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It was a pretty amazing scene, in the intimate confines of Duke's Sheafer Theater, on a balmy Saturday, February 21. The show was another of the Music Department's "Encounters... with the Music of Our Time" concerts, which are usually given in the somewhat more commodious Nelson Music Room. Contemplating the program, "New Sonic Resources," in advance, based on the press release, it was hard to predict what would happen, but it was a safe bet that the crowd would be small and the interest of the mainstreamers, minimal - and that's no play on the music of Glass and Reich and company. That's not to say that the composers are obscure or anything like that. After all, Stephen Jaffe, former Chair of Music at Duke, recently had a big premiere in Washington, and Scott Lindroth, current Chair, enjoyed one of his own a mere week before, in that aforementioned Nelson place. There's nothing particularly off the wall about the headline artists, Cameron Britt and Christopher Deane, either - aside from the fact that they are, well, percussionists. And the other headliner, flutist Christine Gustafson, of ECU, has a heady reputation. We hadn't a clue about the "others, t.b.a.," but it was clear from the announcement that there'd be a guitarist on hand, at the very least, and some device to deliver "electronics." With all that in mind, maybe Duke's littlest concert room was good planning. But then to charge $10 to get in? Hummm. Still, at 7:30 p.m., there wasn't a parking lot attendant in sight, which was a very good thing for students and impoverished critics. This was however offset by the fact that there were empty places in the Bryan Center lot. Would there be a crowd, or would it be, as the weather-guessers say, a washout?
Surprise! By the time the concert began, the place was nearly full. And by the time the Dookies, who've never gotten over the "change" - not of life, but of time, from 8:15 for evening concerts - finally stopped coming in, around half-past, there were virtually no empty seats. And such a crowd! There were actually young people present - students, even. And folks from as far away as Chapel Hill. And Raleigh. Amazing, for a "new music" thing. And such new music!
For the opener, Roberto Maggio's "Phoenix" (1998), for two flutes, was played by Gustafson and Mary Boone, of the NCS. It's a haunting piece in two movements, the first dealing with consuming (as in the mythical bird that was consumed in flames) and the second dealing with rising (as from the ashes). It was written for an AIDS memorial concert, and hearing it was a gripping experience.
Sarah Lawrence College is the home of guitarist William Anderson, but his links to the Bang on a Can crowd, with which Lindroth has worked, may have led to his visit here. He gets the brass ring for the evening, for his performances of two short works for solo guitar by Jaffe and Milton Babbitt (b.1916). (Now Babbitt is of course very much alive, as are all the composers on the program, but he's old enough to be the father of all of 'em but one, so that in itself was one more remarkable thing about this concert.) These two short guitar pieces - Jaffe's "Spinoff" and Babbitt's "Danci" were written in 1997 for a project engineered by guitarist David Starobin, who has played at Duke, and who is perhaps best known as one of the mainstays (with his other half, Becky) of Bridge Records. What Starobin did was persuade 18 composers (yep!) to write little dances, all of which he recorded (Bridge 9084). And what was so remarkable about Anderson's playing two of them? Well, it's one thing to commission and premiere music, but it's a whole 'nother thing to get subsequent performances, and without them, the music sits on the shelf (or the CD does) and has a hard time reaching any semblance of currency. So it was a treat, for real, to hear these pieces again. Bravo. And when he got through with them, he played a piece of his own, "Green Henry" (1979/2001), which took him a while to finish because it was only after his son was born that he went back to sketches from his own teenage years.... It's for guitar and mandolin (not played at the same time, of course) and "electronic plucked sounds," and the overall effect was like hearing a whole orchestra of guit-boxes of various sizes, not always terribly well balanced.
Then Christopher Deane, back in the Old North State from the University of North Texas (he used to live here), played Edward Campion's "Losing Touch" (1994 or 1997, depending upon where you look in the program), for vibraphone and electronics. The title should have given away part of the conceit, and the music supported it, but it was unclear to this listener if the electronic sounds, which emanated, surround-style, from the ceiling, were meant to be so far removed from the real instrument. In any event, the composition is a duel of sorts between the real thing and its manipulated alter ego, which sound track sounds a good deal like the real thing - intentionally.
Not to permit an artist - even one as proficient as Deane - to show up someone still working here in the Southland, N. Cameron Britt then undertook to perform Lindroth's "Bell Plates" (2002), for solo percussion (which isn't to say it is limited to one noise-maker) and electronics. This thing actually involved a whole rack of stuff, including four brake drums (so you see I was not losing my mind when I wrote that headline), pipes that might have been made in a beginning metals class, etc. The challenge is to keep up with the electronics, once out of the gate. Britt did this with astonishing skill, in the process making sounds that resembled Varèse's "Ionisation" (which calls for a whole flock of percussionists) and shimmered like it, too.
At this point, after about 45 minutes of intense playing and perhaps even more intense listening, the intermission was just the thing we needed. There was a lot of noise during the break, as animated discussions of what we'd been hearing took place. This audience was really into the music, and the people seemed to get it in ways that some longhair crowds just don't. It was, as I said, amazing.
Gustafson launched the second half with a comparably intense piece for solo flute by Kazuo Fukashima, who is old enough to have been a parent of everyone else except Babbitt.... "Mei" (1962) is a memorial piece, like the opening work on the program, and it projects the Japanese notion that the sound of a flute can, according to the (uncredited) program notes, "reach the dead." Parts of the piece sounded as if Gustafson were trying to wake the dead, but the overall impression of the powerful work was favorable.
Britt and Thom Limbert, who came to Duke to study composition after completing his undergraduate work (in music and philosophy) at UNC, then teamed up to play guest composer John Fitz-Rogers' "Once Removed" (2003), for two marimbas and two click tracks.... After both donned substantial headphones (someone wondered if it was so they didn't have to listen...), they followed their own little clicks and, locked in, as it were, played their parts at the composer's designated pace, keeping apart (literally and figuratively) for ten minutes and coming together only with the final blows of the mallets. The composer, who is one of Britt's teachers at the University of South Carolina, describes his intent in a short program note, pointing out that his work goes against the grain by asking the musicians not to listen to each other. 'Twas a fascinating experiment, the results of which resembled more than a few slippery performances we've heard and then declined to review(!), but the composer seemed delighted with the performance and the response it elicited.
Last but hardly least, Jaffe's "Designs" (2001 or 2002...) was played by Gustafson, for whom it was composed, Anderson, and Deane. It brought to mind the name of one of Roger Hannay's string quartets, but the resemblance ends there; Jaffe writes that the title suggests "the ways in which the music coalesces or dissipates from tiny figures, as a mosaic makes a design," and he says that one may listen to its four movements separately, although they make up a handsome set, heard together. Like Lindroth's "Bell Plates" and the end of "Once Removed," "Designs" glowed from within as the flute and guitar - which almost invariably make for a splendid combination - were supported and at times overlaid with a breathtaking array of percussion sounds, including a single steel-drum pan, an auxiliary device for playing additional steel notes, and, at the end, a rain stick. The artists were warmly applauded for their efforts, and after the show, people stuck around to visit with them and with each other, mostly discussing the evening's offerings. There were few people in suits, no one bailed out early, and a great time seemed to have been had by all. What more could one want? Some of the music of today will become the classic music of tomorrow, and the Encounters people - and their loyal audiences - are on the cutting edge. These concerts are worth a trip to Durham - and worth paying the parking toll, too, if need be.
Note: There'll be more percussion at Duke on March 1, when the great Scottish artist Evelyn Glennie gives a solo recital. Her program - listed in our Triangle calendar - is an appealing one that includes some pieces she's recorded (she has made many CDs) and some she commissioned that others have recorded. Even people who think they don't like drums and other struck things owe it to themselves to experience Glennie, who is widely viewed as the world's leading percussionist (and who is, coincidentally, profoundly deaf), at least once.