2012 MATA Festival
Friday, April 20
Better than: Figuring out how to play the Koyaanisqatsi German Blu-ray on an American TV.
Between Charles de Gaulle interpreted by a coloratura soprano, a Deliverance-style duel pitting a player piano against a live pianist, and a 13-piece chamber suite that called for one member to swing a red plastic whirly tube over his head, this year’s MATA Festival proved beyond a doubt that it’s still a strange world. Representing 19 composers from four continents, MATA is the contemporary classical equivalent of the U.N. General Assembly, with co-founder Philip Glass presiding as its champion and secretary-general. The enigmatic composer did make an appearance at downtown Brooklyn avant-garde performance space Roulette. By all signs he seemed to enjoy the otherworldly sounds, but staying true to his minimalist past, Glass never took the mic.
With few dissenting votes, relative consensus emerged for 2012—lyricism is out, post-industrial drone is in. As John Cage’s 100th birthday approaches, one can’t help but think that the downtown progenitor would have been pleased with the shape of experimental music to come.
If Grizzly Bear captures the feel of Brooklyn, this festival captures the borough’s sound. The whir of motors, the thunderclap of jackhammers, the asphalt jungle in all its clangorous pandemonium; like the mathematicians who found order in nature through fractal geometry, these young composers find a certain dystopian poetry and controlled chaos in postmodern urban existence. Inspired by pioneers like Varese, Ligeti, and Stockhausen as much as they are by more contemporary denizens of the underground noise scene, a caustic brutalism, mixed with a sense of absurdist humor, pervades much of the work. Those who don’t get the wink might be tempted to feel like stones are being hurled into the audience.
On Friday, the first stone was cast by Brooklyn-based multimedia artist and composer Jacob Cooper, with “alla stagion dei fior,” the third part of a tonal video triptych on death and opera. (The first two incorporated Bizet’s Carmen and Michael Jackson’s 1993 Super Bowl halftime show performance.) Cooper used slowed-down footage from Puccini’s La Bohème laid over a synthesized trance track to delve into the high melodrama of life’s decisive moments.
David Coll’s Position, Influence brought something completely different, with the effervescent soprano Mellissa Hughes channeling Charles de Gaulle by way of Sarah Palin in a sprechstimme reminiscent of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. Playing on de Gaulle’s 1968 exhortation against the student protests, “Je ne me retirerai pas,” Hughes reduced the French demagogue’s stentorian posturing to a guttural sound and fury through a laryngophone, a small mic attached to the throat. Meant as a liberal commentary on the Occupy protests, the piece skewers blustering conservative rhetoric and passes it through a proverbial food processor for frighteningly comic effect.
Eric Wubbels’s irresistibly dark Viola Quartet turns the spotlight on the violin’s oft-forgotten, more ungainly cousin, that one on the outer edge of the Facebook photo that remains untagged. No offense to the viola, but here Wubbels deals in the aesthetics of failure, a dissonant spectral vomiting in fits and starts that at times seemed to deconstruct Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor, what might be expected if Morton Feldman were brought back from the dead to score a John Carpenter film. The chilling piece became more harmonically and rhythmically complex until it resolved into a sustained pedal, though not so much to dispel the lingering fear that some malevolent force still lurked somewhere beyond the proscenium.
Ivan Ferrer-Orozco’s Traces IV: Anamnesis was the most overtly philosophical piece, a duet between player piano and pianist Kathleen Supové. For fashion alone, Supové was the clear victor, not to mention possibly the only classical pianist to perform in purple spandex. Though like any good man-versus-machine battle for supremacy—the Terminator franchise, Kasparov and Deep Blue, Watson on Jeopardy!—the deck was stacked against the human. Faced with a technically demanding score lacking a tonal center, the machine had a distinct advantage. Anamnesis refers to Plato’s concept of reaching eternal truths through soul-searching, and Ferrer-Orozco bears out the argument in Phaedo until it rises to a Xenakis-like catharsis, with Supové handily routing the stiff player piano with a series of soulful chords.
The night then took a more mystical tone with Alex Freeman’s enchanting Magnolia, an ambient solo piece performed by consummate Finnish kantele player Eva Alkula. The kantele is a 39-string harp-like instrument native to Finland,; Freeman fully explored its five-octave range through phantasmagorical arpeggios and glissandi that were often sublime.
The Italian composer Francesco Filidei’s Ballata n.2, a large-scale MATA commission and world premiere, brought the festival to a fitting conclusion. Performed by the 13-piece Ensemble Signal, an avant-garde chamber group led by the venerable conductor Brad Lubman, Filidei’s brass-heavy composition is built on a descending chromatic scale, a sort of post-apocalyptic update of Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome.
Filidei was the most sartorially outlandish composer, donning the black robe and white shirt of a Buddhist retreat, as well as black combat boots that made him seem more like a Jedi warrior than an indie-classical luminary. Throughout the piece, many of the members of Ensemble Signal doubled on unconventional percussion instruments, several of which could be bought at the local toy store—the grogger, buzzing bow, and whistling whirly tube. As the pianist swung the red plastic tube faster and faster, a high-pitched whistle cut above the cacophonous din, and suddenly, the audience wasn’t in downtown Brooklyn anymore, but in a land far, far away.
Critical bias: Been playing John Cage’s 4’33” on loop for the past 25 years.
Overheard: “We told Francesco no percussion, so he went around us and brought his own.”—MATA Artistic Director Yotam Haber
Random notebook dump:/b> Bit of a musical Odyssey—Scylla and Charybdis, sirens, Circe’s Cave—but where’s the Cyclops?