Visiting Wind Instrumentalists Highlight Experimentalism in Guest Recital

Anne Pride-Wilt, Arts Editor

This past Tuesday night, Stull Recital Hall — the performance space that protrudes from the top of Bibbins Hall — was brightly illuminated and visible from the ground below. Few realized, however, that inside was an absorbing guest recital performed by three immensely talented musicians, two of them alumni. Headlined by flutist Élise Roy, OC ’09, and saxophonist Matthew Younglove and featuring three compositions by Kurt Isaacson, OC ’09, the experimental recital combined classical instrumentation with innovative musicality and electronic modulation for a fascinating performance.


The recital began with no introduction. Roy stepped quietly behind her multiple music stands and raised her flute for “bokeh,” composed by Isaacson in 2009. The experimental nature of the composition immediately became clear as Roy whistled and blew into her flute with no discernible patterns of rhythm or pitch. Already idiosyncratic, the piece’s strangeness was heightened when Roy’s solo flute was manipulated and looped such that while attendees saw only one performer, they heard three or four playing at once. The speakers in the concert hall added depth to the sound, throwing it around the room and creating the illusion of ghost performers positioned around the stage. Toward the end of the piece, Roy held her mouth away from the flute and vocalized steadily, mimicking what she had just been playing on her flute. The effect was unexpected, eerie and disorienting in the way only experimental music can be but also completely mesmerizing.


The second piece, “Inflorescence IV,” was composed by Assistant Professor of Composition Josh Levine and performed by Roy and Gabrielle Roderer on flute. Although played with a similar multiplying effect as the opening piece, it required even more coordination as the flutists had to synchronize with each other. Roy and Roderer had no rhythmic cues they could use to coordinate their playing, so they had to pay close attention to what the other was doing. The pair’s odd, jerky movements complemented the music, although it was unclear whether they were intentional.


Roy returned to the stage solo for the third piece, a performance of composer Brian Ferneyhough’s 1970 work “Cassandra’s Dream Song.” Roy reached her apex in this performance, handling the notoriously complicated score with apparent ease. “Cassandra’s Dream Song” is more nightmare than dream, and Roy conveyed this unnerving quality masterfully. At times, Roy tapped on her flute for makeshift percussion, emphasizing the unorthodox use of instruments that characterized the whole recital.


The evening’s other headliner, Younglove on saxophone, finally joined Roy for the fourth piece, Isaacson’s “color boundaries and plastic action / red ground behind your eyelids.” Roy switched to piccolo for this piece to better contrast with the deeper range of the saxophone. Much like the flute during the rest of the recital, Younglove’s saxophone often sounded little like the traditional conception of the instrument, only occasionally breaking loose with the saxophone’s characteristic brassiness. Instead, Younglove played with more restraint — except during the recurring sections during which he blasted the sax like a jarring fire alarm, a blaring sound over which Roy’s piccolo danced lightly to create a strange, pleasant counterpoint.


For the recital’s closing piece, Younglove returned for a solo rendition of Isaacson’s “shreds of dirty gray assembled in a hurry, disdained by the moon.” This piece recalled “bokeh” keenly, as it also employed plenty of electronic modulation. Younglove used a pedal on the floor to manipulate the sound while he played his saxophone. While the piece was comparatively less interesting that the rest of the program and a solo by Younglove was an odd choice to end a recital so dependent on Roy, the bookend quality of “bokeh” and the closer satisfied overall.


Experimental music can be polarizing, but talented performers like Roy, Younglove and Roderer were able to perform so mesmerizingly that even proponents of more traditional music couldn’t fail to be sucked in. While the aesthetics may be endlessly debated, the talent onstage was certain, and the difficulty of the night’s selections only accentuated displays of that talent. Stull Recital Hall is an intimate space that makes a recital like last Tuesday’s even more intense — just a few gifted performers and their strange, stunning music.