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Review Tue Dec 11 2012
One of the great strengths of Chicago's International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) is their versatility in response to unusual performance opportunities. They can rage with the power of a large ensemble when roaring through Xenakis' Èchange at the MCA theater, or shrink to the size of a small circle of friends at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MOCP), as they did this past Saturday. ICE Artistic Director Claire Chase (flute and alto flute) joined with her fellow flutist Eric Lamb (bass flute) and horn player David Byrd-Marrow in performing five pieces by four Brazilian composers. One of the composers, Columbia College's Marcos Balter, hosted the evening's performances.
The room held 50-60 people at most, and we were a breath's journey away from the performers; an inopportune sneeze would have been all it took to throw my head back into Byrd-Marrow's music stand. Meanwhile, a MOCP electronic exhibit in which two black and white images gradually changed from all black to all white ran throughout the performance, keeping the room's ambiance in permanent flux. Many assumed it was part of the performance, but it added a bit of danger, as the performer's sheet music went from being bathed in light to plunged into darkness at regular intervals.
Balter and ICE traveled to Brazil this summer on tour and were astonished to find the new music scene in Rio de Janeiro (as well as São Palo and Manaus) to be significantly more vibrant than he had left it. Not only were audiences hungry for new and unconventional performances, but a crop of new composers had sprung up. So many, in fact, that ICE and Balter discovered dozens of new compositions to bring back and rehearse. Of these, three were performed on Saturday, along with three of Balter's pieces.
The evening's program was titled Passará, as was the composition playing as the audience entered the performance space. Created with recordings of bird sounds (Balter said it was arranged geographically by bird types, moving northward by species as the piece progresses, like a migration up from South America to North America) and using minimal electronic processing, it was persistent enough to let us know that music was taking place, but in accord with the patterns of nature. (Balter told me after the performance about the piece's lineage to Messiaen, who also composed according to the rhythms of birdsong.) The electronic work would reappear as interstitial sound between pieces, and the 35 minute performance was offered without pause, and even with a request not to applaud between pieces, stitching the various styles together into a unified field of sound.
Balter's Edgewater was the first piece performed by humans. Ducking and bobbing like pugilists, their sheet music strung across a row of four music stands, Chase and Lamb (on alto and bass flute, respectively) attacked the music physically, crab-walking left to right along the row of music, their flutes spitting breathy curlicues, faster than thought but not too fast for beautiful melodies. Of the four composers featured, Balter's pieces were the most astonishing -- he carried his ideas furthest out, but without the dry homework-y quality of pure dusty serialism.
If Balter's pieces were my favorites of the night, Alexandre Lunsqui's Topografia de Um Caminho Andado was not far behind. Lamb performed this solo on bass flute, and both his impeccable performance of the piece and the piece's beauty and grace were equally noteworthy. Alternating between staccato pinprick notes and breath flutters that work at odd angles to the melody, the piece created melodies that gave the impression of many layers, no small feat for a solo instrument. As I listened, I drew what looked like mesas or plateaus in visualizing the melodies, low clusters transitioning to alien flutters through strange glissandi, again sounding not at all like an unaccompanied instrument and much more like a flute ensemble. Lunsqui's composition throws everything at the audience without ever sounding like a mish-mosh. If you had told me that this was Varese's follow-up composition to Density 21.5, I might have believed you. It was that great.
Daniel Puig's Caotrios for two flutes and horn was stately and sonorous. In contrast to the breathy, gauzy tone of the first two pieces, Chase and Lamb iron out their flutes into regal tones of purple and crimson that snake around the horn, suggesting a medieval court music from an alternate history. The arrangement of the three instruments was impeccable, though my ears preferred the legato first half to the hammering eighth-notes in the conclusion. (Looking over my shoulder at the sheet music, it appears to have been a composition drawn on circular sheet music, with the performers leaping from one fragment of music to the next at their discretion.)
The most loud and violent piece of the night was Arthur Kampela's Not I -- Holographies, scored for solo horn, voice, and light. Yep, light. Performed with controlled abandon by Byrd-Marrow, the piece was a 10-car pileup of horn sounds (toots, blats, short melodic fragments, the sound of a driver's license being raked across the valves), dramatic recitation, and the frantic clicking of a footswitch that turned a small lamp on and off. Kampela's composition was very much in the John Zorn/Guy Klusevek style of violent, cartoonish overload. Beckett's text is whispered, shouted, and groaned in between riotous brass splatters at a velocity I've never imagined Beckett would go. Byrd-Morrow held nothing back, and even if this composition wasn't my favorite, the performance of it was praiseworthy.
Closing the night was a reprise of Balter's Descent from Parnassus, last heard at a performance at the Art Institute, performed again by Chase in a similar confluence of instrument and text as Not I, reciting the first canto of Dante's Paradiso through (and around) her flute, a light echo applied to the microphone and voice. The piece blew me away back in January when I first heard it, and in this intimate setting, the effect is even more immediate. The slight echo gives Chase's declamatory trills, shouts, and sighs the effect of a Greek chorus (what are they doing here in Dante's stomping ground of Italy?), while the flute again floats wispy clouds of melody onto the tempestuous mass of text. At times resembling the Spectral school of Eastern European heavy-hitters like Ana-Maria Avram and Iancu Dumitrescu, Descent from Parnassus brought the house down. The performers (and Balter) returned to the stage no less than three times as the crowd's applause continued undiminished for several minutes.
After the performance, Chase told me that ICE had discovered so many great new compositions by Brazilian composers on their trip, they would have years worth of new material to work with. Here's hoping that recordings of some of these works (especially Parnassus and Lunsqui's incredible piece for bass flute) see the light of day soon.