Composers, Inc. Turns 30 Years with a !BAMM!
– By Daniel L Muñoz
Composers, Inc. celebrated 30 years of local music this season with a wide selection of local composers and performers at the inaugural !BAMM! festival (Bay Area Modern Musicians). Composer and artistic co-director Nick Vasallo served as the master of ceremonies reminding the audience of the importance of 1984: Orwell’s novel, the release of Ghostbusters, the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the release of Apple’s first Macintosh computers, and the birth of Composers, Inc. The concert took place at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley near the university. The program mostly consisted of ultramodern solos and chamber works, excepting the opening piece. It was well-attended with a good turn-out and a diverse age demographic. I sat down at the third row pew to have a close look of the performers at work as a line of young women in elegant uniform marched onstage for the opening piece.
A plainsong can be a powerful way to whet the ears for an evening of music, and Frank La Rocca’s Ave Maris Stella—performed by the Young Women’s Chorus (YWC) of San Francisco at the hands of Dr Susan McMane—set the tone by showcasing the church hall’s beautiful open acoustics with an a cappella setting of the vesper led through a series of variations. La Rocca made no apology for his tonal treatment of the chant, but it was in no way straightforward. The reverberation of the hall allowed the harmonies to sparkle as harmonic shifts bled into clusters through the SSAA chorus. The YWC—comprised of women from 10 to 18—sang with elegance and maturity. La Rocca himself appeared very pleased with their performance.
From the largest ensemble of the evening, the next piece called for solo flute. Flautist Meerenai Shim sauntered onstage in unorthodox concert attire, but I doubt the audience was disturbed by her Chucks. Her first task of the evening was to tackle Winton Yuichiro White’s Erratic Tales. Between the fireworks spanning the range of the flute, White made continual use of a few extended techniques that recurred throughout the work, like flutter-tongue, key-clicks, and the ‘jet-whistles’ which served as cadential figures at significant structural moments in the piece. Composer Gabriela Frank (also featured in this program) gave White some crucial advice during the composition process of his solo work: “It’s like an operatic diva going through her many moods.” The moods that I found myself most interested in were the quieter moments with occasional subito-fortes punctuated by the jet-whistle.
I admit that I was a little nervous as the Mobius Trio emerged with acoustic guitars. The guitar ensemble at the university I went to, with its 20-plus members, seemed more pointless than an ensemble of pianos. How dynamic could an acoustic guitar trio be? Written with the technical abilities of the Mobius Trio (Mason Fish, Robert Nance, Matthew Holmes-Lieder), Making Good Choices by Brendon Randall-Meyers was perhaps the perfect piece to change my mind about all that. When I read in the program notes that Randall-Meyers’ described himself as a “fan and practitioner of hardcore punk and math rock,” my interest was piqued. “Math rock” is a colloquial way of describing rock with disjunct or constantly changing meters, often inspired in part by Steve Reich’s minimalist techniques and tonal vocabulary. Randall-Meyers also made use of extended techniques on the guitar, such as harmonics, strumming behind the nut, slapping the guitar body percussively, tremolos, and detuning the high E string during the performance. Randall-Meyers’ piece, and the Mobius Trio’s rendition of it, has changed my mind about the possibilities of an acoustic guitar ensemble. The exciting percussive conclusion had the trio alternating between slapping the strings and the guitar body; it also marked the conclusion of the first half of the program.
During the intermission I read about the bass clarinet duo about to perform. I immediately thought of John Zorn’s Sortilège, the only piece for bass clarinet duo I knew. The bass clarinet has an awesome sound, like a sawtooth wave capable of a sharp attack that can rock a power chord in its lower register. It can also squeak in the upper register. Enter Sqwonk, featuring Jeff Anderle and Jonathan Russell: I knew it would satisfy. The duo commissioned Dan Becker to compose a piece for them. The result, Better Late, takes its title from Becker’s constant tardiness with regard to the production of the piece. Becker explains: “I see Better Late as taking a fairly simple pitch progression and enlivening and subverting it by playing with a diverse groups of patterns.” He further explains that sometimes the patterns lock harmoniously, and other times they clash. The patterns seemed to revolve around minimalistic pulses, syncopations and meter shifts (more math rock!), and slurred arpeggios. At moments they come together cadentially as tonal harmonies or as brief homorhythms. During the performance the duo shuffled from one end of the paired music stands to the other in tight proximity. The bearded Sqwonk duo turned in their performance on time.
A quartet of cellos rocks. The cello is only a major-third lower than the guitar and can be ‘scuffed’ like an overdriven guitar. These kind of sonic qualities allow the cello to translate easily for 21st century music audiences. Gabriela Lena Frank’s Las Sombras de los Apus had me at the edge of my seat. The program notes strongly suggest a programmatic story line taking place in the Andes Mountains. Frank tells us, “According to Quechua mythology, each of the mountain peaks of las montañas andinas is inhabited by a minor divinity known as the apu. Temperamental in nature, the apu is easily irritated by negligent villagers who trespass… without offering up a prayer or leaving a simple gift of food.” Left untranslated by the composer, it seems that Las Sombras de los Apus connotes the shades of minor mountain deities, where ‘shade’ perhaps is read as ‘mood.’ During the piece the four cellists—Gianna Abondolo, Kathryn Bates, Thalia Moore, and Monica Scott—aggressively shredded on their instruments. Frank made each voice shine (and groan) at different moments, giving solo sections to each performer, and sometimes passing melodies from performer to performer like a quartet of disgruntled apus accompanied by the ‘natural’ disasters they summoned.
The next piece saw Shim returning to the stage. She commissioned Matthew Joseph Payne to write her a piece with Nintendo GameBoy as the accompaniment. Payne is part of the Chiptune community, a community of musicians who have hacked into the old portable gaming devices to exploit their internal synthesizers to create music. Musicians in the early 2000s began making video game-style music using this method on the 8-bit devices. Payne’s response was Flight of the Bleeper Bird, a collection of songs for prerecorded sound and amplified flute. The prerecorded sound mostly consisted of the GameBoy sounds and samples of Shim on flute. Payne called for various extended techniques—like flutter-tongue, fast double-tonguing, and beat-boxing-type effects—to integrate seamlessly with the technology. The result was a high-energy piece that sounded as if Shim was playing the console and that each song (or section) was a new level or world in the video game. Her parts were often canonic imitations of what the digital sounds played micromoments before hand at break-neck speeds. In between passages she even danced a little.
The final piece on the program was the world premier of Nick Vasallo’s Ozymandias, completed only a few months ago at the beginning of this year. Vasallo introduced the piece by first humbly thanking the audience for attending the first !BAMM! concert at the 30-year anniversary of Composers, Inc. He then introduced his work shamelessly declaring his style as deeply inspired by metal. He explained in the program that his work is a tone poem based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet of the same name. The piece combined two separate ensembles—the guitar and percussion duo The Living Earth Show (Travis Andrews (electric guitar) and Andrew Meyerson (percussion)), and the Friction Quartet (Kevin Rogers, Otis Harriel, Taija Warbelow, Doug Machiz)—with a last moment add on, as Vasallo announced, with Emily Onum Marshall on crystal singing bowls. The piece opened with a cluster played by the electric guitar with an EBow (Electric Bow) that blossomed like the Japanese bamboo reed instrument, the shō. The EBowed guitar at times sounded like a reed instrument and at other times blended in with the string quartet. Ozymandias alternated between contemplative tonal layers (exacerbated by a delay pedal), metal rock outs with scuffed guitar, cello and viola, and violins simulating feedback, and contrapuntal quartet glissandi. Another technique I heard was a close canonic figure, sometimes to imitate the effect of a guitar delay pedal and other times to create suspended harmonies. In the climax of the piece the tonal harmony figure of the guitar returned, accented with epic drums and quartet glissandi, washed away by the meditative singing bowls and bowed vibraphone and glass.
The audience was treated to a heterogeneous sampling of contemporary works by local composers exploring a variety of styles—from acoustic chamber ensembles, explorations with electronics, and a cappella chorus—marking the first !BAMM! concert a successful endeavor.
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