The San Francisco Bay Area made another strong case for itself as a focal point for contemporary music on Saturday night. The setting was Trinity Chapel in Berkeley which hosts the Trinity Chamber Concerts series. This particular concert, entitled On and Off the Keys, simultaneously marked the culmination of their 10th annual season and the beginning of the Festival of Contemporary Music.

The evening began with a piece called Echoes of Basho’s Voice by Stephen Yip. Written for flute, violin, cello and piano, the work is based on Matsuo Basho’s haiku of the same name and divided into six different sections, each intended to represent the different sounds that the poetry evokes. The flute was given a prominent and free role, with an array of colourful percussive sounds from the violin and cello. The artistry of poetic writing within classical music is most often attributed to the sumptuous, tonal sounds of Robert Schumann, but this well-written work conjured up numerous vivid images simply by the element of instrumental sound, rather than harmony. “How wild the sea is” was painted by a flurry of notes both by the flute and piano, as was the unpredictable and relentlessly “powerful wind”. Perhaps the most effective moment came at the very end. “A cuckoo cries” was humourously created quite unlike the famous clarinet call in Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, with a simple ascending two-note repeated pattern in the piano. As “the late moon” shone, the sound shimmered as the pianist delicately reached inside the piano, strumming the strings like a harp and ending the piece quite serenely.

A solo piano composition titled Nostalgia by Ulf Grahn followed. As the titled suggests, the composer muses on the interesting concept of looking back, contemplating whether we do so with accuracy or distortion. I was intrigued by this notion, hearing the same repeated patterns return throughout the piece similar, but often changed. I found myself drifting off more in thought than musical mesmerisation. The pianist gave an assured account, but I felt it was lacking in direction, often broken by page turns which seemed to disrupt the seamless flow of musical ambience.

The penultimate work of the first half was undoubtedly the highlight of the program both from a compositional and performance standpoint. One by One by Greg Steinke is a work based on the images created in the poem ‘One’ from Notes from the Center of the Earth by K’os Naahaabii. The poetic images are quite striking and the composer did a superb job of conjuring these up by musical expression. Both Justin Lee (flute) and Meredith Clark (harp) played their instruments with a variety of control, ranging from impressive extended techniques – including the scraping of harp strings and percussive, pedal attacks – to more delicately placed moments of beauty. The piece continued to move with a forward momentum, partly due to the writing but also through the wonderful pacing and strict ensemble between the performers. The audience dutifully acknowledged this fine work and performance with much applause.

The first half concluded with another strong performance, of a piece by Davide Verotta called In Flight. This work aimed to recreate the feeling inspired by the daydream of flying, an experience of most at some point during their life. The piece was successful in doing this, fast-paced and with abandon as it flew towards its conclusion.

For those avid contemporary enthusiasts who remained to hear the final three pieces of the evening, they were met with a startling piece by Ted Moore for solo percussion called do you?. A student not only of music but also of psychology, the composer addresses the concept of “cognitive dissonance”, in which an “individual struggles to resolve inconsistencies between their beliefs and their actions in order to maintain the view of oneself as a consistent person.” I had little time to ponder this mind-bending idea as a barrage of loud percussion playing filled the space of this small venue. Unfortunately, through no fault of the composer or performer, the hall was much too intimate a setting for this type of piece, and it left a number of the audience members trying to plug their ears as respectfully as they could. Eardrums aside, I enjoyed the energy presented by the performer and, at times, found the rhythms employed rather invigorating.

Another piano solo served as respite, with Helena Michelson’s Frozen Reminiscences. The composer took to the stage to perform her own piece. The work was written to emphasize the static and persistent nature of memory. As with the piano solo in the first half, I found myself once again drifting into thought, indulging in my own state of reminiscing, albeit simple memory recall rather than a nostalgic look at past events or feelings. I did not find the music overly engaging but perhaps the composer would consider this a success, considering the ‘static’ nature of the piece.

Concluding an evening of fine, quality talent was a work for two electric guitars, cello and percussion. This demanded an element of improvisation from the performers in a piece called Atlas by Luke Schwartz, in which the piece takes on “road map”-like qualities. The piece has numerous ‘directions’ that the musical events travel, but the players are asked to interpret these with spontaneity. The performance certainly delivered a degree of spontaneity yet there was definite cohesiveness about the collaboration between the performers. It seemed that whilst gestures were approached by each individual, the ensemble would often result in moments of togetherness. I enjoyed the smearing sounds that blended the electric guitar and cello and found that the steady, rhythmic drive that ended the work was an exciting representation of the concert program in its entirety.