Hotel Elefant: Light and Dark, at Roulette, September 23, 2013
Light and Dark
Roulette, September 23, 2013
James Holt – moderator
Katie Cox – flute, piccolo
Domenica Fossati – flute, piccolo
Isabel Kim – clarinet
Christa Van Alstine* – clarinet, bass clarinet
Andie Tanning Springer – violin, viola
Gillian Gallagher – viola
Caroline Bean – cello
Fjola Evans – cello
Shawn Lovato – contrabass
Patrick Swoboda – contrabass
David Friend – piano
Kirsten Volness – piano
Megan Schubert* – voice
Hannis Brown – electric guitar
Bill Solomon* – percussion
Jascha Narveson – electronics
Meg Zervoulis – conductor
Richard Carrick* – conductor
Leaha Maria Villarreal – Dark Matter
Richard Carrick – la scène miniature
Kirsten Volness – Precious Nothing
Interview with Richard Carrick moderated by James Holt
Richard Carrick – “à cause du soleil” – Flow Trio from Flow Cycle for Strings
Richard Carrick – Prisoner’s Cinema
The so-called “major” institutions in New York have not been entirely oblivious to the music that is being written now, for example Alan Gilbert’s New York Philharmonic and Lincoln Center, although they seem to be flagging somewhat in the past season or two. It was demoralizing to see the superb Tully Scope Festival, which did an admirable job of surveying and balancing the most important trends in music as it is practised today, from Les Arts Florissants to Tyondai Braxton, vanish after one season. It has fallen to smaller, younger organizations to make the music of our own time and place heard. ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble), now ten years old, is perhaps the most visible of these, and it is to the credit of both Lincoln Center and the young virtuosi of ICE that they maintain a presence a various Lincoln Center series, like Mostly Mozart and White Lights. (But I still wish they’d resurrect Tully Scope—perhaps with a more attractive name!) We can only count ourselves lucky that a symbiosis exists between the larger, older organizations and upstarts like ICE, and that they make the effort to bring their work to a larger audience, but it is clear where the leadership lies.
Beyond ICE, I’ve been especially impressed by the musicianship and programming of Michel Galante’s Argento Chamber Ensemble, which is actually older than ICE by a year or two, and now by Hotel Elefant, which is only in its second season. Hotel Elefant is in essence an initiative founded by composers for composers, namely two young women, Leaha Maria Villarreal and Mary Kouyoumdjian, and its aims are ambitious: its presents new music through commissions, performances, and moderated discussions among composers, performers, and audiences. As they themselves say, “committed to modern sounds and sonic explorations, this vibrant ensemble brings a keen awareness of today’s music to the general public and highlights those living composers who are blurring lines, pushing boundaries, and fostering creativity.” It is to their credit that, while they concentrate on varied programming focused on established and emerging composers other than themselves, they don’t shy away from participating fully in the concerts with their own music.
The first Hotel Elefant concert I attended was back in January of this year at the depressing and unmusical Di Menna Center, which is not quite in New Jersey, nor at the bottom of the Hudson (where it perhaps belongs), but on Tenth Avenue, amidst the wasteland of new apartment buildings developers have thrown up over there. The venue didn’t discourage a large and enthusiastic audience from filling the wide, shallow basement space there to enjoy the music of Michael Gordon (Leaha Maria Villareal’s professor at NYU) and to discuss it. A consistent feature of Hotel Elefant concerts is a question and answer session with the principal composer before the second half, which is intimate enough in feeling to bring the audience close to the composer as a living, breathing personality, who responds to events like the rest of us, bringing the world into his or her creative life. Still, music lies at the heart of it all, played with virtuosity and understanding by young musicians of the highest ability.
The September concert was held at a much more engaging location, Roulette, on Atlantic Avenue, just across Flatbush Avenue from BAM, which has been providing a space for experimental performances for thirty-five years now. This concert, identical in format to the event I have just mentioned, was the result of the collaboration of three organizations, not only Hotel Elefant and Roulette, but Ear Heart Music, an organization founded in 2009 to present new chamber music and “to foster a new generation of audiences who value and enjoy chamber music as an integral component of a broader cultural response,” as well as the pursuit of the highest quality in contemporary chamber music and playing. As in January Hotel Elefant provided the most impressive musicianship, enthusiasm, and insight from its musicians, and even though the lights were low and theatrical and I was sitting towards the back of the hall, I could feel an intimate rapport with the individual players, even in a large group. Again the audience was plentiful, knowledgeable, and keen, as far as I could see. Most important of all, however, was the fact that the program contained two new commissions by Hotel Elefant, Kirsten Volness’ Precious Nothing, and Richard Carrick’s Prisoner’s Cinema.
This was what we have become accustomed to calling a “curated” concert, with a specific theme and a title, “Light and Dark,” which means that the musical selections explore extremes of light and dark in physical reality as well as in the spirit. The centerpiece consisted of three pieces by Richard Carrick, who teaches composition both at Columbia and NYU. Born in Paris of French-Algerian and British parents, his background made itself felt in the French titles of some of the works and in his (literally) searing, wordless setting of the scene on the beach in L’Étranger by Albert Camus. His more or less Americanized accent in the interview belied this, as well as his largely American training (supplemented by a summer course at IRCAM and the Koninklijk Conservatorium at The Hague), but the personal, narrative, and poetic qualities of his music seem characteristically European to me, but more of that later.
The evening began with Dark Matter, a work for string sextet by Leaha Maria Villareal. Built on ostinato repetitions of rhythmic figures, the music unfolds transformations of tone color, usually characteristic of the traditional understanding of the instruments and their tone colors, but often, through harmonics, entering into surprising timbres. The colors are largely dark, as the title suggests, but there is so much activity in the music that the equation of matter with energy is never forgotten. The music refers outside itself and the concept behind it to an emotional and imaginative encounter with a part of nature most commonly understood only as scientific data or as an idea.
Richard Carrick’s brief “la scène miniature” was aptly placed second on the program to give us a taste of what to expect after the intermission, and to introduce a major theme in his work, the writings of Albert Camus, above all L’Étranger, as well as the kind of inspiration and compositional method it engendered. It is better to discuss this brief, but profound and important work together with Carrick’s other music.
The first half of the program ended with Kirsten Volness‘ Precious Nothing, a rich, ambitious piece for mezzo-soprano, flutes, clarinets, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello, double bass, stereo digital sound, and live electronics. The work consisted of three movements, each a setting of a poem by different authors, the Kentuckian poet Madison Cawein (I. “Nocturne”), Walter de la Mare (II. “Dream-Song”), and Adara Meyers (III. “Across the Oceans”), a young playwright and poet, who, like the composer, is based in Providence, Rhode Island. The fact that two of the poems date from the beginning of the twentieth century, and that all are Romantic in tone and in their rich celestial imagery, suggests that Volness’ music, too, is rich in texture, color, and association, and is unabashedly Romantic, embracing a mystical intimacy with nature as well as emotional intensity. In the context of Carrick’s terse, concentrated music, Precious Nothing seemed expansive in scope. The scoring, from the use of the mezzo-soprano voice to the percussion and electronics is nothing short of gorgeous, and in a way its richness opens the door to the disparate stylistic elements Volness brings in, including jazz. Having recently heard a composition by an older composer which treated jazz in a particularly academic and sterile way, I was delighted by the originality of Volness’ use of it, her resourceful and sincere way of blending it with Romantic idioms and the generally Romantic character of the piece. The mode of the nightclub torch-singer (including the effect of singing into a microphone), oddly enough, served the poets well, even Cawein. Beyond the beauty, range, and affect of the music, I was happy to be reminded of Cawein’s poetry and to discover Adara Meyers’ finely crafted and absorbing poem.
Carrick’s music is spare in comparison, both in instrumentation and length, but it is similarly capable of drawing one into a world of its own. la scène miniature is indeed a miniature in those respects, but it narrates, depicts one of the most momentous scenes in literature. Meursault, the protagonist of L’Étranger, finds himself on the beach in intense sunlight, which blinds and disorients him. His friend Raymond has just been wounded in a fight with the brother of his Arab girlfriend and a companion. Meursault carries a pistol he took from Raymond to prevent him from going too far in revenge. In the sunlight and heat the Arab produces a knife. The light flashing from its blade pushes Meursault over the brink, and he shoots the Arab, killing him with the first shot, then firing four more rounds into his body. When Meursault and his friends find the two Arabs, one of them is playing on a primitive flute, which produces only three notes. The repetition of these notes continues throughout the scene. Carrick has scored this duo version for piccolo and cello. For him the piccolo represents the human element, and the cello nature. As he has said, “How can music capture the external beauty of this scene, (the wind, sea, birds, and unforgettable sun), alongside the internal conflict both Meursault and his opponent are experiencing (or in Meursault’s case, not experiencing)? I have captured this split characterization by setting each instrument to radically different music. The piccolo’s lyricism and joviality (beginning with the three repeated notes) are contrasted with the cello’s glacial soundscapes in very high register (representing immovable nature) and, eventually, descending into the lowest range of the instrument to depict the internal struggle of the human spirit.” He has distilled this into a piece lasting about seven minutes, roughly the time it would take to read the narrative he depicts. He captures the drama and rhetoric of Meursault’s account of the heat, and the scene, which contrasts diametrically with the impassivity of his emotional response. Carrick’s composition is both well-knit and elegant, as well as atmospheric and emotionally absorbing. We not only feel the intensity of the heat and the moment, but the strange feeling of disassociation—alienation—inherent in Meursault’s consciousness, responses to others, and actions.
“à cause du soleil” Flow Trio is the final movement—or piece—of Carrick’s hour-long Flow Cycle for Strings. As the title indicates, there is once again a connection with L’Étranger. As Carrick has said, “‘à cause du soleil’ Flow Trio expands my interest in creating musical ‘flow’ from Islamic mosaic art by incorporating a larger narrative set in North Africa. ‘à cause du soleil’ refers to Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, the pithy justification given for protagonist Meursault’s impulsive action which unleashes a series of unforeseen consequences. Although absurdist by design, Camus’ linearity of thought in this work helped reconfigure the ‘flow’ as a final common pathway for the three instruments as a unified meta-instrument, where the range of tenuous and tenacious sounds and melodies introduced throughout the Cycle synthesize and deconstruct in the finale. The Flow Cycle is influenced by Islamic Mosaics, Gnawa music of Morocco, Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, and the Flow concept of Csíkszentmihályi. While the first work ‘in flow’ for solo violin uses an expansive linear approach to compose ‘flow’ of unrelated materials, each subsequent work (Shadow Flow for viola, Moroccan Flow (unfolding from unity) for ‘cello, Duo Flow for violin and ‘cello, and ‘à cause du soleil’ Flow Trio for String Trio) uses a sectional approach to create a mosaic-like experience of flow that is reflected in each of the works, which can be performed separately.”
The piece begins with viola harmonics singing in the upper range, later answered by the violin at the very bottom of its range, interrupted by a violent interjection by the cello. Then the viola and violin engaged in an extended dialogue in harmonics. A sequence of third in their normal range leads to a more animated conversation in harmonics, with the cello joining in. A wildly dissonant explosion from the viola leads to an energetic, occasionally violent exchange among the instruments, which recalls Bartók at times, as well as the cadenza of a more conventional string work. Sinking portamenti create a feeling of entropy, leading to silence. Another rapid Bartókian stretto follows, leading to the robust ensemble chord which closes the piece. The three superb musicians seemed to play as much as individual freely reacting to one another as as an ensemble, but of course that is the impression the piece is meant to project.
The final work, Prisoner’s Cinema, represents another aspect of Carrick’s work, multimedia, which he has pursued since 1995. In the interview he explained how Hotel Elefant’s commission did not entirely come together until he made the images which were projected as part of the performance. The title refers to the light forms which appear to prisoners who have been in solitary confinement in the dark for a long time, deprived of visual stimuli. Meditators and astronauts have reported the experience as well. These consist of cloud-like patterns of color, which can often take on partial human shapes. Along with his music Carrick has provided his audience with his own created prisoners’ cinema. The work begins with a creepy wailing of flutes, soon accompanied by violins and other instruments, with the images appearing about three or four minutes into the work, a succession of light patterns and city buildings, mostly roofs and towers. The sound patterns become more complex, active, and agitated as the images progress, eventually suggesting fragments of melody. Distant aerial views of cities appear, and gradually, as the piece nears its end, dissolve again into instrumental color, only now rather harsher. For me, the feeling was apocalyptic, but in the continuum of the status quo, that is, without physical destruction or even the disruption of daily, or in this case nightly life. Richard Carrick conducted the work himself, with energy and steady control. Roulette’s projection system was entirely up to the task at hand.
The playing of Hotel Elefant and their guests was dedicated and cogent throughout the evening. This was so much a common effort of highly gifted and professional individuals that it would be inappropriate to single out any particular players. The range and contrast of the program, balancing variety with a more extensive presentation of a single composer provided a solid base for satisfaction. Hotel Elefant have arrived at an impressive level of achievement—in musicianship, programming, and audience building—in an astonishingly brief period of time. What is typical in their work and the other first-class organizations mentioned at the beginning is the way in way they provide fluid leadership rather than fixed institutional authority in a constantly changing scene. Both they and Ear Heart Music have arrived as major cultural resources in the City, and we can only be grateful for their effort and imagination.