“Am I good enough?” Kate Amrine asked the audience: a strange question to pose at the beginning of a solo recital. The verbal question came in the middle of a series of frazzled arpeggios on her trumpet, punctuated with noteless blusters—like a warm-up gone totally haywire. Stumbling scales were interspersed with frantic mouth noises and other vocalizations, such as, at one point, “can she do it?”
Amrine had kicked off her recital with one of her own compositions, Anx, which she explained is a piece she wrote about anxiety, and which she likes to perform at the beginning of each show. It was an intense statement: to witness a performer exposing, even showcasing, her vulnerability, reminded the audience of the fallibility and insecurities that performers typically shield under a facade of impenetrability.
She followed Anx with another of her own compositions, As I Am, which was written about her experiences with dating. The wandering, seemingly aimless legato melodies of As I Am reminded me of my own trials and tribulations navigating the NYC dating scene. Just as with a new music concert, you never know what you’re gonna get when you meet up with your latest Tinder match, a familiar sensation of curiosity and dread that was perfectly evoked by the deceptive simplicity of Amrine’s piece.
Amrine’s delightful hour-long show took place at Areté Venue & Gallery as part of a series called Tuesday Night Mega Power Concerts, which is expertly and thoughtfully curated by trombonist Will Lang. The show was full of explicitly and implicitly political moments, which resonated beyond the sound waves produced by her trumpet.
The strongest works were those that were less obviously “political,” but still managed to be thought-provoking. Gemma Peacocke’s Skin was originally written for alto saxophone and fixed electronics (via MAX patch), but here transposed for trumpet. Amrine explained that the piece was written about experiences of race, gender, and sexuality in the U.S., and Peacocke’s sparkly spangled electronic sounds did not beat us over the head with this message. Instead, listeners were able to supplement the wordless narratives with their own inner imagery and memories. Amrine sounded more assured here than she did during much of the rest of the recital; it was evident that she held a strong connection to the sounds she was both accompanying and producing.
Similarly abstract works balanced out the social and political content. Film score composer Ariel Marx’s Cassiopeia was a pensive musical musing on the nature of pride and ego. Amrine’s trumpet lines were again accompanied by prerecorded sounds which lent an introspective yet cinematic vibe to the piece. Jay Rizzetto’s “This is my letter to the world” (from Five Poems of Emily Dickinson for Trumpet and Narrator) is a setting of the Dickinson poem of the same title. Amrine explained that she was drawn to this composition despite not knowing much about its author (“If you find out anything about Jay Rizzetto, please contact me!”) She was joined on stage by violist Kate Barmotina, whose recitation of the poem was complemented by smooth, stately trumpet lines. Amrine also played a startling work called Yaygara by Jin Hee Han, founder of the Asian Women Composers Association. Staccato sounds on Amrine’s trumpet were joined by breathing, talking, and singsong within the inventive and enjoyable sound world crafted by Han.
The less abstract and more blatantly political works were at times less convincing as artistic statements. Another of Amrine’s own compositions, Sad! is a work-in-progress response to the Trump administration. In it, she recited statements that Trump has made (“she had blood coming out of her whatever,” “you can do anything – grab them by the pussy,” and so on), which were interspersed with bleats and blurts on her trumpet and Barmotina’s viola.
I’m sure that many new music composers and musicians have felt the need to articulate their disapproval of the Trump administration, but I have my doubts as to what these “protest” concerts and compositions can actually achieve. Those I have witnessed, including Sad!, are not explicit calls to action (such as “volunteer for X organization” or “donate to X institution”), but simply aestheticizations of statements and situations of which the small Areté audience surely is well aware already. I’m not certain what an artist hopes to accomplish through the repetition and musicalization of Trump’s own statements, aside from generating unchanneled rage and hopelessness; on a musical level, the composition felt half-hearted and lackluster.
In the same vein, Kevin Joest’s Thoughts and Prayers was meant to be a statement against gun violence, which was heard loud and clear; the piece, though, felt somewhat contrived and unimaginative in its actual musical execution. Amrine’s trumpet lines followed the melodic contour of a hodgepodge recording of the voices political and cultural figures, such as Barack Obama and Jerry Falwell, making statements in the aftermath of mass shootings. Again, the political content felt like an excuse for the music, which was fine but ultimately forgettable.
Similar in style yet more convincing was Jacob TV’s Close Fight, a multimedia composition in which Amrine’s trumpet lines again followed the contour of the rising and falling voices—this time of boxers being interviewed after a fight. Jacob TV (Dutch composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis) had manipulated and spliced the videos into a comedic yet ultimately thought-provoking artistic statement that raised questions regarding race, masculinity, media, and so on within U.S. culture. His music was engaging, and here energetically performed.
Amrine rounded out her recital with a short piece called I’ll Wear What I Want, written for her by Keith R. Gambling. Amrine described her experience performing as an out-of-state guest at an institution that deemed her dress “inappropriate,” and frantically asking a friend to bring her some more “appropriate” attire. Gambling wrote the piece after hearing Amrine’s story, and its wry tone was a suitable closer for her set. Despite the fact that she had been playing so many virtuosic and wide-ranging works for the past hour, Amrine was spirited and confident up through the last notes. The piece was a reminder that there are many ways for new-music composers to make a political statement; it seemed fitting that, rather than the typical concert black, Amrine was wearing a “Nasty Woman” T-shirt.
Rebecca S. Lentjes is a writer and feminist activist based in NYC. Her work has appeared in VAN Magazine, Music & Literature, Sounding Out!, TEMPO, and I Care If You Listen. By day she studies ethnomusicology as a doctoral student at Stony Brook University and works as an assistant editor at RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; by night she hatches schemes to dismantle the patriarchy.
Classical music coverage on National Sawdust Log is supported in part by a grant from the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. The Log makes all editorial decisions.