Viewed all at once, the precious objects presently on display in a fifth-floor gallery at The Met Breuer, the eclectic Madison Avenue annex of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, comprise a motley assemblage. At one end stands Ettore Sottsass’s Shiva vase (1973), a proudly phallic ceramic vessel glazed fleshy pink. At the other, an anonymous 19th-century pewter bull effects a regal stance, its head popped off and resting nearby.
Between those points, the eye darts here and there across centuries: a handsome Persian storage jar (circa 3800-3700 B.C.), adorned with mountain goats; a whimsical Fish sculpted around 1947 by Beatrice Wood; a bulging earthenware vase by Joan Miró and Josep Lorens, from 1942; a Qing dynasty vase intricately decorated with dragon boats. The Ming Sisters, three quirky earthenware sibling vessels crafted in 2003 by Betty Freeman, pull your gaze toward the center. Beautiful items all, they form a riotous cacophony of impressions together.
Listen, though, and you hear harmony—literally. Oliver Beer, a British artist born in 1985, selected these specific items from the vast holdings of the Met Museum not for their visual congruity, but for their sonic properties. The natural resonance of each object, discreetly amplified with a goose-necked microphone that makes no contact, is linked to a digital keyboard discreetly tucked to one side of the display.
Shiva vase, it turns out, vibrates in B natural. The ancient Persian vase supplies an E just below the bass clef. Two Ming Sisters, still lower, sing in D and E-flat; the third, the D an octave up. Sans head, the bull produces a B-flat. Using the keyboard, a performer can opt for sustained or staccato tones, and sudden or gradual attack. At full muster, the 32 items that comprise Vessel Orchestra offer a chromatic scale from low C to high G, in tones that can recall a chamber organ, a calliope, or a frictionless glass harmonica.
Years in the planning and execution and involving multiple Met departments, according to museum executives and curators who spoke during a press preview on July 1, Vessel Orchestra is the first sound-oriented installation ever commissioned by the museum. The piece is designed to function in two modes. During regular museum hours, the assemblage gently sounds out a dreamy composition pre-programmed by Beer. But the Met also invited a smart array of diverse guest artists to perform live, on and with the vessels, for a series of Friday evening concerts. What’s more, those artists and others – including Beer himself – will traipse into the gallery during daytime hours for open rehearsals and unannounced pop-up concerts.
During that press preview, Met curators described how the project had come to be, and Beer explained the whys and wherefores behind his choices. Afterward, the vocalist Helga Davis urged everyone to move in close, and to try singing along with the piece. Davis – among whose manifold talents is a striking capacity for encouraging audience participation – soon had much of the assembled crowd crooning softly to notes played by her collaborator, the keyboardist Ted Cruz.
“Did you hear, for just one second there, that your voice goes inside the sound of the vessel?” Davis asked. “Say no if you didn’t.” She repeated the experiment; this time, more audience members appeared to nod in assent. “Do you hear where you go away and come back? It’s so cool!”
Demonstration concluded, Davis dictated a pattern of notes for Cruz to play, over which she recited “Where Is Peace?,” an idiosyncratic litany of sentiments that she deemed ideal for pairing with the hybrid instrument: “Peace is that last plain cupcake with chocolate buttercream frosting in your mouth / Peace is that after all these years, the dress still fits.” When she sang a signature original, “Wanna,” her operatic range and infectious passion mixed enchantingly with Cruz’s simple patterns and sinuous harmonies. (Davis and Cruz return for a public performance on July 19.)
The Vessel Orchestra was pressed into active duty twice the next day. An 11am pop-up presentation found the inventive viol player Liam Byrne collaborating with Cleek Schrey on hardanger fiddle and Aaron Cantrell at the orchestra’s keyboard. Facing Cantrell from the opposite side of the narrow gallery at the start of their performance, Byrne and Schrey eased slowly into a somber meditation, their warm, dark strings purring over the keyboard’s sonorous tones and broad intervals.
Later in the afternoon, the inquisitive keyboardist Bruce Brubaker took over the console for an open rehearsal in preparation for his July 5 public concert, which he would share with the similarly adventuresome vocal ensemble Ekmeles. A brief check-in at 2pm found Brubaker getting acquainted with the unique instrument by working his way through a familiar piece by Philip Glass—of whose music this pianist was an early and compelling champion.
Unsurprisingly, Glass was on the agenda for the first Vessel Orchestra concert on Friday evening, played for an audience that filled the intimate gallery to capacity during the first of two brief sets. (A tip for would-be audience members: arrive early.) Ekmeles opened with Waves, a new composition by the baritone Jeffrey Gavett, the ensemble’s founder and leader. Gathered around Gavett at the keyboard, the singers – the sopranos Charlotte Mundy and Amber Evans, and the bass Steven Hrycelak – produced moody note clusters and obliquely leaping, dancing patterns over the orchestra’s rumbles and peals.
Brubaker assumed the keyboard for two unaccompanied works: an appropriately floating rendition of John Cage’s Dream (punctuated with chance pings contributed by a nearby elevator) and a lithe account of Terry Riley’s rippling Keyboard Study No. 2. Ekmeles countered with Breadmaking, a marvelously appealing Forrest Pierce composition that cast Mundy as a stylishly emphatic storyteller, delivering a Rumi text (in an English translation by Coleman Barks) over sustained drones and subtly fantastical vocalizations from fellow singers and vessels alike.
Together, Brubaker and Ekmeles produced a hybrid befitting the occasion: as the keyboardist played Glass’s early, insistent Two Pages, the singers improvised harmonic clouds that sounded ideally idiomatic. Following one last Brubaker performance – Indescort, from the 15th century Codex Faenza – Ekmeles closed the set with another keen improvisation: a stately processional incorporating Beer’s pre-programmed composition.
All told, the program indicated beyond any doubt that the Vessel Orchestra is well matched to any task for which an organ might be used; in early music and modern works derived from a European classical tradition, the unlikely conglomeration proves eminently amenable. Subsequent concerts by artists like Matana Roberts (July 19 at 7:30pm) and John Zorn (August 9 at 6:15pm) might well test the instrument’s capacities more broadly.
Admittedly, hearing ancient Chinese and Persian implements pressed into service for an essentially European harmonic conception prompts questions of colonialism and cultural hegemony—notions that might be addressed, or not, in upcoming concerts by the Lebanese synth-pop band Mashrou’ Leila (July 12 at 6:30pm) and the local Indian-fusion ensemble Brooklyn Raga Massive (July 26 at 6:30pm). Taken strictly as an enterprising assemblage of sonorous objects, however, the Vessel Orchestra manages to transcend sociopolitical concerns, offering a subtly utopian notion of harmony spanning ages and erasing borders.
Oliver Beer: Vessel Orchestra is on view at The Met Breuer through August 11. Sporadic open rehearsals and pop-up concerts will be presented throughout the exhibition’s run; Friday evening concerts, which start at varying times, are presented free with museum admission. More information: metmuseum.org
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