Being a musician who composes and performs is hardly a new mode of music-making. Even within the narrow confines of classical music, artists who composed and perform have a long, rich legacy stretching back as far as we have even the scantest historical records. That lineage was on full display on Feb. 7 at 1 Rivington, where Metropolis Ensemble presented “Soloicity,” an evening of nine composer-performers playing solo works with electronics, curated by Molly Joyce.
Just as the concert blurred the lines between creation and interpretation, many of the artists blurred lines between traditional genre categories. Margaret Davis combined her classical harp training and her jazz singing in a piece in two parts: the first built around lush, rolling harp chords and a languid vocal melody draped across the top in a smoky jazz-club gymnopédie; the second full of churning minimalist textures and an expert use of varied registers.
Carla Canales’s combination of opera, flamenco, and electronica was less successful. Her voice is lovely and rich, especially in the lower registers, but it felt disconnected from the beats and ambient washes pouring out of the speakers behind her. The moments that popped – a surprise flip into an operatic timbre in her upper register to represent aliens from outer space, or the aching warmth in her voice in the opening stanza of a song about three women on a futile quest for olives – weren’t enough to tie her set into a satisfying whole.
Other works were so stylistically syncretic they became wholly their own thing. Anna Meadors’s self-described “planned improvisation” for saxophone and electronics darted about with the quicksilver flurry of minnows flashing out of sight in a crystalline brook, while Emily Wells tried to bring the energy of a dance club to the concert hall with “Love Saves the Day”—an effort hampered by a static ostinato that hung in the background like a wet blanket and kept the beat from truly catching fire.
Sarah Goldfeather provided three songs that offered a nightmare funhouse-mirror take on Carly Rae Jepson–style upbeat pop. Distorted harmonies and unexpected textural changes sat under vocal lines that never quite landed where you thought they would, with pointed lyrics – full of uncomfortable assertions like “I need you to tell me who I’m supposed to be; you know better than me” – that deconstructed the objectified vision of women presented in so many pop songs by taking that vision to its creepy logical extreme. Goldfeather’s songs are simultaneously deeply disconcerting and outrageously fun, and she can turn on a dime from dopey to terrifying.
Angélica Negrón provided a similarly broad, if subtler, range. Using her signature setup of musical produce – an array of fruits and vegetables wired to produce notes whenever she touches them – she offered two songs: the first a whimsical romp featuring a twinkly cauliflower solo; the second, which she described as being about “the visceral feeling in your stomach the morning you wake up after losing someone you love,” a hauntingly numb evocation of desolation. The final gesture was crumpling a piece of paper into a reverb-drenched microphone; I do not understand how this piece worked its alchemical magic, but I found my eyes wet with tears.
Negrón’s simple closing gesture resonated with the works on the program that made much out of spare materials. The first half of Lea Bertucci’s piece comprised only long held notes in the upper register of her alto sax paired with sustained electronic pitches packed with sufficient volume and density to induce ghost tones, an artificial tinnitus; the second half added needling trills that turned into elaborate ornaments for a fey and jagged melody as carefree as a knife. Joyce inhabited similar territory, relating sonic immobility to certain constraints of physical disability. She sang thin, keening vocal lines over static, nasal synth clusters, most of them confined to a stratospheric ringing, with occasional low notes providing the moody, effective harmonic shifts.
The evening opened with a plainspoken work on guitar by Liz Faure. A delicate rain of pure harmonics led to a melancholic turn and an unhurried middle steeped in an ancient weariness of radiant transcendence. Emotionally, it looked to the past, but musically it felt fresh. As such, it was a fitting way to start a concert that took the ancient phenomenon of the composer-performer and showed its continued vibrant presence in the world today.
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.