Composition, TIMARA Faculty Showcase Innovation

Logan Buckley

Last Friday evening, faculty members from the Composition and TIMARA departments in the Conservatory put on a concert that showcased a variety of diverse, inventive and unusual original works. The night began with two pieces that paired musical performance with video projected onto a large screen at the front of the stage. The first, Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Peter Swendsen’s “Northern Circles,” is the fourth and final piece in his Allusions to Seasons and Weather series, inspired by the changing of the seasons in Norway. Written for bassoon and alto saxophone with live electronics, the piece was accompanied by video and audio recorded in the Lofoten Islands of Norway. The effect was stark and quite beautiful, though somewhat out of place among the other compositions, leaning heavily on visual elements for its effectiveness — more like a piece of installation art than a concert work.

The next video piece was Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Tom Lopez’s “Lament for Réjà Vu.” Unlike “Northern Circles,” “Lament for Réjà Vu” easily could have stood on its own musically without the video projection. The music was eerie and unsettling, and included a standout performance by double-degree fifth-year soprano Nicole Levesque in which she muffled her voice by putting her hand on her mouth while singing. The resulting suffocated sound, plaintive and vulnerable, came to define the piece.

Assistant Professor of Composition Josh Levine’s “Glimpses,” for flute, viola and guitar, was the first acoustic work on the program. The composition played with interesting fragmented ideas and motifs and developed in parallel and piecemeal, so the listener frequently had trouble following the various threads to any degree throughout the piece, limiting its effectiveness.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts Lyn Goeringer’s “by humble things, as by snow (II),” a piece written for amplified streetlight, was perhaps the most unconventional work on the program. This piece, like “Northern Circles,” seemed completely dependent on visual presentation: Goeringer sat on the stage under the glow of the streetlight, modulating and amplifying its hums through a mixing board, while the rest of the hall was cloaked in darkness. The 12-minute performance was soothing and calm, but difficult to parse. Its greatest strength was perhaps the sense of timelessness that resulted from the (literally) monotonous hum of the lamp.

Following Goeringer’s piece, Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition Daniel Tacke’s setting of the Rainer Maria Rilke poem “Zum Einschlafen zu sagen” (“To be said while falling asleep”) from Die Nacht war kalt, may have been the strongest performance of the night. Conservatory senior soprano Jessie Downs sang lonesome, ethereal notes toward the top of her register, accompanied by subdued, insistent piano occasionally joined by a barely audible cello or clarinet. The piece tentatively cried out to the silent world before fading into a fitful sleep.

The final and longest piece, at just over 20 minutes, was Visiting Assistant Professor of Composition Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire,” for amplified violin and prepared piano. The chemistry between violinist Joshua Modney and the composer himself on piano remained thrilling throughout the piece, creating an emotional and cathartic ordeal. It began with over a minute of monotone overpressure from the violin, a passage that passed through grating and disturbing territory into comic absurdity. But the baseline it set for the rest of the piece may have been worth the risk of alienating the audience; as the piece developed complex rhythms and fascinating interplay between the performers, the mental setting established by the piece’s opening filtered and focused the performance.

The risk Wubbel took with his composition was a substantial one: Listeners could be easily alienated by the performance’s opening such that they might not be able to buy back into it later on. However, the piece’s satisfying resolution justified the risk for at least some listeners. Coming at the end of a night of sometimes-difficult but rewarding compositions, it was exhausting in the way that only a harrowing, incisive piece of art can be.