BY DAVE ALLEN Avant-garde music happenings held in art galleries have been common for decades, but they’re no less risky than when Andy Warhol brought the Velvet Underground into his Exploding Plastic Inevitable show. The very different stimulations from sounds and visuals often end up competing for attention, and the music can sometimes become an easily-ignorable soundtrack for those who just want to look at the pretty pictures. In spite of this danger, Network for New Music’s 2008-09 season is dedicated to exploring the interaction between music and visual art, and SOUND/ART/SPACE, an intimate chamber concert held at NEXUS/foundation for today’s art, struck the right balance between music and image.
Kyle Bartlett’s Blossom, ether, singularity had a piercing presence, borne from the timbral possibilities of two flutes and two double basses. Bartlett framed the piece in cosmic terms, with free-floating figures drawn in by a “black hole” at the middle. That sense of floating in space provided a thoughtful echo of Sherif Habashi’s exhibit at NEXUS, in which small, intricate figures are suspended against empty canvas. In disparate fragments, all four players explored nearly every kind of attack on their instruments – keening, purring and fluttering from the flutes; scraping, plucking, and perilously high harmonics from the basses. The music clearly made physical demands that the players impressively met, with the flutists altering their posture to blow at different angles and the bassists straining to touch the very end of their fingerboards, near the bridge. That pressure met a kind of relief during the “black hole” section, which took the form of a mellowed-out chorale, full of placid, unexpected beauty. The spell of Bartlett’s piece was broken only once, when one flutist offered a few conducting gestures. The players were doing such a fine job of following one another through the tricky rhythms and open-ended, meterless sections that to provide formal direction seemed unnecessary.
The presence of a conductor also disrupted the other piece on the program, Gene Coleman’s Gadget. Jan Krzywicki led a five-member ensemble of flute, clarinet, cello, double bass, and percussion in Coleman’s work, but his presence blocked much of the audience from seeing the techniques and attacks that the players used. Coleman made even greater technical demands than Bartlett; the bassist and cellist played on forks stuck between their instruments’ strings and fingerboard, the flutist and clarinetist switched between bass versions of their instruments and played from the bottom to the top range of both, and the percussionist played his snare drum with a Superball, a wind-up toy, and an electric toothbrush. All of this reflected Coleman’s interest in pure sound a la John Cage, but the conductor tended to make the inevitable question “What are they doing?” difficult to answer. Coleman took his inspiration from the video art of Jennie Thwing, in which loops and repeated samples play a large role. In that spirit, the forward motion of the piece would occasionally get hung up on a single figure and repeat it; after a feeling of lift-off, the piece would head back to the launchpad. That tension made Gadget a riveting ride, and the experimentation and flexibility of all the players – hats off to flutist Edward Schultz and bassist Anne Peterson, who played in both works – made the entire event a treat.
This concert will be repeated on 2 pm, Sunday, November 23 at NEXUS/foundation for today’s art. The Crane Arts Building, 1400 N. American Street. Tickets $15-25 at the door. www.networkfornewmusic.org