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Music Alive!: At the Frontier

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Oct 23rd, 2017

Sebastian Currier

Last Sunday afternoon the bi-annual Music Alive! Program curated by Joan Tower and Blair McMillen was held at the Lázló Z. Bitó Building. The focus was on two contemporary composers: Derek Bermel and Sebastian Currier. Unfortunately, Bermel was ill and could not attend, yet Currier was there to speak about his work.

The program opened with Two Songs from Nandom, excerpts from Bermel’s 1994 Wanderings which is a song cycle based upon gyil music of the Daghati and Lobi peoples who dwell in Northwestern Ghana, Southern Burkina-Faso, and North-eastern Côte d’Ivoire. They play music on an instrument resembling a marimba. Bermel’s ethnographic arrangement of their melodies was adapted for a quintet of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, and bassoon.  These pieces were quite unusual as they presented an interwoven texture of sound. I preferred the second piece which presented satiric homage to a local king.

Three salon songs from Nature Calls (1999) were next with soprano Chloë Schaaf and Florence Mak on piano. Schaaf sang “Mushrooms,” “Dog,” and “Spider Love," an adaptation of a Sylvia Plath's poem “Spider.” She sang with high grace and animated aplomb.

Verge (1997) by Currier was next. This consisted of nine short musical exercises that explored limits. Ably played by the trio of Viktor Tóth on clarinet, Zongheng Zhang on violin, and JongSun Woo on piano, each piece took a theme to the border of excess, yet never managed to cross that border. As an exciting maneuver of Apollonian restraint this was thrilling. All movements were dynamic and energetic. Sporting the label "almost," the movements were: fast, slow, mechanical, dark, light, fractured, much, little, calm. There was delicious wit to all these pieces. I was especially fond of mechanical, fractured, and much.

After a short intermission, Currier introduced Next Atlantis (2008), which was inspired by Plato’s old myth within an American context, specifically invoking the New Orleans basin which loses tens of miles of land each year. Some of Joan Tower’s own compositions are influenced by the movement of water, especially rain and waterfalls. Currier’s piece was for string quartet, which in this case consisted of Alex van der Veen and Gitta Markó on violins, Joseph Burke on viola, and Emily Mundstedt on cello. There was also a track of pre-recorded electronic music that featured sounds of water flowing and bubbling. Much contemporary work falls into this canyon.

As a rule, I dismiss the meddling of electronic supplements, yet in this case I confess that the electronic addition contributed and was tastefully done. Sounds produced evoked the struggle of a civilized land god combating the mysterious chaos of Poseidon. I thought the work marvelous. A larger cultural metaphor emerged: music was the basis of civilization and our civilization was being eroded by malignant forces which we do not understand. Was the United States destined to become another mythic civilization like Atlantis? This was a composition that transcended its program metaphor. It was a peculiar, contemporary masterpiece.

Blair McMillan substituted for Bermel at the piano with Three Funk Studies. These brief études combined gestures toward harmony punctuated by dissonance. “Step” hopped up and down scales with a teasing alacrity full of suspense about where it was going next with each giant step. “Lullaby” offered a satire on that genre wherein a dissonant clash conjured nightmare. “Jaunt” whimsically explored ragtime and stride piano with wit and elegance.

Two movements from Bermel’s Cattcalls (2003) concluded the program. Written for two trumpets, a trombone, a horn, and tuba the latter movement, “Russian Blue,” arrived at an exciting yet somewhat unpredictable climax wherein the tuba sounded a dissonant objection that was amusing, witty, and magically appropriate. A short video of Bermel appears below.

This was excellent music from the contemporary frontier: Bermel’s work was unusually original and witty, while Currier’s work featured subtle textures and resonant progression.