SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
Music travels profound universe
Pam Dixon 13-Feb-1999
It’s not unusual to think of all the world as a stage. But when the stage becomes a world, now that gets pretty intriguing.
In this context, Sonor, the University of California San Diego ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary music, created a concert that, at its best moments, grew beyond music. It became a world unto itself with totally unexpected spiritual and philosophical overtones.
Two of the pieces that worked well were performed by “red fish blue fish,” UCSD’s resident percussion ensemble. Certainly the most amazing one was Stockhausen’s “Mikrophonie.” Running as an undercurrent through Stockhausen’s compositions is his idea of intricately interwoven dialogue. Even in solo instrumental pieces without tape, he places the performer in a dualistic conversation.
In “Mikrophonie,” this idea is taken to the extreme. Four musicians, two on either side of a giant tam-tam, or gong, perform against each other as they use the gong as their communicative bridge.
Using microphones to feed sound into speakers and wielding two tables-worth of percussive odds and ends, the musicians created outright theater as they pinged, scratched, poked, worked and even shouted into the gong.
The virtuosic performance became a metaphor for life itself. Watching the group musically rant was reminiscent of the way war and peace is waged between individuals and countries. Perhaps it wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but it would be difficult to ignore the intensity of the human interaction the music engendered.
The ensemble also performed “Village Burial with Fire,” an exotic piece by James Wood. The set-up looked like a small city, with layered tiers of beautifully tuned xylophones, large bamboo wind chimes, gongs, a piano, and all sorts of other gadgets.
As the musicians played, it sounded like the music was springing from another place and time. Although composed in 1989, the music registered as primitive, visceral and tropical. The musicians wore ankle bells, which created an unexpected dance aspect of the work as they pounded their feet on stage, all while playing charismatic rhythmic figures in their percussive playground. It was like being transported to a wild jungle.
UCSD composer Rand Steiger’s piece, “For Marnie Dilling,” which he composed as a memorial for a colleague, was surprising. Who knew that prerecorded tape combined with a live musician could turn into such a stunning metaphor for the seen and unseen world?
Flutist John Fonville pre-recorded three tape tracks on bass, alto and C flutes, then he played piccolo live over the tape for the performance. It was an extraordinary combination. The tape sounded ghostly, wafting and disembodied, while keeping intact the humanity of Fonville’s playing. His live playing superimposed a more robust, grounded sound, but in perfect balance with the other parts.
The piece had long, stretchable lines and was emotionally direct. The way Fonville interacted with the tape was disarming — it was as if he was standing there communicating with voices from an unseen dimension, creating a sonic picture of a spiritual world.
Mark Osborn’s “The Fluid Pronoun,” was pointillistic and finely wrought. Meticulously performed violin plucks, bass clarinet squawks, and flute snippets created waves of interlaced pinpricks of sound. The piece was effective, but got overshadowed by the high drama of the rest of the evening.
Stockhausen’s “Solo” was uneven. Cellist Charles Curtis played the solo part with flair and nuance, but the four assistants manning sound boards to control the taped feedback didn’t respond with equal skill. The feedback was unbalanced between the speakers and the cellist, subverting the subtlety of the three-way dialogue.
It wasn’t a concert for everyone, but for those who could wrap their ears around the music, they got to visit an engaging, profound universe.