ACME delivers fresh, brilliant take on old new music

Sun Apr 10, 2016 at 1:37 pm
a and y perform Philip Glass's xxx Saturday night at The Kitchen. Photo; Mark Shelby Perry

Violists Nadia Sirota and Caleb Burhans performed Philip Glass’s “Piece in the Shape of a Square” Saturday night at The Kitchen. Photo; Mark Shelby Perry

The vast majority of classical music concerts are made from music that has been played for years, decades, even centuries. The ideal is to use the accumulation of time, experience, and knowledge to bring new life to the pieces. And that is exactly what the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) did at The Kitchen in Chelsea Saturday night.

Their concert was the first of two this weekend in which the ensemble plays music by composers whose work either premiered, or found a place to thrive, at the venue in its previous locations in the Village and SoHo. The music Saturday was part of our times, modern classics for the musicians from ACME, who played with the kind of appreciation, assurance, and understanding that showed the works as inherent to their heritage. In the guise of a commemoration, they delivered a wonderful concert where everything sounded newly considered.

Changing times and generations means that the pieces from Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Joseph Byrd are no longer part of a counterculture that they once represented. That counterculture is long gone, and Reich and Glass are now leading figures of a new era they created. ACME played two of their earlier works, Violin Phase and Piece in the Shape of a Square, respectively, foundational compositions that Saturday night sounded unbelievably fresh.

Ben Russell began with Violin Phase. There’s an exciting live recording of this piece, captured at The Kitchen in 1977, when Reich’s music was still only being played by his own ensemble. With that in the memory, it was thrilling to witness a young musician like Russell play the piece with such technical command and expressive poise.

Violin Phase is the instrumental realization of ideas Reich had been experimenting with via tape loops. The violinist and the taped part (when Reich first made the piece, tape was actual audio tape, not generically pre-recorded music), gradually move in and out of phase, accompanying and echoing each other as they move from unison to a being offset from one another by an exact subdivision of the beat.

In between, there are exciting moments when the subdivisions are uneven and fluid, threatening chaos before structural clarity returns. Russell’s accents, inflections, and phrasing were excellent. As the violin plays against the tape, combinations of notes and rhythms come to the fore, building an evanescent structure on the fly. Russell’s noticeably quick tempo vitally renewed the piece, while staying true to the lovely, turning-in-place quality of the music.

For Piece in the Shape of a Square, the musicians are the ones that turn. Glass originally wrote this for two flutists, himself and Jon Gibson, and Saturday Nadia Sirota and Caleb Burhans played it on violas. The musicians face each other from inside and outside a square made of music stands, then follow the music around the square, one moving clockwise and the other counterclockwise, until they meet again where they began, which turns out to be the end.

Written in 1967, the piece is not quite yet in Glass’ trademark additive style. There are a small handful of phrases that the players repeat, offset from each in time. Where Reich phases, Glass use counterpoint.

The playing was lively and propulsive, with the violas adding a nice earthiness to music that can have a touch of experimental purity. Witnessing the musicians move around the stands is a beneficial part of the piece’s fascination.

Byrd is a more experimental composer, and the compositions ACME played, Water Music and Animals, come from the early 1960s, when he was in New York, studying with Cage, working for Virgil Thomson and at Capitol Records.(ACME has recorded these and more on a terrific New World Records CD, Joseph Byrd: NYC 1960–1963.). Byrd’s music is less concerned with structure than with pure sound, and has beauty, charm, and magic.

Water Music, for percussion and tape, was written for celebrated avant-garde percussionist Max Neuhaus, and realized in the Capitol recording studios. It is set in three tableau, with the percussionist playing in sequence gongs, marimba, and tuned cowbells against a collection of throbbing, shuddering electronic sounds. Chris Thompson carefully homogenized his playing with the tape, creating a rich aura in which every detail was engrossing.

Animals is a miniature prepared piano concerto from 1961, which has an accidental relationship to Violin Phase. The prepared piano is accompanied by strings and percussion, each playing one note in an independent rhythmic pulse, and the lines come together in patterns that depend as much on listener perception as on the workings of the piece.

All the sounds are delicate; the string players tap with drumsticks, and much of the piano preparation produces a sound like tapping on a small, wooden box. There’s an uncanny blending of timbres, and the overall effect was mesmerizing. There’s a lot of punchy, funky rhythms in the piano part, and Peter Dugan played it with relish.

ACME plays music of Meredith Monk, Julius Eastman, and Charlemagne Palestine 8 p.m. Sunday at The Kitchen.

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