Walking in the woods the other day, I stopped at a marshy grove where I had been led by a cacophony of peepers. Peepers are those tiny frogs that hatch in the early spring, and their voices can fill a forest with song. This shout-out was accompanied by a choir of unseen creatures with voices like raspy castanets. Soon, the entire forest was exploding with musical color and syncopated rhythms. Four composers whose works make me think of this kind of music generated by nature, and revealed through science and mathematics, were featured this weekend in a concert by the Basel Sinfonietta.

Lin Liao conducts the Basel Sinfonietta
© Zlatko Mićić

Lin Liao, a Taiwanese conductor who now lives in Germany, presented a poised, focused presence at the podium, ramrod straight, without a baton, coaxing a wide range of colors, musical shapes, and feelings from the orchestra as it performed the works of four composers active in the past 60 years. The concert opened with a work by Iannis Xenakis, inspired by his own fascination with mathematics. ST/48-1,240162 received its Swiss premiere in this performance. This work for 48 players was created in 1962 using the stochastic (random) computer music program ST. Under Lin Liao’s direction, this precedent-setting work sounded fresh and contemporary, with abundant glissandi so popular with today’s young composers and the piquant sounds of piccolo and percussion instruments adding musical spice to the mix.

I found British composer Rebecca Saunders’ traces (2006) the most interesting work on the program. It opens with the double basses growling slowly and deliberately in their lowest range. The lowest frequency of a double bass is around 20 Hz, which some internet pundits think is enough to kill a person over time, so the sound of those haunting low tones can be disturbing at the very least. This is a work of extremes on every level. At one point, the trombonist extends both his arm and the hand slide as far as humanly possible. Yet, there is a method to Saunders’ madness in a composition that is rich with effects, sometimes shocking and unnerving, but at other times, cohesive and architectural.

Basel Sinfonietta
© Zlatko Mićić

The Sinfonietta presented the world premiere of Swedish composer Jesper Norden’s Waves. More glissandi here, sometimes sounding like the sirens of emergency vehicles, or could they be the titular waves, rising and falling eternally? The orchestra glides into a chatty conversation that erupts into discord, like a family dinner party gone bad. Then the composer beguiles us with a folk-like melody for solo clarinet which quietly leads to a neat conclusion with no loose ends.

Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg’s Marea, a Swiss premiere, concluded the program with large blocks of daring harmony, created in part by using the computer as a tool for exploration. Discordant, wise, and gleaming, these are sounds we hear in nature and in the part of nature that is ourselves.

This performance was reviewed from the Basel Sinfonietta live stream