Among the seven composers represented on a new-music concert program mounted at St. John’s in the Village on Dec. 15, the two that caught my eye – Sarah Hennies and Kate Soper – are known best for performing their own works. Of the remaining composers on the bill, I was familiar with Bethany Younge and Kayleigh Butcher—the latter strictly as a member of the excellent Quince Vocal Ensemble. The others – Alessandro Perini, Andrea L. Scartazzini, and Daniel Tacke – I’ll admit to not knowing, despite their impressive credentials.
Kudos, then, to panSonus – the duo of vocalist, conductor, and composer Amber Evans and percussionist-sound artist Jon Clancy – for making an impression before a single note had been sounded. As New York City debut concerts go, this was a gutsy first date.
Admittedly, it was a lot of unfamiliar fare to take in at once, particularly from a new group whose chemistry remained to be demonstrated. But the performers offered a concise statement in their program, explaining just what they had in mind.
This program focuses on different ways in which the human voice (and its primary resonant cavity, the mouth) and the perception thereof can be altered and obscured, and how resonant objects, spaces, and varying degrees of dramaturgy can contribute to these alterations. The program is bookended with works by Sarah Hennies, which serve to focus collective attention on how sounds move and change in space, and how the collective sense of the passage of time can be heightened and/or altered.
Stated simply, the works panSonus assembled for this thoughtful program had to do with sound, its production, and its distribution. The duo also played fast and loose with expectations of what a singer and a percussionist might be expected to do in a program together, mixing up roles and blurring conventional borders.
Psalm 3, a 2009 Hennies composition, set the stage dramatically. The piece is a thing of elemental simplicity: a player strikes a woodblock, steadily and repeatedly, for around five minutes. In a 2017 National Sawdust Loginterview, Hennies had this to say about the piece:
I don’t feel that music is a great tool for political protest, but I do think it’s a great tool for getting people to see that the world is a different place than they thought it was. In some sense, everything that I’ve been doing in the last 10 years is about having that experience.
True enough: Striking the woodblock steadily across all of its surfaces and edges unleashes an unanticipated flurry of impact tones, overtones, and resonances that echo throughout whatever room it’s being played in. As much as Psalm 3 is about sound, it’s also about expectation being confronted; Clancy’s steady hand and the church’s intimate yet lively acoustic combined to produce not simplicity, but sublimity.
Her Disappearance, jointly composed in 2015 by Butcher and Younge, was more a thing of distance, dislocation, and distortion. Stationed facing one another on opposite sides of the church, Clancy and Evans huffed, hissed, warbled, and intoned a brief poetic text written by the composers, directing their sounds into and around the mouths of two five-foot lengths of PVC pipe. Delivering confrontational verses about silence denied, a voice stilled, and breath giving out, the vocalists were rendered eerie, unearthly, flamboyant, at times deliberately unlovely.
Two further pieces relied on sly visual disconnects. Performing Perini’s Three Studies for Two Voices (2017), Evans and Clancy took seats at a table in a darkened room, their faces dimly illuminated from below. As they opened and closed their mouths, tiny speakers hidden within produced genial bleeps, windy hisses, buzzes, and ticks. Beyond the considerable initial whimsy – here I’ll note that Perini’s score specifies vowels shaped as if in Swedish – you still could appreciate sounds shaped by obviously well-trained apertures and cavities.
Aura (2000), by Scartazzini, flipped the script, obscuring not the sound-producing implements but their performers. Seated out of view behind a tam-tam and a bass drum draped with a black cloth skirt, Evans intoned dark-hued wordless melodic lines, accompanied by both musicians with rumbles, crashes, and shimmering bell tones. You heard a ritualistic drama unfolding in the air, while having no gestures or expressions with which to contextualize the sounds. Yet here, paradoxically, was where Evans’s prowess as a vocalist, in the traditional sense of beauty, finesse, and power, finally was revealed.
Beauty and finesse were also abundant in Tacke’s Abend (2012), but wedded less to power than to delicacy and restraint. A setting of a text by Rainer Maria Rilke, the 12-minute piece is filled with potent silences, each gesture – whether tender or brusque – deployed with the deliberation of Zen brushwork. Yet despite its measured surface affect, the music teems with arresting detail: the gorgeously floating sensation that accompanied the words “bald begrenzt und bald begriefend” (“now delimited, now encompassing”); the percussionist vocalizing to give the word “Stein” (“stone”) a hard edge and weight; the seemingly endless A-flat Evans held on the final word, “Gestirn” (“star”); the pause, still longer, before Clancy played the work’s brittle coda alone. Despite merry choral sounds wafting in from a celebration down a nearby hallway, Evans and Clancy performed with complete clarity and focus.
Crossing the stage, Clancy moved without pause into “The Crito” (2013), a section of Soper’s ingenious chamber-theater cycle Ipsa Dixit. Joining him, Evans sang the work’s dreamy introduction gorgeously. The piece is treacherously difficult, calling not just for a singer with ample skill on a variety of percussion instruments, but also for a percussionist who can declaim lines with an actor’s clarity and commitment. This panSonus account was the first I’d encountered apart from that of Soper and her Wet Ink colleague, Ian Antonio, and the experience was illuminating. Evans was equal to Soper the composer’s considerable demands, making certain florid phrases and passages sound even more lovely than their creator does, but as yet lacks something of Soper the performer’s imperious edge. Likewise, Clancy skillfully navigated tangled thickets of disparate techniques and effects Soper tailored to Antonio’s abilities, and narrated clearly, but fell somewhat short of Antonio’s physical ease, verbal forcefulness, and boyish characterization. No doubt this worthy interpretation will continue to grow and deepen; as it is, this still was a courageous achievement and a marvel to witness.
The concert ended, as it had begun, with sonic apparitions conjured by Hennies—now in Flourish, a 2013 vibraphone duet. A quiet prelude, played by Clancy, calls for each note to be struck with one mallet while another mallet slides along the same bar to dampen it, creating the illusion of metal flexing. From there, Clancy and Evans played the same instrument from opposite sides, tapping out simple, steady patterns from which wafted clouds of overtones, interference patterns, and wobbly rhythmic slippage. As in Psalm 3, sonic phenomena caused by natural forces, or by performance variations too subtle to register clearly in the moment, yielded hypnotic results. Concluding with a magical passage of gently brushed strokes, Flourish ended a heady program on a note of enigma, rather than bravura—one more bold stroke in a concert that already had offered so many.
Steve Smith is director of publications for National Sawdust and editor of National Sawdust Log. He previously worked as a freelance contributor to The New York Times, and as a staff writer and editor for the Boston Globe and Time Out New York. www.nightafternight.com
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