Navarro work a highlight amid didactic opening night at MATA Festival

Thu May 05, 2022 at 1:21 pm
Unnoticed Spectacles by Fernanda Aoki Navarro was heard in its world premiere at MATA Festival Wednesday night at Roulette.

Yet another major event put on hold by the pandemic is back. Founded by Philip Glass, MATA (Music at the Anthology) has returned for a four-concert festival that opened Wednesday night at Roulette. 

MATA is not just a new music presenter: the festival has a global reach and a focus on younger composers, and so is regularly a reliable survey of some of the freshest, most varied, and least academic thinking in contemporary classical music. 

And so it was a genuine surprise, and a painful disappointment, to experience the narrow and limited focus of Wednesday night’s program, made worse by how music was mostly a secondary concern.

With the International Contemporary Ensemble and some superb guest musicians playing, the compositions were in excellent hands. But through most of the seven pieces (three of them world premieres) they weren’t asked to do very much.

There was a substantial amount of spoken word on the program, both live and on pre-recorded audio. This was central to the biggest problem on the concert: pieces content to narrate or describe with words, leaving the music as an afterthought. 

This started with the opening premiere, Michele Cheng’s Doyennes Diaries. This had four performers, each seated at a table, while coming out of the speakers were fragments of audio diaries from four different women. As the audio played, the performers manipulated household objects on wooden slabs on the tables, pulling a tape measure, rustling pieces of metal, scattering nuts and coffee beans. There was a fascinating sound that came from holding a tuning fork against the wood.

Yet this was all timbres, none of which came together in any musical structure. It all seemed supposed to respond to the audio, but the two went along parallel tracks, without any sense that they were meant to exist simultaneously. The dry, objective aesthetic of the performing part was a prism for the audio, taking very human stories and abstracting them into mere sound objects with which the piece did nothing. Stories, it seemed, were the thing. 

This was also so for The Colour of Home, by Nyokabi Kariuki, which had a percussionist playing along with a video of outdoor scenes, with a soundtrack of people discussing words and colors that meant home to them. Again, the audio was more interesting than the music, which followed sounds on the soundtrack. One never heard a purpose for the music, not even as decoration, much less any sense that the playing and video had any non-coincidental connection.

Shara Lunon’s Samples No. 3: Why I Believe Womyn and Nina Fukuoka’s Sugar, Spice, & All Things Nice were discouraging. Using text, both were about the experience of sexual harassment and institutional intimidation, and misogyny—very real, painful and infuriating things. But these were both delivered as something like lectures, with very little musical purpose. Samples No. 3 had the added frustration of featuring the phenomenal vocalist Fay Victor in duet with bassoonist Rebekah Heller. Victor was mostly asked to speak, and only toward the end was she allowed to sing. With wordless phases, she conveyed anguish, anger, and determination with far more clarity and expressiveness than the words could manage. One wasn’t sure how much of this was Victor’s invention or the composer’s direction.

With a quintet of piano, accordion, percussion, and violins, Sugar, Spice, & All Things Nice was another piece with very little music, the instruments used for almost nothing but effects against the story of a composer facing a misogynist music department. The musicians took turns delivering the lines with varying levels of projection and articulation.

One does not begrudge message music, but one does fairly expect there to be some actual music and for it to work. The greatness of past political music from the likes of Fred Rzewski and Charles Mingus is that it is great music, and that those musicians knew that the words just set the stage while the music delivered the complexity of meaning, the outrage and resolve, the passion to charge into the future. The pieces Wednesday night were bafflingly clinical, like preliminary sketches, mostly ignoring the political and social possibilities of just music.

One also felt that these pieces were academic in their own way, made by conservatory and university students to be heard by other music students. This is the Milton Babbitt problem in a new formal guise—the result being music that may imagine it is public facing, but in a way that only speaks to colleagues.

All this was exacerbated by an enormous error in judgement by the festival. Presumably to spell time during stage charges, MATA had a comedian perform between pieces. One problem with this is that “Neal,” as he identified himself, wasn’t funny. His very presence amid these often grim works was garishly out of place, as even he began to express as the concert went along.

Still, there were some genuine satisfactions in the concert, and some fantastic and unexpected music. 

Laura Brackney’s Knots, a solo bass piece played by Kyle Motl, was an invigorating mix of chaotic bowing under a larger, shapely form. Motl quicksilvered his way through sounds and timbres, and teased out a subtle blues line. 

The final piece on the program was Of Yours, by Chris Ryan Williams, and featuring Lunon as vocalist and cellist Lester St. Louis and bassist Luke Stewart as guests. Williams, St. Louis, and Stewart are talented and important figures in the improvised music community. Williams had an audio collage for his piece, with prominent quotes from James Baldwin, but used that as background and context, and put his beautiful, mournful sound, and the focused agitation of his cohorts, to the fore. With Of Yours, the message was in the music.

The absolute highlight of the concert was Unnoticed Spectacles, a stunning premiere from Fernanda Aoki Navarro. 

This was something of a chamber monodrama, led by vocalist Alice Teyssier, with Heller, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, and flutist Laura Cocks (each musician also played percussion). It began with Teyssier singing and struggling to form words, “I’ve been cry…”, before bursting into a full-bodied keening. She was interrupted by the other musicians coming down the aisles, spinning ropes and other whirling percussion, tossing off notes on their instruments. All the musicians then played glass harmonicas in a gorgeous extended passage, before joining Teyssier on stage, where she spoke some slightly surreal lines by Clarice Lispector, before the performance ended.

One cannot convey in words how compelling this was. The combination of the beguiling sounds and the mysterious, dream-like logic made this suspenseful in the way of anticipating something new that would knock the listener marvelously askew. Skillful, personal, having no clear antecedents, this was what new music truly should be all about.

The MATA Festival continues 8 pm Thursday at Roulette and 7:30 pm Friday and Saturday at National Sawdust.

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