On Saturday Night, Composers, Inc., a Bay Area nonprofit advocate of contemporary music, presented a richly varied program that included no fewer than six world premiers at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley. BAMM (Bay Area Modern Music) is a subsidiary program of Composers, Inc. that specifically gives voice to established and emerging local artists.
The program opened with Sonnet XX by Ursula Kwong-Brown, a graduate student at UC Berkeley, and winner of BAMM’s Student Composer Competition.This substantial piece for solo cello was inspired by a poem of Pablo Neruda and composed over the course of seven years. It wedded singing lyricism with intricate technique including a repertoire of well-placed squeaks, scrapes, harmonics and other devices that jibed surprisingly smoothly with the piece’s melodic aspects. Cellist Leighton Fong executed the performance with finesse.
Next was A Few Weeks by Ryan Rey, a series of four miniature character pieces.The performers, the intrepid Travis Andrews and Andrew Meyerson of the guitar-percussion duo Living Earth Show, were fun to watch.They were both animated and bobbed rhythmically to keep time as they played, coordinating important transitions with glances and nods that demonstrated their musical and personal rapport.They are virtuosic players to boot, and deftly delivered Rey’s clever, energetic, warmly inviting snapshots. After this performance, one thing was clear: this was a concert where audience, performers, and composers alike were allowed to enjoy themselves rather than sit in stiff concentration.
The very name of the next performance ensemble,Wild Rumpus, seemed to confirm this sentiment.They played a piece by Jen Wang, their co-founder and artistic director. Adrogué was a setting of a poem by Jorge Luís Borges with subtle instrumental writing that created a darkly shifting texture.However, there were many moments when the singer, Vanessa Lange, could not be heard clearly over the ten musicians accompanying her. Given Wang’s note that she loved “the murky, dreamlike language…in the poem” and wanted “to capture that ambiguity,” it is unclear whether this was a deliberate or accidental case of under-amplification.
The standout piece of the evening was Osiris, by Ken Ueno, a professor of composition at UC Berkeley.The piece’s program note was conspicuous in its minimalism: “Osiris is a visceral meditation that reflects upon geopolitical tension. It seeks to exorcise these tensions through an act that is cathartic.” During the intermission three orchestral bass drums were set up left, right, and center stage, and as the house lights dimmed three blindfolded performers (Ueno and the members of Living Earth Show) were each guided to a drum.
They sat, as if meditating, for a long time. There was a palpable sense of intrigued silence in the church, punctuated by the occasional fidget and cough from the audience and the faint sounds other performers warming up behind the stage door. Then, suddenly, Ueno raised his mallet at struck his drum with all his might. The sound was like a physical shock. At planned intervals the other performers began striking their drums too. Then, after several minutes, came a second shock: a brief but blood-curdling scream from Ueno, and again the other performers eventually followed suit.
These two sounds, the drum stroke and the scream, would be the only things the audience would hear for the next ten or so minutes. The piece’s effectiveness was built upon the tightly finessed slow-paced rhythmic interaction of the three parts, the solemn-yet-wild charisma of the performers, and the thrill of hearing a brashly unapologetic concept pushed to its absolute limit. For one person, at least, it was too much; after the climax, a man near the front who had been plugging his ears with his fingers stood up and walked out, the tapping of his shoes creating a pregnant counterpoint to Osiris. But the vast majority of us remained, fascinated by this unforgettable sonic experience. The fearlessness of the performers was infectious, and I found myself occasionally wishing that I were onstage too, banging and screaming my heart out alongside them. If more people had the courage to execute their visions with such aplomb, the world would surely be a more interesting place.
Two pieces for flute, cello, and piano, periphery by Danny Clay, and …none of us were overly concerned…by Nick Benavides formed a welcome respite to all this intensity. Clay’s piece was beautiful in the way that the slow movement of a Mozart Sonata can be beautiful: soothing, evocative, harmonically pure and carefully crafted. His tasteful inclusion of electronic sounds contributed to an aura of delicate calm that the audience seemed unwilling to disturb with any kind of rustling or even breathing. Benavides’ piece dovetailed nicely with this placid mood, but was less ambient and more motivic, and its calm belied a surprisingly dark inspiration: the piece’s title was derived from a 1988 quote by a military scientist regarding the “dangerous attitude of negligence” that pervaded the research and application of Agent Orange. Both pieces were performed by members of the Guerilla Composers Ensemble.
The final piece on the program, the moment before death stretches on forever, like an ocean of time… was composed by Nick Vasallo, one of the Artistic Directors of Composers, Inc., and performed by Wild Rumpus. In the program note, Vasallo cagily explained, “This piece was composed between February 2 and March 8, 2015 using an Excel spreadsheet. There are no measures, downbeats, or barlines. The structure isn’t delegated by melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic elements.” Given such a cryptic description I half-expected a mechanical-sounding mess. As it turned out, every moment of the music felt natural, emotional, and expertly constructed. It was thrilling, and the performers looked like they were having a blast. This piece written on a computer program was one of the most organic and affecting of the evening.
Leaving the concert and walking through the streets of Berkeley, I was overtaken by a sensation I frequently experience after concerts like this: that every sound is music. A car engine revving down the street, a couple’s laughter spilling out of an open window, a rat rustling in a hedge, and the sound of my own shoes on the sidewalk all seemed like interesting and pleasurable noises. I could easily imagine they were parts of a composition naturally arising around me. Whereas most concerts of classical music seek to keep extraneous noises out, (imagine screaming like Ken Ueno during a performance of a Beethoven symphony), concerts of new music often seek to invite noises in. They also curate sounds that explore the full gamut of human experience from the abrasive and brutal to the sublime and harmonious. In doing so, they invite listeners to hear all of their own surroundings and experiences as potentially musical, and for some of us, this attitude lies at the heart of what it means to be a musician.