Mouse on Mars at MusicNOW: Unplug the juice

Tue Feb 01, 2011 at 12:56 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Concerts of contemporary music in the last quarter-century have continued the inescapable coming to grips with popular music that has faced every composer since George Gershwin unleashed Rhapsody in Blue on the audience in New York’s Aeolian Hall in 1924.

Many leading American composers who have come of age in recent decades have adopted rock elements in ways that bring renewed bite and dynamism to the concert hall (John Adams, Philip Glass, Michael Daugherty) while for others the genres remain in distinct and separate realms or ignored altogether

Such thoughts came to mind Monday night at the Harris Theater with the third installment of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series.

With DJ-electronica composer Mason Bates serving as a co-composer in residence with the CSO, it’s inevitable that we’re going to hear music of the amped up club-inspired variety that infuses his style.

Yet it was not Bates’s music but that of the German electronica duo, Mouse on Mars, that was in the spotlight Monday night, playing to a packed audience.

Mouse on Mars’ skik field (parts 1, 2 and 11) pits the two Germans working their turntables, boards, and assorted electronica, against a dozen-member classical ensemble of strings, winds and brass.

In some ways one can see Mouse on Mars as a more anarchic and avant-garde descendant of Kraftwerk, their 1970s compatriot predecessors. Yet rather than a tightly rhythmic and controlled electronic music, Mouse on Mars unleashes an array of sounds— high-pitched keening squeaks, squawks, bass undulations and wave-like torrents, which, said Bates in his introduction, ”push the boundaries of electronica.”

Whatever.  To these ears the music seems closer to plugged-in free-form jazz. There are moments when the large amplified classical component seem to refect that inspiration as with a forceful and virtusoic double-bass solo and some scratchy Bartokian string effects. Yet too often the classical side seemed to exist in a parallel universe with the eight string players largely buried under the electronic assault.

But while no doubt enjoyed by the young club crowd that made up a good chunk of Monday’s audience, Mouse on Mars’ claim to the classical concert hall seemed tenuous at best.  Ultimately skik field seemed more like an overlong manipulation of assorted sound effects–at times striking and even evocative, but not musical in any real sense. Young conductor Andre de Ridder, a regular Mouse on Mars collaborator, brought surprising clarity to the electronic fusillade served up by the two young Germans.

The evening’s opener by Martin Matalon proved more successful due to its concision and lack of pretension.

Matalon’s Las siete vidas de un gato is essentially a soundtrack for eight players to Luis Buñuel’s surreal 1929 film classic, Un Chien Andalou, which was projected on a screen during the performance.

Cast in a kind of snappy, uptempo Latin jazz-accented style, Matalon’s music suits the 16-minute succession of bizarre absurdist images –Salvador Dali was a co-conspirator in this film– with its antic marimba and brilliant trumpet solos. The Argentinian composer makes no attempt to match the music to the specific image onscreen, and after a while the lack of musical variety and invention begins to pall. No complaints about the superb playing of the amplified ensemble under de Ridder’s direction, particularly trumpeter Christian Anderson, though the over-amped juice made for painful listening at times.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment