Among the audience at Experimental Intermedia, the Chinatown loft and performance space doubling as the home of composer and media artist Phill Niblock, a tacit consensus was taking shape: The optimal way to hear the evening’s music – two meditative works by Niblock and the experimental composer Catherine Lamb – was to close your eyes.
Much of the Berlin-based Lamb’s music is comprised of slow-moving, sustained drones, derived from her experiments with just intonation. Simply put, if the pitches of the standard 12-tone scale represent a palette of 12 colors, then the pitches available by applying principles of just intonation represent the rest of the crayon box. These pitches – which Lamb refers to as “interacting spectra” – vibrate in a manner distinct from the 12-tone system. We feel them differently than we would the pitches to which we are accustomed.
Lamb’s Parallaxis Forma, written for Norway’s Ensemble neoN in 2014, derives its title from the phenomenon of parallax, the difference in an object’s apparent position when viewed via two distinct sightlines. The group’s vocalist, Silje Aker Johnsen, sang muted syllables as the other players – saxophonist Ida Kristine Zimmermann Olsen, flutist Yumi Murakami, Kristine Tjøgersen playing bass clarinet, cellist Kaja Aadne Thoresen, pianist Heloisa Amaral on synthesizer, and percussionist Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen on wine glasses, with the composer on viola – sustained quiet tones. Pitches sleepily sank and rose to the surface. One musician would hold a pitch that another would then sponge up, the ensemble in a state of absorption and release.
Lamb’s music reacquaints you with listening as an act involving the entire body, not merely the ears. Her tuning results in chords that jostle you into peculiar clarity, wherein stillness and motion appear one and the same. After some time, scales began to take shape in the vocal line, each with an increasing number of notes, a kind of motion that seemed to turn even more acutely inward.
As extraneous sounds – sirens from outside, the loft’s hyperactive telephone – careened through the space, the work’s spell largely prevailed. (Following enough disturbances, however, Lamb motioned to the group to stop and restart in so calm a manner the break might have been written in.)
The endless, gravelly chords of Niblock’s To Two Tea Roses (2012), for a group of unspecified size and instrumentation, press themselves against your skull. (Ensemble neoN’s new recording of this work and Lamb’s piece is due for imminent release on the Norwegian label Hubro.) A grandfather of New York’s experimental music and multimedia art scene, Niblock works often with long, sustained drones and layering, creating an atmosphere in which even tiny shifts exert physical power. The ensemble produced fat, omnipresent chords: one group held a triad in A major, and the other a three-note cluster comprising the notes D-flat, D, and E-flat.
Over the course of the piece, the pitches began to shift, so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, yet their arrivals at more familiar pitches were palpable. They seemed to swell, accumulating heaviness. As in Lamb’s contribution, you sensed movement even with the ensemble in apparent stasis. When you closed your eyes, you could feel the sound pressing against your heart.
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 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified a performer who participated in this concert. The cellist was Kaja Aadne Thoresen, a guest, not ensemble member Inga Grytås Byrkjeland.
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