Ear Taxi goes back to the future for festival finale

Tue Oct 05, 2021 at 12:40 pm

By John Y. Lawrence

The chamber group Unsupervised performed Monday at the final day of the Ear Taxi Festival. Photo: Forestt Strong La Fave

Ask your average person what “contemporary” classical music is like, and they’ll say words like “dissonant” or “avant-garde.” But most of the music played Monday at the Kehrein Center for the Arts—as part of the Ear Taxi Festival’s final day of concerts—bucked that trend. It embraced a variety of traditional idioms, and displayed the benefits and drawbacks that come with that decision: the promise of greater accessibility, and the struggle to be original rather than derivative.

The morning concert was performed by pop singer-songwriter Elenna Sindler and the Hasco Duo, consisting of guitarist Jesse Langen and singer and electronics master Amanda DeBoer. DeBoer was physically absent (on maternity leave), but was aurally present through a series of prerecorded tracks that Sindler summoned on a performance pad. These consisted mainly of ghostly vocal harmonies to accompany Sindler’s lead vocals, with occasional sound effects and additional instruments.

The four songs they performed were from their upcoming album, Lullaby Baby, which will be released later this month. The subject matter is things that keep us up at night, such as worrying about monsters or death, and (more oddly) a tense family reunion.

The style of the songs might be called dark dreampop. Even when the lyrics suggest a narrative thread, the music doesn’t press forward; it is stuck in minor-key arpeggio loops played by Langen and psychedelic atmospheres generated by DeBoer, with Sindler’s melancholic crooning floating above. The music is well crafted, especially with regards to the integration of the electronics, which felt organic. But the songs are a bit too similar. Despite their different subjects, their soundscapes sound like variations on the same state of gloom.

The concert by Crossing Borders Music was titled “First Blacks Chicago,” a partial reprise of a program they premiered in 2019. This collaboration with the Haitian American Museum of Chicago featured the work of three Haitian-born American and Canadian composers, celebrating three black trailblazers in Chicago’s history.

Sabrina C D Jean Louis’s string quartet La Cité commemorates Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, regarded as the first foreign-born black resident of Chicago. It was performed by violinists Jennifer Leckie and Rasa Mahmoudian, violist Seth van Embden, and cellist Tom Clowes.

This was the least original music of the day. Melodically and harmonically, most of the phrases wouldn’t have been out of place in a Schubert quartet, with only some metrical asymmetry to liven things up. Also the same patterns were repeated too often (yet not often enough to count as minimalism). Some scruffy intonation from the quartet didn’t help matters.

Jean “Rudy” Perrault’s Brother Malcolm celebrates Barack Obama, by portraying Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X responding to the 2008 election. The African National Congress’s anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” is woven throughout. Clowes was joined by pianist Marianne Parker in performing the piece. Although it isn’t always clear which phrase is supposed to be spoken by King and which by Malcolm X, the sense of impassioned rhetoric, the sense of actual people “saying something,” is ever-present. When too much contemporary classical instrumental music is afraid to sound like the human voice, like song or speech, Perrault’s directness of communication is admirable.

The effectiveness of this music was due in no small part to Clowes and Parker, whose handling of dynamics and phrasing shaped the music into lucid paragraphs, notwithstanding Clowes’s shaky intonation.

Fraternitas! Fraternitas! Dei Patris Nomine by Gifrants was written in honor of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. The piece is full of the playful exchange of short phrases, spanning a wide range of moods—lyrical, frolicsome, bluesy. Its harmonic palette, full of flattened fifths, exhibits its Caribbean origins. All five players assembled to perform this piece, and Leckie and Parker were particularly alive to the piece’s playfulness, as they bobbed and weaved in and out of the textures.

After these three pieces, Crossing Borders Music teamed up with Jean-Paul Coffy for the world premiere of his piece Ogou Wa Dè Zanj (or “Ogou King of Angels”). Coffy himself joined the quartet at the piano. This is melodically tuneful and rhythmically vibrant music. What it lacks in subtlety—all five instruments play constantly, often in unison or octaves—it more than makes up for with sheer exuberance of spirit.

The concert by Unsupervised—an ensemble of strings, harp, flute, clarinet, trombone, and percussion—offered music by members of the Chicago Composer’s Consortium. Three of these five works stuck out as some of the finest music of the day.

One was Elizabeth Start’s O, Aedicatio; O, Vita, which received its world premiere. This two-movement work was inspired by Covid-19 and the George Floyd murder. You wouldn’t know it without the program notes, however, as the music is attractive and shapely, and doesn’t sound full of death and despair, even in its darkest moments. Start uses a lot of “effects”—trumpet wah-wahs, snap pizzicato, glissandi galore. But they don’t feel like gimmicks and are well integrated into the structure of the music—justified by what seems to be being expressed at any given moment.

The same goes for Kyong Mee Choi’s MOMENT. Its harmonic pungency and its hyperactivity of texture (jumping from technique to technique within short timespans) would make it much less accessible than most of the other works on the program, were it not for Choi’s command of form. Sections flow naturally. Gestures accumulate and develop rather than seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Lawrence Axelrod’s excellent Of Wind and Sky was inspired by the sights and sensations of hiking through Denali National Park. Given the title and the program note, the sound of the piece itself comes as a surprise. Its central ostinato furtively and rapidly darts about. This is brisk rather than expansive music. But the ostinato is masterfully handled—re-arranged to give it new colors, layered with an array of changing melodic lines, interspersed with other short ideas that keep the music alive and interesting.

The other two pieces on the program were Martha Horst’s Quiltage and four out of the six movements from Laura Schwendinger’s Celestial Bodies, both of which received their world premiere.

Schwendinger’s movements are miniatures. Each moves differently from the others. “Distant Spiral Galaxy” slithers, “Oumuamua” rushes, “moonmoon” creeps, and “Celestial Spheres” flutters. Such an emphasis upon motion could be fatiguing if stretched out, but they work well in bite-sized portions.

Each of the three movements of Quiltage portrays a different style of quilt, stitching together little “strips” of music. The analogy to fabric is apt, particularly in the shimmering textures of the third movement, “Scrap Quilt.” The piece’s only fault is its overreliance on stereotypical uses of the instruments—harp glissandi out of a Hollywood dream sequence, too copious trilling from the woodwinds. It is strongest in its sparest moments, such as the spectral marimba solo that opens its second movement, “Coin Quilt.”

The performance from the conductor-less consortium was remarkable for its cohesion and clarity, given the intricacy of the music. Special credit must go to percussionist Rebecca McDaniel, who was tasked with rapidly shuttling among a battery of instruments, each responsible for defining the music’s moods.

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