When it comes to contemporary music, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) has made great strides in their ten-year history, premièing over 500 compositions and performing not only in New York and Chicago but in venues all over the world. ICE’s director and flutist Claire Chase was recently named a MacArthur recipient – fittingly awarded when one considers Ms Chase’s relentless devotion to bringing new and experimental sounds to wider and wider audiences. Her unwavering enthusiasm was palpable on Thursday night as she and Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth held an on-stage discussion between ICE’s performances of two Neuwirth pieces. Doing justice to a “composer portrait” of Ms Neuwirth, Ms Chase lamented, would require a week rather than two hours, and multiple theaters and an opera house and a movie screen and... so on.
Ms Neuwirth’s prolific and richly diverse output includes the opera Lost Highway, based on David Lynch’s 2007 film, two more operas written just within the past year, and many, many more works. Ms Neuwirth explained that she herself picked the program for this composer portrait: her 2001 piano concerto locus... doublure... solus and the US première of ...ce qui arrive..., a 2004 work for two ensembles, samples, and live electronics that also includes three songs on texts by Andrew Patner and Georgette Dee. Although Ms Neuwirth acknowledged that the two pieces are vastly different, they both offered a similar experience: an arrangement of complex acoustical moments in time. Her use of ellipses in both works’ titles seems to signify an interest not in a horizontal journey through time, but the capturing of vertical junctures of ideas that seem to extend backwards and forwards from these moments.
Both scores feature a fair amount of graphic notation, which the musicians of ICE, led by conductor Jayce Ogren, were more than capable of interpreting with an astute grace – particularly piano soloist Cory Smythe. The piano concerto consists of seven movements: the first and last are fixed but the middle five can be played in any order. The title was inspired by the writings of Raymond Roussel, in particular his novel Locus Solus, the story of a distinguished inventor. Despite the literary connotations, the performance did not resort to a teleological “storytime” approach. Instead, each of the movements created a vivid and, yes, whimsical world akin to the whirring repetitious machines populating Roussel’s tale. Some sections were frantic, bordering on distressing, while others developed their sounds more subtly. The percussion’s widely varying textures, as well as the unique tunings of the viola and electric keyboard (approximately a quarter-tone sharp and a quarter-tone flat, respectively), lent the work a curious color. The piano concerto’s soundworld was truly Ms Neuwirth’s invention, and one I gladly could have spent more time exploring.
During the discussion, Ms Neuwirth described ...ce qui arrive... as “test of listening... it’s about attentiveness”. The title is loosely translated as “what’s coming up” or “what happens”: “In life, you never know what’s coming up,” she stated. Clocking in at about an hour long, the work certainly has a lot going on. The beginning, with a leisurely layering of chords, was serene, almost miraculous. I would have gladly listened to the two mini-ensembles build on the introductory harmonies for 60 minutes. However, the ensemble quickly retreated from the focus, becoming, as Ms Chase described, “disembodied... like a shadow”. The on-stage instrumental music was layered and interspersed with live electronics, text fragments from Hand to Mouth and The Red Notebook read by their author, Paul Auster, and three interludes during which the lights dimmed, the musicians stopped playing, and overamplified chanson snippets wafted through the theater.
I spent the majority of this hour frantically flipping through the score, getting distracted by the ever-shifting sound atmosphere – with timbres ranging from bombasts of brass to staticky ocean waves – and then wondering what any of it had to do with the rest. That is, until one of the final voiceovers, at which time my perspective changed. Mr Auster’s voice, which Ms Neuwirth explained was naturally in the key of D, had been enhanced by string resonators, creating a powerful and almost eerie echo. In this final segment, taken from The Red Notebook, Mr Auster recounts a childhood story of saving his sister’s friend from being dragged beneath a moving vehicle. Years later, Mr Auster views these eight or ten seconds as a “defining experience” despite the fact that the girl has long forgotten them. As the words “defining experience” echoed over the music escalating to its ending, I was able to appreciate the defining moments within the chaos of the piece. The delicate violin tremolos and harmonica arpeggios were memorable for me but maybe not for others – who in their turn now remember moments I’ve forgotten. Despite its shortcomings, ...ce qui arrive... convincingly conveyed Ms Neuwirth’s notion on the unpredictability of life.