After my brief recuperative day off I jumped back into the Open Ears fray. Unfortunately tonight's fray was a bit of a muddle, but the martinis at Jane Bond were delicious!
Penderecki String Quartet
There are certain things that I don't "have ears" for. Solo pianists who play modern compositions, for instance. And mezzo sopranos. And string quartets.
But I keep thinking that if I continue to EXPOSE myself to the Penderecki String Quartet -- which is pretty easy to do, frankly, as you can't throw a horsehair-bow without hitting them in this town -- I'll eventually "get it."
That hasn't happened yet and it didn't happen tonight. Therefore I can't pass judgment on them or their choice of music. I can, however, say that they're as cool as cucumbers and they seem like really sweet and stable people, and if they volunteered to look after my cat I would trust them to do a really great job.
Their first piece ("Light Garden" by David R. Scott) was the sort of string quartet-ty music that I never manage to enjoy. Bowing, striking, plucking. I am amazed that so much plucking can happen without the instruments going out of tune. This sort of thing seems to go nowhere in my mind, and when it's finally over I'm always surprised.
Their second, however, was "teatro dell'udito VI," during which they were joined by the composer himself, an extremely fuzzy Giorgio Magnanensi. While they played the composition, Mr. Gagnanensi sampled two of the instruments and played them back using what appeared to be some sort of delayed granular synthesis (I knew it would pop up eventually in this festival...it seems to have been the de facto choice for live electronic experimentation during the last six years).
The altered violin sounds were played back during the piece itself and an extremely creepy waveform morphed on the screen above the musicians, in sync with the electronic noises. During the first section the samples were played back in short discrete howls, sort of the way a dog tries to sing along with the theme for "The Tonight Show." During the second section, however, the waveform took on a life of its own, growing and pulsating in its evil green way, seeming almost to be FED by the string quartet. "Stop feeding it!" we should have yelled as a warning to the musicians. "It's getting bigger behind you!"
This was all quite beautiful, actually, though it kept reminding me of this.
The final piece included a dance interpretation of "Penelope and Odysseus," choreographed by the oddly-named "Dancetheatre David Earle." When I talked about the things that I don't "have ears" for, I should have also mentioned something that I don't have EYES for: modern dance. All that grasping, arching, and cringeing. I simply can't evaluate it in an objective way so -- once again -- I'll leave it to more knowledgeable people to say whether the performance was good or bad. Maybe they can also tell me whether Odysseus was the guy in the gray top, the red top, or the blue top.
I can say, however, that even when they were portraying a Greek person who is dizzy and is about to fall, they never once knocked over a music stand or a violin player, which is certainly a better balancing act than I could ever manage.
Hard Rubber Orchestra
Near the beginning of the set the conductor and spokesperson for the Hard Rubber Orchestra said that their repetoir was wide and varied. Hmmm.
Let me say right off the top that the musicians in the Hard Rubber Orchestra were AMAZING. Like, these guys could join just about any band and instantly create a sensation.
That said, I should have LOVED their show. They were bombastic and disciplined and they played a really likeable style of music: original compositions combining the most well-worn elements of film noir, Starsky & Hutch, and mid-'70s coffee commercials. You see, the problem's already starting.
They were so damn SLICK and SAFE, in the same manner as Cirque de Soleil or The Blue Man Group. Even when somebody was belting out a really amazing solo, they were almost totally steamrolled by a never-ending wave of capably-played soundtrack music, usually dominated and mutilated by a driving rhythm section. You get the feeling that their compositions have been through the wash so many times that all the colours have simply run together; the MUSIC is energetic, but the bulk of the playing HAS NO SOUL.
There were two notable exceptions, however. In the last song, the conductor (and composer of the song) seemed to suddenly pull a James Brown/Frank Zappa and twist things around a bit. The first instance of this was also the most amazing: he got the four trombone players to stand up and begin a toneless, arhythmic improvisation, while gradually the other band members ceased playing. Those trombones just went on and on and on, goofing off, sighing, laughing, climaxing...
...and the music was ALIVE! Frankenstein walked! Spring had come to Waterloo and the air was fresh and sweet and electric!
Then the rest of the band crashed in and it was all just spoiled, like maybe Frankenstein had tried to make good but had gotten frightened by fire. Seven minutes of brilliance does not a good show make. I'd be happy to listen to Hard Rubber Orchestra on the radio, but seeing them live as part of an experimental music festival was totally underwhelming.
I'm sure that Hard Rubber Orchestra is on their way to fame, and they deserve it too. Folks will love them in Vegas!