Music and speech cohere and collide in ACM program

Tue Feb 05, 2019 at 12:48 pm

By John von Rhein

Jeff Yang, Arianne Urban, Aurelien Pederzoli, and Alyson Berger performed Steve Reich’s “Different Trains” at the ACM concert Monday night at the Davis Theater. Photo: Kimberly Schlechter

Chicago’s vibrant and diverse new music scene owes not only to the input of gifted university-based composers and ensembles but also—and perhaps more crucially—to the work of feisty mavericks who do their thing independent of academic ties. Think of Eighth Blackbird, Ensemble Dal Niente, International Contemporary Ensemble, Third Coast Percussion and Access Contemporary Music, to name just a handful.

ACM, a multiform advocacy organization for living composers co-founded by the entrepreneurial Chicago-based composer, educator and former WFMT-FM program host Seth Boustead, distinguishes itself by virtue of a global outreach powered by web-based technology, but, more importantly, by its refusal to be bound by academic mindsets, protocols or parochialism.

Since the enterprise’s humble beginnings (as Accessible Contemporary Music) in 2004, it has stood by its founding premise that not all new art music requires specialist ears or comes cloaked in intellectual pretensions. Which helps to explain why ACM concerts often carry a heightened sense of communal musical discovery, as performers and listeners explore new sounds in a lively and casual ambience.

Such was the case with “Speaking in Tongues,” the freewheeling program of contemporary ensemble pieces presented by ACM musicians Monday night at the Davis Theater in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood.

Per the title, the five works, all by American or American-based composers, were inspired by language or make musical use of sampled speech.

The great pioneering example of the latter procedure is Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988), which superimposes on the clackety-clack of a live string quartet a soundtrack of spoken phrases, train whistles and prerecorded string quartet. Horrific irony informs the piece. As the young Reich was shuttling by train between New York and Los Angeles during the 1940s to visit his divorced parents, fellow Jews were being herded on trains bound to Nazi death camps. The composer takes his melodic and rhythmic ideas from the bits of recorded speech (“they tattooed a number on our arm,” and so forth) looped on the soundtrack.

A post-minimalist classic, Different Trains has lost none of its impact three decades on, and its chugging, overlapping phrases drew a cleanly synchronized reading from violinists Jeff Yang and Arianne Urban, violist Aurelien Pederzoli, and cellist Alyson Berger, cello. I do wish that Boustead (who introduced each piece on the program) had gone the distance and projected the words onto the theater screen, since too few of them emerged intelligibly from the distorted playback.

Sampled speech also generates the melodic and rhythmic material that makes up Florent Ghys’ multimedia Etude for 11 Faces. Ghys, a French-born composer and double bassist currently living in Brooklyn, filmed 11 friends singing, making noises and joining in a round-robin nonsense narrative. The video is synchronized to a live accompaniment of piano, violin and cello. Projected titles (“Pointillist,” “Rhythm,” “Melody”) told us what our ears could plainly hear. The performance gathered exhilarating momentum through the tight fusion of live and prerecorded elements, moving at warp speed. Pianist Amy Wurtz, Yang and Berger executed the real-time accompaniment deftly.

Both Lee Hyla’s We Speak Etruscan (1992) and Martin Bresnick’s Ishi’s Song (2012) reimagine lost languages in musical sounds and are miniature masterpieces of their kind.

American composition lost a truly original voice with the death of Hyla, a professor of theory and composition at Northwestern University, in 2014, at 61. His witty piece took the form of a growling, gurgling conversation between Zachary Good’s bass clarinet and Thomas Snydacker’s baritone saxophone. Boustead praised it as a “stunning tour de force” and that is indeed how it came across as the performers traded literally in-your-face, jazz-like riffs.

A prominent composition teacher in his own right, Bresnick is a composer of considerable expressive range, with a large and varied body of work that merits wider attention. Ishi’s Song, for singing pianist, is based on a recorded fragment of a song sung by one of the last surviving Yahi-Yani Native Americans. The fact that no translation remains in no way lessens the evocative power of this nine-minute solo piece. The music fans out in post-minimalist waves of pentatonic melody, creating richly varied textures through the simplest of means. Wurtz dispatched it with a sensitivity comparable to that of the work’s creator, pianist Lisa Moore, on a recent all-Bresnick recording on the Starkland label.

There was less to admire in Alex Temple’s Willingly, which, like the Ghys piece, draws on a prerecorded track – audio only, in this case – of friends, colleagues, former students and family members talking about “what ifs” in their lives. Their musings range from banal to violent to funny, accompanied in real time by flute (Trevor Patrick Watkin) and piano (Wurtz). The central problem here is the blurry impenetrability of the electronic stew, which further trivializes a piece that doesn’t aspire to much beyond trivia anyway.

Access Contemporary Music’s season at the Davis Theater will continue with the 14th annual edition of “Sounds of Silent Films,” featuring newly composed live soundtracks to contemporary videos, April 20 at the Davis Theater.

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