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21C’s Diverse Sound Universe

21C’s Diverse Sound Universe

Contemporary classical music has a rep for being dark, dreary and so intellectually rigorous as to be off-putting for the average concert-goer. Happily, at the 21C Music Festival, obscuration is out and engaging the audience is in.

Japan: NEXT showcased the contemporary without eschewing the traditional.

These works offered far more than the usual battle between consonance and dissonance that so often typifies modern Western music, deftly skirting the dilemma by simultaneously employing both complex harmonies and haunting melodies.

Comparisons can be found here with Japan’s twentieth-century “great,” Toru Takemitsu, whose shadow looms large over Japanese music, yet there were also traces of the intimate sound universe of Anton Webern, albeit with far less Germanic mysticism and more of an Eastern playfulness.

In keeping with tradition, both Misato Mochizuki’s Silent Circle (2006) and Michael Oesterle’s Look on Glass (2016) made impressive use of the koto, masterfully performed by Mitsuki Dazai and the Continuum Contemporary Music ensemble under conductor Brian Current. Both works were rich sounding and coloured with an inherent delicacy that is decidedly un-Western.

Dai Fujikura showcased the sho, whose seventeen bamboo pipes are said to imitate the call of the phoenix. Born in the UK, Dai claims not to dwell on “east-meets-west” clichés, although he composed these highly evocative pieces (Touch of Breeze 2004, Breathing Tides 2010, Okeanos Breeze, 2001) with traditional-sounding instruments.

I was particularly struck by the breathless energy of Hiroki Tsurumoto’s Cursor 6 (2016), whose strains of sound repeat themselves with minor and major thematic variations. I was not altogether surprised, therefore, to learn that the work was inspired by the composer’s love of running, using personal experience as a basis for creating from “old materials.”

The restless urgency supports the composer’s confession that, while he finds premieres “exciting and terrifying,” he tends to grow dissatisfied with his works over time and is therefore driven to create anew. A graphic designer by day, Tsurumoto was inspired by typographic systems for an earlier work and says his next series will be about his Basenji hounds. I forgot to ask if he runs with them.

The title of Hikari Kiyami’s Death Metal Rock with Head Bang (2014) says a good deal about the piece itself. Here there is no struggle between consonance and dissonance, so much as there is total acceptance of dissonance and harmonic excess. It is, quite literally, a riot of a piece and a send-up of all things pious in music, like a whoopee cushion gone berserk. It proved to be an audience fave.

Blackout was not a musical work per se so much as a sensory event incorporating music.

Audience members were escorted into the auditorium in total darkness, sitting for up to an hour experiencing a variety of aural feedback, both live and recorded, while unseen performers whisked past in the darkness with hand-held instruments. A fellow audience member seated beside me turned out to be part of the performance, contributing a variety of sounds and helping create a truly multi-dimensional sonic experience.

As a musical event, the work at times proved challenging. Not only could we not see anything, we were also not provided programs beforehand to familiarize ourselves with what was to come, making it hard to piece the music together. In fact, the “work” proved not to be a single piece at all, but a compilation of several compositions by John Oswald.

Part of the reason for the secrecy, of course, was to make this a truly experiential, as opposed to intellectual, exercise. And in part it was also to keep secret the identity of some of the guest performers, like Mary Margaret O’Hara, who were not revealed till after the performance. As a sensory experience, it was stimulating and fun and could easily prove a concert mainstay.

Jherek Bischoff, Dawn of Midi, and The Visit…

…turned out to be a mixed concert comprised of a duo, a trio and an ensemble, each markedly different from each other.

The Visit opened with a short set featuring the cello gymnastics of Raphael Weinroth-Browne accompanying the lush vocals of Heather Sita Black. Whether bowed, plucked or percussive, Weinroth-Browne’s playing created hypnotic melodies overlain by Black’s mellifluous voice to create exquisitely crafted pieces with a middle-eastern sound that might have been composed by a 21st-century Bach. This is as distinctive as contemporary music gets.

Dawn of Midi, three guys from the School of Casual, ambled on-stage as if dropping by for a bit of fun. From Amino Belyamani’s unconventional piano playing—using fingers on the strings to create an array of un-piano-like sounds—through Aakaash Israni upright bass and Qasim Navqi’s drums, the trio wove a hypnotic sound tapestry.

The work itself might have been a cross between John Coltrane’s Africa Brass Sessions and a One-Note Samba, where minor variations in tone and rhythm signify major changes and accrue a kind of force by the piece’s end. It tended to polarize, however, driving some audience members out—no doubt dazed by the numbing repetition—while others stood and applauded wildly at the end. A new school of minimalism? Possibly. And while it’s tempting to look for profundities, it’s probably best just to enjoy it for what it is.

Has anyone called Jherek Bischoff the André Riu of Rock ‘n’ Roll? That is how his work struck me, inhabiting as it does that vast plain situated between Anything Goes Pop and Light Classical, a place traversed by few with such serious intent.

Bischoff dons many hats as well as instruments in the course of a show, strapping on a guitar as quickly as he might pick up drumsticks to tap on a snare or conduct the very capable 21C Ensemble, who were quick to follow his lead.

With a reputation for LA cool, his pieces tended to the lush, creating intricate miniatures of tone and sound coloration, offering dreamlike works in a reverb-ambient style. It was a fitting end for such a varied concert with so many moods and shifting tonalities.


JeffreyRound-300x225Jeffrey Round is the author of nine novels, including the Lambda Award-winning Lake On The Mountain, and a poetry collection, In the Museum of Leonardo da Vinci. His first two books, A Cage of Bones and The P-town Murders, were listed on AfterElton’s Top 50 Greatest Gay Books. He is a founding member of the Naked Heart Festival of Words.

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