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On Tuesdays and Thursdays, you can find him impersonating a music professor at Price Music Center. But during a lunar eclipse or a blue moon, composer and director of the Arts Now Series at North Carolina State University, Dr. Rodney Waschka transforms himself — sometimes into a Were-Being (pronounced w-a-r-e, by the way). The latest program took place on Tuesday evening, in the safety of Tally Student Center Ballroom — where the lights were lit, for the comfort of new listeners. The program featured two world premieres: The Vega Achieves the North-East Passage (2008-09) by Finnish composer Pertti Jalava, and Cage in a Room (2008-2009) by Mansoor Hosseini, of Sweden. Except for a brief electronic interlude by Laurie Spiegel ("II," from Three Sonic Spaces (1988)), all of the pieces were performed by Waschka.
The program began with a reading by Waschka of a account of a 19th century sailing voyage by Adolph Erik Nordenskiöld; the story, in his own words, included orchestral-like interludes and imaginary choral singing in electronic counterpoint. Pertti Jalava’s music beautifully underscores a detailed maritime journey. Creating simulations of water slapping the sides of the vessel, the scraping of ice, and hushed melodic-sounding arctic air currents, Jalava’s sound world completely envelopes the listener. Teeth chattering and fingers like ice, I was mesmerized by Waschka’s story-telling.
While Jalava’s piece was literally breath-taking, I was completely smitten by Hosseini’s Cage in a Room. The program notes, a tribute to the composer, describe the work as“... a musical conference or lecture about John Cage, his poem, and some of his other words.” Cage, by himself, ruminates on his deepest thoughts, creating poetry that transforms into music. Hosseini, who makes his home in Sweden, and who has married his interests of music composition and theater, captured the complexity of the most influential of the avant-garde composers of the 20th century. Coupled with Waschka’s honest portrayal, we are privileged with a bit of wisdom from a most charming anarchist.
Waschka closed the performance with his own piece (text by Mike Gyra and Waschka), "A Short Letter from a Small Place" (1987). The piece is a whacky, rock-jazz-influenced monologue in the form of a letter by an Army hospital worker (home from active duty) and full-time graduate student “whose obsessions are women, death and basketball.” It was my fourth time listening, and it still makes me laugh and cry at the same time.
Also on the program were Stephen Pope’s "Kombination XI" (1978-90) and "Were-Being Split Personality Jazz" (1989-90) by the greatly missed and dearly loved Allen Strange (1943-2008). Is Waschka taking this show on the road? I hope so. Imaginative, witty, controversial — this is marvelous contemporary art.