With a new name, ACM finds bracing music in newspaper excerpts
On Monday night, the Chicago-based group devoted to showcasing music of emerging composers, offered a tightly woven, lively program of short works by eight composers titled “Newspaper Blackout Poems.”
In many ways, the concert in the Fine Arts Building’s Curtiss Hall hit all the sweet spots for an audience encountering unfamiliar music.
The premise was intriguing: The composers drew their material from a collection titled Newspaper Blackout Poems by Texas composer Austin Kleon. At one point, fighting writer’s block, Kleon grabbed a newspaper and started blacking out large chunks of words. He made tiny, elliptical poems from the words and phrases that remained. A “wise Republican from Indiana’’ turns up in one poem as a caretaker. Struggling against his father’s wishes, a son’s “ambitions point elsewhere.’’
Pieces were short, and some of the composers used the same texts. Approximately an hour long, the concert allowed us time to fully absorb the music.
What we heard in the eight sets of poems for piano and voice was bracing indeed. Primarily a rehearsal space, Curtiss Hall has fabulous acoustics, warm and resonant. With plenty of space to blossom in the intimate hall, the voices of soprano Susan Nelson, mezzo-soprano Nina Heebink and baritone Brad Jungwirth sounded extraordinarily rich. Pianists Hulya Alpakin and Theresa Gigante were sensitive accompanists. But throughout the evening, episodes for solo piano—heroic, clustered chords in Greg Steinke’s Random Blackouts I or the tolling, single note that lingered like a chilly moonbeam in Shay Alon’s witty His Wife–were as evocative as the vocal lines.
The composers—Alon, Malcolm Dedman, Christopher Dunn-Rankin, Ryan Manchester, Bryan Page, Matthew Pakulski, Troy Ramos and Steinke—are in the 20s and 30s. They belong to a generation that actually wants to communicate with an audience and has little or no allegiance to strict stylistic forms.
There was plenty of assertive declamation. Jungwirth’s booming baritone made angry, angular leaps against crashing piano chords in Pages’ Blackout in Eden. But in the final poem of Pages’ set, Jungwirth’s solo line was dulcet and lyrical. In the closing work, Manchester’s On Top of Wheat Silos, the three singers’ voices blended with the touching fragility and clarity of medieval chant.
The evening had two weak points. The concert was moved from Ganz Hall to Curtiss because of sound bleed from the Auditorium Theater, which shares a building with Ganz. The lighting in Curtiss was ghastly Monday night, making the space feel as bright and cold as a cheap hotel lobby.
Also, the rudimentary program book offered no biographies of the composers or poem texts. True, the poems were short, some were repeated and the performers helpfully recited them before each song. But audience members were still sometimes at sea without a printed text. For a group focused on new composers, the lack of printed biographies was puzzling.
ACM has recently changed its name—from Accessible Contemporary Music to Access Contemporary Music. “Accessible” is a fraught word in the classical music world, one that can imply an emphasis on catchy tunes and simple harmonies. The change is a sensible one, for composers as well as audiences. Easy access to intriguing music was a rewarding two-way street Monday night.
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