In a program entitled speakOUT, Hotel Elefant, a new-composer collective, performed musical narratives ranging from horseback riding in Northern Iran to the public suicide of a Pennsylvanian State Treasurer. Combining seasoned chamber musicians, new works, and a cabaret-style venue, Hotel Elefant delivered an evening of captivating music as a form of storytelling.

Beginning with featured Iranian-born composer Sahba Aminikia, the stage took fire with spirited viola soloist Kallie Ciechomski, in a piece entitled Shetābān (In Haste). Rhythmically driven with Persian harmonies, Shetābān is reminiscent of a dance by Stravinsky or Bartok and alludes to the music of the horse-riding Iranian-Kurdish people of Northern Khorāsān, highlighting the viola's percussive edge in combination with aggressive foot-stomping from the soloist.

Hotel Elefant © Julien Jourdes
Hotel Elefant
© Julien Jourdes

Following in more austere manner, This Will Hurt Someone by Matt Marks sets the pre-suicide speech of former Pennsylvanian State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer to Broadway-esque song. The work, arranged for voice, piano, ukulele and strings, maintains a conventional songwriting format, and begins with a languid ukelele in detached arpeggios, providing a compassionate yet hypnotic palette. The vocal line, sung here by the composer himself, takes the lyrics verbatim from the politician's speech from his final press conference moments before he placed a pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Straying away from violent tone painting as we might have heard 150 years ago from Berlioz (the nightmarish beheading in Symphonie fantastique), Marks offers a sympathetic account of Dwyer's suicide without sadomasochism or condemnation. The piece respectfully ends as the vocalist searches the crowd for his colleagues just seconds before chaos and shouting would ensue.

In a similar vain, Leaha Maria Villarreal's Piano Trio I chronicles another heartbreaking story: this time more personal. Written in three movements, Villarreal's work outlines the events surrounding her mother's death in 1985. The trio begins at daybreak with propulsive, minimalist-style scalar passages staggered among the instrumentalists. The momentum crescendos to a sudden stop in what may be the ambulance on the way to hospital or the mother driving moments before impact. The violin brings us to the hospital with reticent harmonics and long chords, sounding like the foundation in which a 20th century composer might lay a solo cadenza; however, here we have no solo, but rather an empty void with no life to fill. Bell-like tones in the piano construct the final movement which offers a haven for contemplation and grieving.

The next piece by Aminikia, One Day; Tehran, was composed in 2009 as a string quartet depicting an average day in Tehran. Beginning with an oscillating dialogue between the viola and second violin, an accented cello part, and a floating violin line, dawn in the Iranian capital is filled with tension and unrest. The piece builds through noon with foot-stomping and crunching intervals until the sun sets on a gentle viola lullaby, played exquisitely here by Gillian Gallagher. In a calm but demented tone, the piece ends as the listener anticipates coming full circle and a new chaotic day breaking once more.

While Beethoven represented the composer as king, Hannis Brown is a great example of composer as guide. In Sewing Room Daguerreotype, the conductor, the electronic mix operator, and eclectic group of instrumentalists are granted more liberties than most post-Baroque composers usually allow. The piece is described as telling a specific story, yet it is difficult for the listener to follow. A wide range of extended techniques and virtuosity are demanded from each performer, and the improvisational nature leads the listener down a confusing path of unpredictability. And the truth is: the unpredictability of Sewing Room Daguerreotype lends perfectly to any immigrant's story of moving to a new country. Sporadic motives, vacillating intensities, and sudden atmospheric changes shape the feeling of directionless, misplacement, and sometimes hope for the foreigner in a foreign land.

Inspired by photographer Chris Hondros, the penultimate piece, Children of Conflict: “Samar's Song”, was written in 2013 by Mary Kouyoumdjian and depicts conflict during the US occupation in Iraq. Tremolos in the vibraphone and marimba lay the backdrop for a gorgeous violin elegy, played by Andie Tanning Springer, in Persian modes doubled by a recorded voice. The song is short-lived, however, as the bass drum interrupts the melody with a violent crescendo ending in a blackout.

The concert concluded with Aminikia's Sooge Sohrab (The Tragedy of Sohrab), written for percussion, guitar, and recorded material from Tasuā and Āshurā, a ritual mourning an innocent Imam murdered amidst a power struggle. The percussion provides a slow march-like quality to the beginning of the piece as the recorded track questions the nature of just violence. The guitar emulates classical Persian music with preconceived improvisational sounding modal lines. Once again, the work exemplifies Aminikia's focus on vigorous rhythms taking the vibraphone and guitar to full intensity against ritual-appropriate chanting and weeping from the recorded track. After a slight break, the music closes with tenuous chords from the vibraphone and airy guitar harmonics over a songlike chant, leaving the audience one last time in a state of thoughtful meditation. 

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