Les Six. The Mighty Handful. The American Five. The history of classical music is littered with groups of composers united by style, ideology, or mere geography coming together in the pursuit of their craft. In keeping with this tradition, six U.S.-based composers who share a dedication to amplifying unheard voices have formed a new collective named Kinds of Kings, and to round out a string of concerts in 2018, they put on a show with the Metropolis Ensemble at 1 Rivington on Dec. 9, featuring a solo or duet from each of the collective’s members.
With members hailing originally from Cyprus, Ireland, the United States, and New Zealand, Kinds of Kings are hardly a homogenous bunch, and their music reflects it. Shelley Washington’s braggadocious MO’INGUS (2016) opened the concert with unapologetic self-assurance. Stitched together from fragments of Charles Mingus solos and infused with the spirit of a present-day Bach partita, the piece sounds – in the best possible way – like a confused poltergeist trying to escape from a baritone saxophone.
Driving grooves alternate with honking multiphonics and wheedling melodic lines, with only a few moments of quiet introspection in which to catch a breath of rest. Kendra Emery displayed admirable control of her instrument in navigating the work’s ferocious technical demands. But at times she sacrificed swagger for cleanliness of execution when the piece wanted the reverse, most notably in the final riotous outburst
Emery’s reserved playing was better suited to the final piece on the program, Finola Merivale’s Beautiful Mess, which was written for Emery’s debut album in 2014. Beautiful Mess calls for tenor sax, voice, live electronic processing, and an elaborate multi-track loop pedal setup, all of which Emery executed skillfully, but the result felt lacking. Like a late-series season of television from Steven Moffat, the music kept promising that something fantastically cool was just around the corner, but nothing ever actually arrived.
Other pieces took different approaches to electronics. Emma O’Halloran’s Truth and Beauty (2010) paired a solo clarinet (the unflappable Marc Dover) with a fixed electronic track full of rough percussive exhalations, the sharp breaths of unseen monsters lurking all around a yawning subterranean cavern lit only by the pallid, wondrous light of glowworm larvae.
Clarinet was replaced by cello in Gemma Peacocke’s Amygdala, from 2015. Jo Whang played yearning phrases full of pedal points and double stops against a rough electronic backdrop reminiscent of a stiff breeze blowing across a microphone with no wind guard. There were moments where the timbre cleared and the cello broke through to more stable ground, but the overall effect was cryptic and impenetrable. Similarly perplexing was Maria Kaoutzani’s Conversation (2013), which incorporated sung and spoken text from Ruth Wenger in a musical tapestry whose scant materials grew stale from overuse.
The highlight of the evening was the one true duet, Susanna Hancock’s Blossom and Furl for two electric guitars (Jordan Dodson and Jay Sorce). Starting with rhythmic strumming on a single note, the piece unfolded in a highly resonant soundscape, the past lingering on as a memory in the present. Its static, nonfunctional harmonies nevertheless unlocked a kind of religious ecstasy, speaking without irony of a better future within our reach, a new world lying open full of life and joy and hope and glory.
Such was the fervor it aroused that I felt like my heart would break from yearning at the work’s climax, even though the only thing happening was the metronomic strumming of one guitar’s open strings. From there, the piece unwound in a strange garden full of alien plants, dissipating into a wash of lingering reverb that pulsed with intoxicating heat. The performers cut the reverb short abruptly with an air of sheepish embarrassment; I could have lived in the music’s dying embers for eternity.
Brin Solomon writes words and music in several genres and is doing their best to queer all of them. Solomon majored in composition at Yale University before earning their MFA in Musical Theatre Writing at NYU/Tisch. Their full-length musical Window Full of Moths has been hailed for its “extraordinary songs” that “add magic to otherwise ordinary lives”, and their latest one-act, Have You Tried Not Being A Monster, has been described as “agitprop for Julia Serrano.” Their writing has appeared in VAN, New Classic LA, and National Sawdust Log, and they recently won runner-up at the 2018 Rubin Institute for Music Criticism.
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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