I want to like the Great Noise Ensemble. I really do. They are a plucky bunch of kids, fighting the good fight of aesthetic diversity, they play that post-minimalist, rock/chamber fusion that’s all the rage with the kids, they’ve won WAMMIES two years in a row, and they have a creation story that a Marvel hero could envy. Even more so, this town needs some new blood in its New (Concert) Music Scene, and an outfit that tries to play varied, forward-looking repertoire would be a great addition to the community.
GNE performed Wednesday evening at the Harmon Center for the arts, the ensemble’s second performance in as many years at the Capital Fringe festival, another young, forward-looking organization that is growing in leaps and bounds. The concert, entitled ‘Carnal Node: Sex Noise and Lies in the Internet Age’ showed off the good and the bad about this group: Rhetoric surpassing event, ambition surpassing execution, but all with a promise of better things to come.
The program title sets up a rather specific theme for the show, but only one of the pieces seems to bear much relation to it— rather than telling us anything new about relationships, or technology, or lying, the program as was rather more interested in placing GNE firmly in the rock-derived, post-minimal camp exemplified by the many-tentacled corporate entity known as Bang on a Can; indeed one work had been commissioned and first performed by BOAC through the ‘People’s Commissioning Fund.’ The instrumentation varied from electric bass, guitar, drums and brass to soprano and an ‘extended pierrot,‘ but all the work played with rhythm and phrasing in a manner more akin to Talking Heads than to Mozart, searching for that sweet spot between ‘concert music’ and ‘popular music.’
The first work, Thick Skin by Ryan Brown, a San Francisco composer, opens with a thumping, Larry-Graham baseline supported by a strong back beat and Fripp-y patternings on the guitar all of which are later (oh, so much later) joined by bassoon, trumpets and trombones. From its outset the work establishes strong and inexorable connections to rock forms and style, through the repetition of short ostinati and riffs. Even the lyrical second movement is constructed from little metrical cells, providing limited variety or new vantages on the title and subject of the work; an attractive bar and a half in the bassoon, the only real moment of melos in the work is abandoned just as it promises to open into something more. This surfeit of self-similarity and the general blandness of the harmonic language was not helped by intonation issues, especially in the lower strings, and and poor blend of the acoustic and amplified instruments left the group sounding rather in need of a sound check, surprising since this was the second performance of the concert.
The second work, D.J. Sparr‘s Carnal Node is a one woman mini-oratorio, telling a tale of star-crossed, internet-fueled love. The text is (overly) wrapped up in the emotional life of an isolated law student, and was developed by the composer from actual emails received from an actual friend. (!) Unfortunately the narrow expressive range of the music afforded the performers few chances to do much that could be engaging either as an expression of this narrative conceit, or to build musical interest apart from the narrative. For a work so overtly tied to the emotional life of a character/caricature, the rhetoric was quite formal, a Stravinsky setting of a Ferlinghetti poem (if Ferlinghetti were a huge nerd). In these compositional situations, when the composer is seeking emotional resonance and doesn’t provide the means, it is always the singers that suffer the most. The soprano (Kamala Sankaram, oddly the only performer named in the program) labored mightily to bring some life to the work, and occasionally succeeded; most effective were the intermittent spoken passages, though the rhythmic dynamism of her delivery served mostly to highlight the stilted text setting of the sung passages.
The third work of the 45-minute program, Marc Mellits‘ Five Machines provided the best experience for the evening and for the players. The composer has produced a Nymanesque suite of layered ostinati, but, unlike the proceeding two works, here an attention to texture and instrumental color allows the work to do more than simply indicate the conventions of the heritage it is claiming for itself— it actually provides a time and a space for some music to happen. Though rhythmically a bit rugged at points, and with a few more intonation problems from the strings, the band here acquitted itself much more convincingly, perhaps because they had more to play with.
In Europe, this post-minimal music is often referred to as American Repetitive Music, and rightly so-these composers are American (or so the Internets tell me), and the works (surely) are repetitive. In the best cases, the repetition of musical material and ideas accrues meaning over the course of a piece, providing a kaleidoscopic view of the material, a summa of all the ways these musemes might be heard. Thus the impact is not one of stasis, but a continuous shifting of perception and continual reconsideration of a piece in its parts and its whole. In other cases, the repetition can be a trap— remember that in Italian ostinato means obstinate. The desire to connect with or draw from rock music styles can, ironically, rob those materials of their power to move us. The appropriation of harmonically static and discursive and musematic repetition can actually serve to highly all the elements missing from concert hall environment. This risk runs even higher when so much of a program engages in similar approaches to composition; sins that could be forgiven a more varied environment move from venal to mortal, and successes that would stand out from contrast are lost in a canvas of more-of-the-same.
Let’s hope that this promising band gets a bit more picky in its programming, and a bit more focused in its rehearsal process, because when working with good material, they sound great, and this town and this music deserve more diversity and more thoughtful commitment than it usually gets.
Two performances of the program are still to come at the Forum at the new Harman Center for the Arts (the new home of the Shakespeare Theater company):
Saturday, July 26, 2008: 9 PM
Sunday, July 27, 2008: 3 PM
Tickets: $15 on TheaterMania.com or at the door (cash only, remember your Fringe button).
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