What happens when modern collaborative and experimental musicians are invited to participate in an open concert format in the midst of an already brilliant summer program? This year's installment of the American Dance Festival Musicians' Concert was the time to find out. One of the only outwardly apparent ties between Sunday's performers was ADF and the musicians' entrenchment in this spirited arts community celebrating its 84th year and its 40th in Durham, NC. A program theme or inspiration could have been imposed by coordinator Andy Hasenpflug, but instead its beauty came from the variety of passion projects these talented artists shared with each other and the community. Bios for the musicians are on the ADF website.
Atiba Rorie entered first, with no ceremony and setting the tone of the evening in casual attire and only his djembe drum. His "Fool No More," consisting only of his drum and voice, multiplied into a conversation between the many types of strikes with different parts of his hands and arms, the Blues-inspired groove paralleled by its melody, and subtle lyrics that tied together the feeling that he "got something to say" and was determined to say it.
After the connection with the incredibly expressive persona of Rorie, a sudden alienation characterized "Moloch," Eric Mullis' inventive composition of his "brushy, jazzy trap kit" highlighting Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" in its shuffling cadence. Mullis faced upstage in dim light, directing more attention to the narrated words of the poem and sounds of drums chanting "Moloch, Moloch" or of brush rolls on a cymbal illustrating the "spectral nations." The vitality he brought into the piece almost made up for the fact that he didn't connect much with the audience, not even to receive applause, which seemed appropriate for the composition but maybe not this particular concert setting.
A more traditional performance followed, "Aria" from The Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach, although Jefferson Dalby was arguably even more casually dressed than the others so far; inspired perhaps by the contemporary dance company members that filled the hall, he didn't wear any shoes to the piano. He also faced partly upstage, though more necessarily as the upright piano was best suited for viewing from a slight angle. Dalby played both crisply and tenderly, recreating a classic like someone who has performed it for his own pleasure in a corner of his living room many times. The opportunity to peek in on a musician's performance for himself may be one of the best treats.
Tim Motzer arrived on stage next, accompanied only by his guitar, but enmeshed in a nest of amps, cables, loop pedals, soundboards, and more complicated machinery than a classical musician like me would recognize. His untitled solo performance was at once experimental and complete. He combined soft strumming, feedback loops, ringing harmonics, and thundering, percussive strikes – even utilizing a violin bow on the guitar strings at one point – to create a pensive yet curious soundscape. It was harmonically interesting but not fully developed, and impressive not just because of the amount of electric and acoustic manipulation occurring in real time.
Similarly, Hasenplug himself offered "Oxy Moron," an exploration of theme and variations played on drum set, keyboard and vocal synthesizers, and some looped tracks. It came off sounding like a contemporary composer's take on the theme from Stranger Things, groovy and retro but inventive and fresh. What might have been most impressive was the flow state he reached in which he was able to play the drum set with one hand and foot, reach out for his mixer settings with another hand, and sing the very harmonically weird vocals at the same time.
Rounding out the first half of the concert was Westin Oxking Portillo, who performed two songs from his upcoming album release. Self-described as a "singer-songwriter" and fitting into the genre as expected, Portillo still managed to be delightfully open, awkward, and endearing. His "Last Stands" was accompanied by Joanie Ferguson on drums, and though unfortunately the lyrics were difficult to understand because of balance issues, his song was high-energy and joyful. The second song, "Traces of Truth," took a more soulful approach, with lush harmonies, dramatic timbral and volume changes, and lovely use of expectant silences that toyed with traditional song structure.
After intermission, Ken Ray Wilemon took up the helm, performing John Sebastian's "What a Day for a Daydream" on his electric jazz guitar. He embodied the stereotyped frazzled jazz guitarist, owning his hilarious outbursts at his own mistakes and humbly inviting the audience to help him: "if you can whistle, join in. If you can play guitar, join in!" Earnest and charming, he offered a fun break in serious concert etiquette.
Drastically changing the tone, Robin Hasenpflug shared Gabriel Fauré's "Pavane," collaborating with pianist Natalie Gilbert. This piece is always so surprisingly simple yet conveys such complex emotions. The piano and cello seamlessly traded roles, between dry accompaniment and mellifluous melody, leaving the cello's difficult shifts open for clear view. There were just one or two places that were barely off-pitch but quickly corrected.
Natalie Gilbert returned to perform what she called "Improv to Go," a Where's Waldo? of sorts that combined audience-suggested themes in as many different styles and permutations as she could dream up in real-time. Since Independence Day was near, the provided tunes were "Yankee Doodle" and "America the Beautiful," which were put through an impressive exploratory treatment with plucked piano strings, traditional hymn settings, and swing and ragtime variations.
Matthew Peyton Dixon entered and immediately asked for the audience's help, entreating us to dance if the spirit moved us to do so. He was a lively host, flinging his long hair around in time with enthusiastic drumming along with combinations of world music and electronic dance beats. Culminating into a pulsing, contemporary mashup of world music and endorphin-rushing "bass drops," his composition "Crea-Ture" had about half of the audience – apparently the many dancers in attendance – on their feet, and the other half enjoyed the multi-media art form thus created.
John Osburn, his "The End of Me, Then You" being the penultimate act in a veritable musicians' talent show, explained that he 'forgot his equipment," and proceeded to tell us how his composition went, through clips of different sounds he played from his phone, descriptions of how "elegant" it was: "like walking through a field of tears," and explanations of how some of the different sounds were made. He was bright and charismatic, seeming to act as a modern John Cage in his performance of a non-performance, even accepting what seemingly was a phone call from a loved one right on stage. I'm still not sure if he actually forgot his equipment, or if the performance was a piece in itself, such a charming and sharp entertainer as he was.
What could possibly come next and tie up this eclectic evening? Khalid Saleem's "Djagbe" seemed to do the trick. Fifteen to twenty performers with different types of talking drums, gourds, wood blocks, and other African instruments filled the stage, and Saleem quietly instructed the audience on some chanted responses we should take part in and where they should be placed. He also, adorably, warned us of a "safety hazard," showing us an involuntary toe-tapping movement that we might end up duplicating. The full song included some of the previous performers of the evening returning as guest artists, about ten improvised solos, organically evolving dance steps from the players standing in the back, and an energetic, samba-like encore that brought the entire audience to its feet to burst forth in a haze of ecstatic appreciation of all these wonderful people.