tape here), manages to discover a great basis sound by asking its instruments to play in the bottom fifth of their range. The resulting combination of fundamental and overtone is beautiful to hear. Unfortunately, Leach basks at extraordinary length in this sonic bath without building a cogent musical entity. Peggy Madden's Echoes of the MistWalker for bass clarinet and tape combines myriad short fragments and a hobgoblin variant on the 3/8 tune from Dukas's Sorcerer's Apprentice into an uneasy mix. The work's relative brevity and attention to textural contrast were appreciated, though. Violinist Newmark and bass clarinetist Steve Klimowski gave strong performances.
Your reviewer's Bilbies IV appeared among the offerings on Combined Concert 5; it was wonderfully well played by solo flautist Kevra. A particular highlight of this presentation was another flute solo, Rooster's Court Ball by Matthew Fields. It's a fun yet substantial charmer, sizable but never dull, consisting of stylized neo-Baroque dances cast in a harmonic language that mates elements of Prokofiev and Schoenberg without producing a monstrosity. Moyse's Pastorale, yet another unaccompanied flute work, is dead-on Impressionist but proves showy and attractive. Jamie's Thrush by Daniel Goode is less successful, content to have its solo clarinet line closely echo the taped call of a hermit thrush with minimal elaboration. A presentation of Radio Music by John Cage yielded a roomful of static on a Sunday in this isolated valley town -- and given that not all four of the radios used were equally capable of producing hall-filling sound, one got even less variety than one might hope. Flautists Kevra and Jackie Martelle were tip-top, clarinetist Goode capable.
Kyle Gann's Custer and Sitting Bull presented the noteworthy Village Voice reviewer's solution to the challenge of practical one-man opera. The music, mostly pre-recorded, adheres to just-intonation scalar material; while thoroughly downtown sounding (evoking subtle influences of pop music at times), it also deftly incorporates Native American song and Custer's favorite tune, "Garry Owen." The actor plays synthesizer and respectively takes the part of both title personages. Texts, culled from the oral and written musings of these characters, are spoken, not sung -- deriving performance challenges instead from coordination of speech and taped rhythms. While Custer's sketchy staging suggests closer kinship to cantata than opera at times, the piece exudes an earnest ritualistic feel and likeable sympathy for its Sioux protagonist. Overall, it's a sturdy, highly enjoyable experience. Gann's performance was both subtle and masterful, handling voice/tape synchronization with deceptive ease.
Nearly half of Nurit Tilles's first-rate piano recital consisted of works from the early twentieth century, including a Ravel tribute to Haydn and two pieces entitled Hommage a Ravel by Arthur Honegger and Alexandre Tansman. Robert Helps's composition of the same name, while less directly evocative of the French master, is a gossamer delight built primarily of elaborations around patterned accompaniments.
Paul Paccione's Stations -- To Morton Feldman could easily be mistaken for a work by the minimalist icon -- which is to say it handles pitches in the same perfectly effective manner. The two-movement Piano Sonata by Tom Pierson weds neo-process techniques to this older blueprint, doing so in both a heavy, pounding fashion and warm, dreamlike way. It's not a bad listen. Tilles's The Kitchen Table and Raw Silk (A Rag) show this pianist's fascination with the genre Scott Joplin made famous. The first of these is unpretentious and charming, first-class Gebrauchsmusik, while the latter is an intriguing Chopinesque reinterpretation of the style. Both these and the three splendid inner movements of Charles Ives's Sonata #1 were played from memory. Tilles performed wonderfully well, demonstrating well-grounded technique, a fine ear for color and voicing, and a forthright tone quality that can thunder or whisper with the piano community's best.
Eve Beglarian's presentation was an especial must-hear event. Scheduling conflicts forced this listener to take in only the first half of the concert, a collaboration between this talented artist and Phil Kline. The resulting listen, four Songs from the Bilitis Project for singer/reciter(s), alto flute, synthesizer, minimal percussion, bass guitar, and taped sounds, is a luscious, sensual evocation of love in its many facets: feral, warm, lush, ardent -- among the most knowingly sexy music since Debussy and Wagner. Thoroughly downtown in style, it left much else of its kind heard at this festival far behind in quality and effectiveness. Beglarian, Kline, Lancaster, and Sandresky played marvelously.
The finest event encountered at Ought One was its last, given by the Pierrot-plus-percussion sextet Non Sequitur. Nearly all the music presented was top-drawer fine. Plekto, a late piece by Iannis Xenakis, is brief and clever. Here, the piano and percussion rage in clusters and thwacks, disrupting the rest of the ensemble and eventually turning them to the same grouchy manner of speech. Taking the group's name to heart, Eric Lyon's two-movement New World Sonatina audaciously shoves sections of klezmer stylings next to uptown dissonant fragmentation, indulges in atonal fiddling gestures, and quotes the Renaissance mass tonemeister's delight "L'homme arme." It shouldn't work -- but somehow it does, and gloriously. Clarence Barlow's two entries, Le Cixeau du Tom Johnson for flute, cello, and piano, and Canzonetta for piano trio show its composer able to handle both dissonant pointillism and hearty tonality with assurance; both pieces possess buckets full of personality.
Musique de Tables by Thierry de Mey is wonderful fun to watch and listen to. Here, three players sit at a long table and proceed to scrape, slap, snap and tap its surface. Coordinated physical gestures enhance the work's eager, cheeky sound universe. Ned McGowan's Tusk, for the ensemble minus piano, while not as stylish as the rest of the program, makes able enough use of colorist iteration of a single pitch and plausible variants thereof. A tasty arrangement of Ah Um by jazz legend Charles Mingus, featuring some impressive solo improv, closed the program. Non Sequitur's performance was utterly sensational, easily rivaling the best groups of its kind in Boston, New York, or anywhere else. Hearty bravos go out to its talented members: McGowan (flute), Benjamin Fingland (clar.), Gabriel Bolkosky (vn), Ha-Yang Kim (cello), Blair McMillen (pno), and Nathan Davis (percussion).
Performance venues generally offered good acoustics. Christ Episcopal Church, Trinity United Methodist Church, and the Unitarian Church of Montpelier all proved very presentation-friendly; only the sanctuary at Bethany United Church of Christ seemed problematic, offering up stuffy sonics and notable infusions of distracting street sound.
As a whole, this festival provided a fine listening experience in a lovely small-town setting. If the pun be pardoned, one ought to have regular reprises of Ought One in future years.