Ran, Clark and Visconti works stand out at Sunday’s Ear Taxi marathon

Mon Oct 10, 2016 at 1:18 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

Amos Gillespie (right) and Taimur Sullivan performed Gillespie's "Lacework" for alto and baritone saxophones Sunday at the Ear Taxi Festival.
Amos Gillespie (right) and Taimur Sullivan performed Gillespie’s “Lacework” for alto and baritone saxophones Sunday at the Ear Taxi Festival.

The Ear Taxi Festival’s Sunday marathon at the Chicago Cultural Center–simultaneous with the actual Chicago Marathon–continued the festival’s commitment to showcasing an eclectic spread of styles. But Sunday’s wide variations of style also brought, perhaps inevitably, a wide variation of quality as well.

The Chicago Composers Orchestra opened the afternoon with pieces written in the largely consonant musical language familiar to filmgoers. Sometimes this was just too familiar—as in Kathleen Ginther’s Lake Effect, whose aquatic effects from muted brass, vibraphone, and low flute made it sound like Debussy meets Henry Mancini, with a little of John Adams’ Tromba Lontana thrown in for good measure.  

Other works employed an approachable idiom to say new things. Olivia Block’s Lazarus felt like an Ivesian concept updated to the 21st century. Two conductors led a pair of orchestras, one of which imitates a swing band in the distance. Their playing merged with recorded effects emanating from the loudspeakers: the babbling of people, the whirr of a helicopter, etc.

Also strong was Randall West’s Copper. A cloud of strings near the beginning hovered on the threshold between consonance and dissonance, its drift in either direction wholly palpable. In the central section, different layers within the orchestra swam in and out of focus, creating the rich sensation of shifting perspectives.

All of these moments were realized brilliantly by the orchestra, and conductor Allen Tinkham. Even in the reverberant acoustic of Preston Bradley Hall, they brought absolute timbral clarity to each piece.  

Next, Collect/Project was joined by Shanna Gutierrez on the bass flute for a series of electroacoustic works. The difficulty of writing such pieces in this day and age is that we’ve heard nearly every extended technique one can play on a flute. So, one can no longer count on novelty to carry a piece. One must weave these techniques into a compelling tapestry.

The most successful pieces at this task were Nomi Epstein’s for Collect/Project and Fredrick Gifford’s MOBILE 2016, both world premieres. Epstein’s piece was bound together by the electronic component, which integrated Gutierrez’s pizzicato-like playing and Frauke Aulbert’s vocals into a series of recognizable sensations, including a jet taking off and static bursting from the changing channels on a TV set.

Gifford’s piece for flutist alone was divided into clear sections: extended episodes of percussive hissing and buzzing into the flute in Latin-like rhythms alternated with spacious segments in which the flutist seemed to summon the sound of the surf.

Later, the DePaul Ensemble 20+ premiered Eliza Brown’s A Soundwalk with Resi, which melded Brown’s memory of a walk at Lincoln Park Conservatory with excerpts from the Marschallin’s meditation on time from Der Rosenkavalier. Much of the piece seemed too literal a depiction of its theme: such as marking the tick-tock of time with a woodblock, and extended quotations from the Strauss opera.  

The 3 p.m. session was the least successful of the afternoon. It began well enough with soprano Carey Goldenberg’s clarion-toned performance of William Jason Raynovich’s leap-filled how dark how single, with guitarist James Baur accompanying her. 

But Janie Misurell-Mitchell’s Clameurs, Mélodie—in which Raynovich and Steve Butters rhythmically chanted a quotation from Jacques Attali’s Noise while the former sawed away on the cello and the latter banged a battery of drums—felt like a Christopher Guest parody of avant-garde music.

The two pieces premiered by cellist Alyson Berger and pianist Amy Wurtz were also lackluster. Sarah J. Ritch’s Dirge modally meandered with no timbral variety in the use of the piano or cello. And Wurtz’s own Songs and Dances overstayed its welcome: insistently spinning out gestures that were conventional a century ago, with only fleeting moments of rhythmic vitality.

Luckily, this nadir was followed by the peak of the proceedings with two world premieres. The main virtue of Shulamit Ran’s carefully crafted Birkat Haderekh–performed by Latitude 49–was the patient development of a rhythmically incisive initial figure. And this was a trait common to the other two pieces in the  4 p.m. session.

The premiere of Joe Clark’s not merely bad or broken was a tour de force. The piece itself makes inventive use of the vocal quartet: from the otherworldly sliding in the Creole text with which it opens, to its chirping middle, to the rapid overlapping ascents into the high range in its concluding section. All of these textures were realized with stunning virtuosity by the Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble.

Saxophonists Amos Gillespie and Taimur Sullivan shadowed each other with alacrity through Gillespie’s aptly named Lacework, a playful, almost Baroque entwinement of short melodic threads.

The highlight of the marathon’s home stretch was Fifth House Ensemble’s performance of Dan Visconti’s Soundings. The gags in this bit of stage art include the pianist drumming on the cello with sticks and the flutist letting air out of a balloon as a wind instrument. And it concludes with a load of ping pong balls dumped from a box labelled poison into the piano to make its sound harpsichord-like for a Bach-pastiche finale. It was a delightful way for the audience to let its hair down near the end of a long afternoon.  

Ear Taxi Festival concludes 7 p.m. Monday with the MusicNOW concert at the Harris Theater. eartaxifestival.com

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