The Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and performer Du Yun has entered the fore as a high priestess of musical eclecticism. In scores and performances running the gamut of genres and forms, and in outfits seemingly retrieved from an intergalactic cabaret, she displays a penchant for horror teetering on glamour, from which looking away is a distant consideration. A Nov. 15 Miller Theatre Composer Portrait with the International Contemporary Ensemble – of which Du Yun is a founding member – displayed her formidable skill for making her influences cohere as visceral, gratifying narratives.
Eleven musicians arranged themselves in the dark to perform the evening’s main event, LEGO, a set of five pieces for soloist or small ensemble. Written separately over the course of about a decade for the ICE members on stage, the works were presented here for the first time as a whole. Each LEGO followed immediately from the next: the musicians for a given piece were spotlighted as they played, then moved back into the darkness, leaving the stage as the next piece’s musicians began.
Like their namesake, the sections built upon each other, but obliquely, the result less a high-rise than a collection of transient rooms. Lighting designer Nicholas Houfek’s projections, warm-hued shapes that evolved in tandem with the music, provided visual commentary.
Opening LEGO was the flutist Claire Chase – in the spotlight, her glinting instrument resembling a lighting rod – performing the finale of the first LEGO, “An Empty Garlic” (2014) for bass flute and electronics. A wandering melody gave way to a section in which Chase herself crooned a few notes, then continued the thought on the flute, as though teaching her instrument how to sing.
Saxophonist Ryan Muncy and bassoonist Rebekah Heller then gave simultaneous performances of LEGO segments for their respective instruments plus electronics: “Ixtab, 10pm” (2013) and “Dinosaur Scar” (1999). Both pieces inhabit an improvisatory air, prompting sometimes blistering outbursts from Muncy and throaty lines, plus the occasional groan, from Heller. Alongside electronic noise, the two conjured the innards of some ungovernable transit system—reminiscent of the one heartily betraying the city that very evening.
The violinist David Bowlin then took his turn, performing “Under a Tree, an Udātta” (2016) for solo violin and electronics. His deliberately shaking strokes introduced a rich rhapsody that intersected with the recording, which had continued from the previous works, now taking the form of chanting.
Then Du Yun – sporting, among other compelling fashion, a wide gold belt embroidered with the image of a uterus – emerged from the darkness alongside cellist Katinka Kleijn for “Zinc Oxide, a tale of a seagull” (2010). Soaked in red light, Du Yun and Kleijn took turns intoning a lurid text, which was loosely concerned with pregnancy. Electronic thuds accompanied their narration (Kleijn’s with a horribly sensuous affect) and the composer’s uninhibited yowling. For a few minutes, Du Yun lifted an amplified tree branch from the stand and began sawing at it with some sort of bow. The result was scratchy and oddly muted, like television static; her forceful delivery, here and throughout, rendered its inclusion a no-brainer.
Five brass players – Gareth Flowers on piccolo trumpet; Hugh Moreno, Andrew Kemp, Theodore Van Dyck on trumpet; Kenny Warren on flugelhorn – and Daniel Lippel on electric guitar and bass took the stage for the last LEGO, “Air Glow.” The brass played a line evoking conspiratorial murmurs as Lippel delivered plucks and twangs, sections occasionally converging to become a unified pulse. As before, Du Yun employed electronics – the sounds of far-off energetic percussion, as if a drummer were lost backstage – that in this case carried the ensemble to a hoarse climax.
The second half of the program featured two conducted ensemble pieces, Vicissitudes No. 1 (2002) and Impeccable Quake (2004). Conceived early in Du Yun’s career, these works made odd counterparts for the narratively cohesive first half, but were nevertheless welcome as a primer on her early self.
Vicissitudes No. 1 featured Kleijn, Joshua Rubin on clarinet, Nathan Davis on percussion, Cory Smythe on piano, and Randy Zigler on guitar; midway through, Lippel walked onstage for a solo on an acoustic guitar outfitted with steel strings, which was inspired by sounds of the pipa and shamisen. Impeccable Quake, for 15 ICE members, offered palpable tension carried by the string quartet at the center. Glitchy wind pronouncements and screaming tremolos wound down to a low sizzle.
Jennifer Gersten, from Queens, New York, is a freelance writer pursuing a DMA in violin performance at Stony Brook University. Her essays, journalism, and reviews appear or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review online, Harvard Magazine, Bachtrack, and Guernica, where she is a senior editor. She recently won the 2018 Rubin Prize for Music Criticism, and was a 2015 Norman Mailer College Writing Awards finalist in nonfiction. See her portfolio here.
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.
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