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The Strings From Elysium Versus The Wurlitzer From Hell

New York
Le Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleeker Street
12/04/2008 -  & December 5, 2008
Andrew Norman: Gran Turismo, for eight violins
Arvo Pärt: Tabula Rasa, for violin, viola, string orchestra and prepared piano
Jeff Myers: Metamorphosis, for violin, string orchestra and piano
Tim Hecker: (No title) for keyboards, radio, computer and pedals

Yuki Numata (violin), Nadia Sirota (viola), Vicky Chow (piano)
Wordless Music Orchestra, Ryan McAdams (Conductor)

Le Poisson Rouge, once the fabled Village Gate, is the most confounding venue in all New York. To enter, your wrist is banded (like a carrier pigeon or chemotherapy patient). The layout is a fuliginous labyrinth, the tables laid out like a restaurant, in a cavern, the lights too dark for reading, the drinks and food served (as in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre) throughout the concerts, and the audio is intimate enough for a Monteverdi opera (which has been performed) or the most ferociously loud wall of sound (heard last night and tonight).

Performed here is bluegrass music, a woman playing a Bach suite, some good jazz, maybe a drama, Steve Reich or a Gospel group. Or like last night, the young string ensemble, Wordless Music Orchestra, four contemporary composers, a violin soloist who must be heard to be believed, and a quartet of the most intriguing music of this or last century.

That heavenly violin was by Vancouver-born Yuki Namata, who partnered violist Nadia Sirota for 25 minutes of trance-like bliss in Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa. The first movement was typical of the Estonian composer, the tangles of major triads in the orchestra, the overlapping tensions of the strings and the repetition of one theme building upon itself over and over again with its bell-like sonorities. Unique, though was the prepared piano, and the two fiddles—yes, this was fiddle music—moving with improvised speed against the orchestra. Both Misses Numata and Sirota formed the kind of team that could have been playing Duelling Banjoes, had that music been written for a 12th Century church.

The second movement, Silentium, does not have that ease of movement. The orchestra could be a soundscape (see below), and the two string players seemingly meander above it until fading out to a kind of medieval netherworld. But it was played so gorgeously that falling into the dream was not difficult.

Ms. Numata had the solo work for herself in Jeff Myers’ Metamorphosis, a finely textured work for the string orchestra, which becomes more and more complex, while the soloist spins out more and more difficult yet beautifully lyrical works. I cannot imagine any other violinist who could make this extremely difficult work seem so fluid, so easy. But then, Ms. Numata has frequently played Mr. Myers’ work. Yet, oh, how I would like to heart if again, since one hearing, while enjoyable, left the structure somewhat puzzling.

The first work, Andrew Norman’s Gran Turismo, was anything but enigmatic. Written for eight violins standing in a circle, with conductor Ryan McAdams leading the octet, it worked like a concerto grosso—except that every single player became a soloist. The moto perpetuum started off like a Steve Reich joy-ride, but soon each soloist was echoing, glissandi, pizzicato, all the tricks of the trade, sometimes together, sometimes across this magical circle. It was a delightful to hear, and must have been great fun to play.

This was the heavenly half of the program. Hell came after 15 minutes pause. This was Tim Hecker’s untitled half-hour in total darkness save for few a light on his computer. Now program notes are sparse at Le Poisson Rouge, and I—being one of the uninitiated—would have loved reading just a few notes of explanation, though none were forthcoming. Instead, Mr. Hecker took his place in darkness, and his wall of sound quietly started to drown out the conversation at the tables.

First to make its sound known, then as the voices died down, the wall of sound rose up to a candent glow, and didn’t relent until the last seconds With loudspeakers strewn over Le Poisson Rouge, the sound wall was absolutely deafening—but every minute was different. Mr. Hecker scores this piece partly for “pedals”, and all I could think about were those old movies of theatre Wurlitzer organs, with the most godawful clunky pop music being played.

(The sound was brilliantly parodied by Vincent Price in the Doctor Phibes series).

In fact, under the wall of sound—for Mr. Hecker is a famed “sound artist”—could be faintly heard simple tunes. Little tonic-dominant modulations, a repeating of the notes B-C-E, and other pedaled motifs of no particular value.

A few dozen people tripped out through the darkness to the exits, but I stayed on. First, because I’d rather be in hell with non-believers than heaven with the religious. Second, I rather enjoyed these palpitant, throbbing vibrations. Third, I imagined after these inside-the-crater earth-shaking noise-walls, the composer might have a surprise ending. Maybe he would come out of the darkness, do a little jig, play Dixie on a Hohner harmonica.

No, the sounds simply petered out. And frankly, being naïve and ignorant, I loved the pedaled tunes and the arena-sized unnamable fortress of Bedlam.

In other words, just another night at Le Poisson Rouge, of heaven, hell and our eternally artistically recreated eccentric little planet.

Harry Rolnick



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