“Inside Voice,” the second of three programs that the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) contributed to Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival this season, abundantly celebrated diversity. This was true of both the guest soloists, who represented multiple cultures, and also the composers whose works they performed. These were winning partnerships, as was the ensemble’s interaction with Vimbayi Kaziboni, a dynamic Zimbabwean-born conductor who is currently on the orchestral studies and contemporary music faculty at Boston Conservatory. Bringing out the singular character of each piece, Kaziboni expertly balanced the myriad elements and gradations of dynamics and texture that were present in the program’s ensemble works.
A diverse array of musical styles was also on offer. The piece that lent its name to the program was written by ICE percussionist and frequent composer-collaborator Nathan Davis. The germ of Inside Voice was Davis’s improvisations on an under-construction Fisk organ in Philadelphia. Pipes weren’t yet hooked up, so the sounds that emanated from the Fisk were those of breath and percussive attacks. Much of Davis’s piece replicates this seldom-heard sound world, juxtaposing unpitched blowing through wind instruments with percussion and plucked and hammered strings—harp, cimbalom, guitar, and double-bass. Ambience was created via discreet amplification.
In his program note, Davis likens the piece’s activities to a noisy child being allowed to explore. The climax of Inside Voice finds the composer finally letting loose, with pitched sounds in thick sonorities permitting the imaginary Fisk to find its voice.
teeth of light, tongue of waves, by Irish composer Ann Cleare, draws its inspiration from paleoceanography, defined in the notes as “the study of oceans across vast geologic eras.” In the piece, scored for soprano, bassoon, bowed guitar, and strings, Cleare interweaves ancient Irish poetry with a more recent text by Irish bilingual writer and poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Soprano Alice Teyssier and bassoonist Rebekah Heller enacted an unconventional-sounding yet intimately wedded duet, with Teyssier frequently singing through a cardboard tube and Heller often playing without a reed. Whispered vocalizations by the ensemble added to the otherworldly atmosphere. The fragility of ecosystems under the threat of climate change was an unspoken yet intrinsic component of this beguiling work.
Clarinetist Joshua Rubin and cimbalom player Nicholas Tolle performed Tre pezzi/Tre altri pezzi by Hungarian composer György Kurtág, engaging miniatures that evoke both Webernian serialism and rustic folk music. Amid a plethora of canons, frequently there is an overlap between decaying notes on the cimbalom and the next clarinet pitch, a clever device that results in a shimmering halo of sound. The intimacy of Merkin Hall makes hearing such delicate effects possible.
By comparison, The Ultimate Poem Is Abstract, by composer-performer Kate Soper, was for ICE writ large, with swelling crescendos and generous scoring of an attractive harmonic palette. It is one of Soper’s most ambitious vocal works, requiring floating high notes and pointed declamation amid thick orchestration. The composer, serving as soloist, began seated in the wind section, her soprano voice conjoined with the ensemble lines.
Eventually, Soper stood and moved to a music stand on the other side of the stage, where she enacted a more soloistic role. Culminating in the Wallace Stevens poem for which she named her work, Soper along the way interpolated a variety of texts: Sontag, Melville, Orwell, Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, and more. Contrasts between voice-as-instrument and passages of more conventional singing, and among segmented texts versus modernist poetry, are engaging and thought-provoking.
The kamancheh is a beautiful, gentle-sounding bowed instrument used in Iranian folk music, and traditional musician Niloufar Shiri is an eloquent exponent of its charms. In Sketch II, composer Anahita Abbasi sought to subvert the kamancheh into something more ominous, which she achieved through amplification and a pervasively strident tape accompaniment. Going against the grain is a legitimate aesthetic approach; here, though, it seemed like a missed opportunity.
The evening culminated with the premiere of a work that celebrated the shamisen, a three-stringed fretless lute used in Japanese traditional music. Dai Fujikura’s Shamisen Concerto, written for Hidejiro Honjoh, initially took the composer outside his comfort zone; traditional music was not in his bailiwick until he met Honjoh, and then made a study of it. The shamisen virtuoso even sent Fujikura an instrument and instruction manual to help him prepare to compose.
Fujikura clearly made the most of his preparation: the concerto is a compelling work that showcases various traditional techniques of the shamisen, while also creating for it music that transcends transcription. A singular feature of the instrument is that its plectrum technique can create distortion. Fujikura exploits this in the work’s outset, both in the solo part and in various imitations throughout the ensemble. This is succeeded by a section in which Honjoh plays rollicking grooves. Chugging rhythms create a rhythmic grid that is complicated by overtone chords from the orchestra.
The intricate contrast wrought by the deployment of these elements causes the piece to transcend any “East meets West” binary. In some places, ensemble harmonies are linked to the shamisen; in others, they threaten to subsume it in a welter of chromaticism. An extended cadenza demonstrates the shamisen’s considerable capabilities to incorporate microtonal glissandos into a pliant environment. A return of the fast music, made more emphatic by greater accord between soloist and ensemble, brings the piece to a rousing conclusion.
Fujikura’s concerto merits many more hearings. One feels confident that ICE will continue to champion the piece.
The International Contemporary Ensemble presents its third and final program in the 2019 Mostly Mozart Festival, a collaboration with the Iranian Female Composers Association, at Bruno Walter Auditorium, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, on Aug. 5 at 7pm; lincolncenter.org
Christian Carey is a composer, performer, musicologist, and writer. His work has been published in Perspectives of New Music, Intégral, Open Space, Tempo, Musical America, Time Out New York, Signal to Noise, Early Music America, Sequenza 21, Pop Matters, All About Jazz, and NewMusicBox. Carey’s research on narrativity in late music by Elliott Carter, presented at IRCAM in Paris on the composer’s 100th birthday, appears in Hommage à Elliott Carter (Editions Delatour). He is Associate Professor of Composition, History, and Theory at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey.
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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