Monday, December 14, 2009
Some thoughts on Olivia Block's performance at Experimental Intermedia last evening. As veteran readers are aware, I love most all of Block's music that I've heard so if I say that the three pieces presented all had problematic aspects for me, it's at least partially based on very high expectations.
First up was a set of three works for solo violin (Erika Dicker). These were the least successful pieces of the night, imho, and a little baffling in the sense of wondering as to their reason for being. They very much struck me as exercises in a kind of avant string playing that I associate with mid to late 60s work by composers like Penderecki. Indeed, more than once I was reminded of his Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra (1967) where, as near as I could discern, similar techniques were employed. It's not that those techniques were or are without interest--each of the three sections had intriguing, occasionally beautiful aspects--just that I couldn't hear a larger reason behind the pieces aside from demonstrating this or that approach. On the first, the violinist allowed the bow to float from just above the bridge to below it, generating a harsh screech as it passed or lingered on the bridge itself. Within that (echoed in the following composition by the clarinets), she played triplet patterns that, for these ears, have the unfortunate quality of evoking a kind of minimalist treading of water that I found myself wanting to bat away. The next used, if I'm not mistaken, col legno technique while the last scrabbled furiously and two-handedly at the neck interspersed with broad, bowed swipes across the strings. As I said, I could pick out certain elements of each that were of interest, but on the whole, it sounded too much of the practice room, with accents and phrasing that too strongly evoked standard post-serial flourishes.
Next up was a lengthy composition (about an hour?) for violin, percussion (Michael Evans), three clarinets doubling bass clarinet (Alejandro Acierto, Alice Lee & Josh Sinton) and electronics. This was much more "in the ballpark" re: Olivia's recorded work, especially with the hard-edged percussive sounds, the electronics and field recordings and the massed, low reeds. My main issue was, given its length, its unwieldiness as a cohesive piece. Her best work has a kind of subtle narrative quality to it, a kind of arc or spine (not an obvious one) that reveals itself as it occurs, causing the listener to think, "Yes, even though I didn't anticipate it, this clearly stems from that and sounds beautiful alongside it." This piece struck me as more episodic although there were certainly recurring motifs and, arguably, a climax or two. I just wanted some tightening. Those cavils aside, there was many a gorgeous moment to be heard. The percussionist made ample use of strung together cymbals and hubcaps, producing a wonderful clatter, a couple of times receding to the depths of the storage areas to the left of the stage space, echoing the bangs from the heating pipes in the loft, later humorously attempting to corral them atop his horizontal bass drum. One of those climactic moments occurred when the trio of bass clarinets suddenly broke into a kind of chorale section, a rich, deep series of chords embedded in rumbling electronics and the aforementioned percussion. As a general rule, I found her music more rewarding the denser and, frankly, louder it was last night. That might be an artifact of the space; on disc, her quiet sounds are clearly etched and often quite moving. Here, they may have been a bit lost in the space. But when everything was in play, I heard the lush, rocky depths I've come to love in her music. I hope this is recorded, as I'd love to be able to give it a bunch of good listens.
After a break, the final piece was presented, a collaboration with the video artists Sandra Leah Gibson and Luis Recoder. This trio was responsible for one of my big favorite releases of the past decade, the untitled DVD on SoS Editions from 2007 so I was pretty excited to see a live performance. Both visually and musically, the DVD was very circumscribed, very concentrated in one general area (though unearthing all sorts of variations within that area), one of its great strengths. Last night's video, while clearly related to that previous work, was much more wide-ranging. Some of the more beautiful moments echoed the kind of out-of-focus, view-through-a-rainy-windshield, globular aspects of the earlier work, but large segments otherwise portrayed flickering light patterns (incidentally echoed in lovely fashion on the ceiling of the loft as headlights passed by on Centre St., three floors below), overlapping semi-circular wedges and distended rectangles of light, seeming images of forests passed from a train (though dreamlike, never quite sure of their identity) and "damaged" film stock. It was a great deal to take in and part of me missed the singular focus encountered earlier though if I let myself go with the images, it was quite a ride. Olivia's music melded very well, in fact was often absorbed into the images, the two streams felt as one, which is a high compliment for music/video collaborations. Something I'd like very much to see/hear again. This was their first time doing a live performance together, very impressive how well it cohered.
So, I have my caveats, but there was more than enough strong, resonating work at hand. Tonight, Michael Pisaro is presenting a new work for guitar, bass clarinet, sine waves and field recordings. Can't wait.