A concert of music entirely by living composers took place Wednesday evening at Erikson Clock on Nelson Street in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill district. Atlanta-based contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency shared the stage with visiting Spektral Quartet from Chicago. Both groups are noted for their efforts to redefine the traditional classical concert experience and the relationship of audience to performance and performers.
Bent Frequency performed the first set, composed of music by Carolyn O’Brien, David Brighton and Robert Scott Thompson — who were all present — opening with “Coil, Recoil” for alto saxophone and viola by O’Brien, a Chicago-based composer who has collaborated with the group on previous occasions. The performers, saxophonist Jan Berry Baker and violist Tania Maxwell Clements, premiered the work in July 2012 at the World Saxophone Congress in St. Andrews, Scotland.
O’Brien’s nine-minute work is a tightly wound duet in which viola and sax sometimes act as one combined voice, then play against each other in wildly reactive gestures that slowly release the tensions into more lyrical statements. It’s the kind of piece where you want to come back to hear the same performers do it again in two to five years to see how their performance has evolved.
David Brighton’s “Looking Back on the End of Time” is a 12-minute piece for expanded “Pierrot” ensemble — in this case soprano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion. The text is taken from “La Infana Rasa” (“The Infant Race”) an epic humanistic poem written in Esperanto by Scottish poet William Auld, itself heavily influenced by “The Cantos” of expatriate American poet Ezra Pound.
Brighton’s music is unabashedly in the mold of the American serialist movement, which had its heyday in 1970s academia. Lest that categorization scare off the listener, let it be said that “Looking Back on the End of Time” is a well-crafted work, and its abstract style suits well the somewhat abstract Esperanto text. The soprano part is wide ranging and angular, and occasionally downright lyrical.
For this world premiere, Bent Frequency percussionist Stuart Gerber stepped into the role of conductor. His clear, no-nonsense style was well suited to the music, leading an adept performance by soprano Wanda Yang Temko, with instrumentalists Clements (this time on violin), cellist Sarah Kapps, flutist Sarah Kruser Ambrose, clarinetist Ken Long, pianist Peter Marshall and percussionist Zack Webb.
Gerber then returned to his percussionist role, joined by Baker on soprano sax, for Robert Scott Thompson’s “METTĀ” which involved extensive electroacoustic elements. The title comes from the Buddhist concept of mettā, or mental union, which is roughly akin to “being in the same wavelength.” Natural and radically transformed sounds combined to create a somewhat ritualistic, occasionally meditative soundscape.
After intermission, the Spektral Quartet made its Atlanta debut with one of the most important latter-20th-century American works for string quartet, George Crumb’s “Black Angels.” Founded in 2010, the quartet’s current roster consists of violinists Austin Wulliman and Clara Lyon, violist Doyle Armbrust and cellist Russell Rolen. Lyon is the newest member — having joined only two months ago, replacing cofounding violinist Aurelien Fort Pederzoli — but melds quite comfortably with the group.
Crumb, who turned 85 in late October, composed “Black Angels” in 1970 for “electric string quartet” — meaning amplified acoustic instruments. It has become one of the lynchpins of modern string quartet repertoire, despite the fact that it not only calls for a number of extended playing techniques — such as playing the amplified instruments with thimbles and short glass rods — but also for the musicians to play small maracas, crystal glasses and tam-tams, and at times to chant or shout in six different languages. Most compelling is that Crumb is able to achieve a vivid musicality with these avant-garde techniques, which often comes off as mere cliché gimmickry in the hands of other composers.
Spektral Quartet gave Crumb’s “Black Angels” a vivid, compelling performance. The group was an excellent complement to Bent Frequency, and the pairing of these two ensembles on a common stage will surely go down as one of the programming coups of the calendar year.