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Keyboards, Bells and Birds

New York
DiMenna Center for Classical Music
08/24/2023 -  
Michelle Lou: Different Furs
James Diaz: negative mercury
Anthony Cheung: Tactile Values (World Premiere)

Yarn/Wire: Laura Barger, Julia Den Boer (Pianists), Russell Greenberg, Sae Hashimoto (Percussionists)

Yarn/Wire (© Mark Sommerfeld)

Anthony Cheung’s Holding Patterns was like Scriabin on crack, never letting go of its whirling inspiration.
Review in ConcertoNet

Now first, the name “Yarn/Wire” does not denote a derelict textile factory in rural North Carolina. Though the nominal resemblance is palpable. The truth is the opposite. For 20 years, Yarn/Wire has been astounding audiences with a most unlikely ensemble, whose oddity is only the start of its accomplishment.

An assemblage of two pianists and two percussionists is unique, of course. Yet this is only the foundation for Yarn/Wire. Last night, these four employed an electronic keyboard (just a microtone below Laura Barger’s simultaneous regular piano), The wires inside the piano were used by both keyboard artists. Electronic effects took 20 minutes to set up for Michelle Lou’s Different Furs. The percussionist pair eschewed the humdrum drum‑hum of timpani and snares, plunking for a series of vibraphones, hanging bells, plucking at the extended piano, sawing, jingling, tapping, swirling their sounds.

And if that couldn’t be topped, a cryptic black miniature curtain in the middle of the stage revealed at the end of Ms. Lou’s work–spoiler alert!–a little puppet (actually probably a marionette) walking back and forth in rhythm to the electronic click‑clack serving as the foundation for her Different Furs.

The ensemble for all three works was utterly fascinating. The only negative diversion came with the composers’ program notes. Except for Anthony Cheung’s lack of written notes for his Tactile Visions, the composers wrote etudes in verbosity.

Ms. Lou’s references to the “Pythagorean Veil” (a veiled reference to her draped puppet) led to “the opportunity to further distort space and add another discursive element.” Mr. Diaz augmented his negative mercury by describing how “the transformation of color and texture serves as metaphor for time warping...to a sonic collapsing journey.”

Nice words, well meant. Yet somehow detracting–at least for this Philistine–from the sheer wonders of the music.

J. Diaz/A. Cheung (© Courtesy of the Artist/Camille Tokerud)

The occasion was part of an ongoing TIME:SPANS series of contemporary music at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, two splendid weeks, which I sadly had to miss.

Of the trio played here, Michelle Lou’s Different Furs was not only the longest (far far too long, I felt) but music which escaped the concert hall and went deep into the forests. Along with pianos and percussion bells, the electronic sounds were further and further into nature itself. First the sounds of cicadas, then birds, then humming sounds (where the hell is my mosquito spray?) and then into the revelation when the curtain was pulled aside to reveal the puppet.

All of this with the clacking walking sound. Less like musical motive, more like a quiet manic obsession.

At first the work sounded like a takeoff on Einojuhani Rautavaara electronical avian Concerto for Birds and Orchestra. But no, something more elemental was developing. And then I realized that, had Béla Bartók lived for another 70 years, had he the futuristic resources of Yarn/Wire, this would have been his frequent “Night Music”.

Anthony Cheung has been one of the most innovative and original living composers and his Tactile Visions exemplified thoughts and composition. His idea, simplified, was to construct the “third dimension” to two‑dimensional paintings. That, though, was secondary to a perfectly symmetrical work (without electronic effects) for pianos and the panoply of percussion.

The sounds were classical paintings in themselves. One could almost superlay a 4/4 symmetry to the meter. One could imagine colors applied, swirled, shaped dried (a silence) and then dying to the essence itself. I feel guilty saying this was “pleasing”, but that was the effect.

Finally, the very talented Jason Diaz created negative mercury. He confessed that the title was “intentionally open‑ended and ambiguous.” True, after the first five minutes, the mixture of off‑key piano, soft percussion and electronics seemed unstructured. The first five minutes, though, were like the music to a 23rd Century Noh theater. Pointillistic, acute, with jagged pianissimo interruptions. Those sections contained both atmosphere, finespun texture, and the sounds of utter surprise.

Harry Rolnick



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