Less than 24 hours after ringing in the new year, Atlanta’s newest contemporary music ensemble, Chamber Cartel, made its debut. According to percussionist Caleb Herron, who formed the group late last year, its bold agenda is to mount a performance of late 20th- and 21st-century music once a month.
The concert, however, was almost scuttled by an unfortunate circumstance: a few minutes before curtain time, no one had shown up to open the venue, the First Existentialist Congregation in Candler Park. When I arrived, the place was dark, with musicians, instruments and a gathering audience waiting outside. More than one cell phone was abuzz trying to locate someone with a key. The door was finally opened just after 7:30 p.m., the advertised starting time, although some people had been waiting two hours to get in.
The musicians set up on the side where the church’s Mason & Hamlin grand piano was positioned, a fine instrument except that it could have benefited from a fresh tuning beforehand. Ipek Brooks played the piano and a synthesized keyboard set up to emulate a celesta. Colleen McHugh played both standard C flute and bass flute; Herron played glockenspiel and vibraphone. After 20 minutes setting up, they were ready to begin, at which point a malfunctioning setup to record the music was abandoned so the concert could proceed. Though these circumstances were aggravating, they did not mar the performance itself.
The group performed one work: Morton Feldman’s 90-minute trio “Crippled Symmetry,” written in 1983, which the composer called “an aural counterpart to Turkish rugs.” These rugs, which he collected, increasingly became his passion near the end of his life. (He died in 1987.) In great contrast to commercially made rugs, these folk-textile pieces, woven by villagers and nomads, feature anomalous changes in color, motif and proportion in their patterns that are a deliberate, distinctive feature of an aesthetic that is both socially vital and individualistic in expression.
“Crippled Symmetry” takes on this aesthetic in the process of weaving its recurring musical motifs. They become slightly modified in ways that are readily perceptible to the listener, with each iteration of an idea subtly altered from the ones before it. This mostly quiet music, shifting and changing slowly over time, feels like the shifting of sunlight, shadow and clouds.
The performers did the work more than justice. The spacious music was played simply, allowed to breathe and slowly unfold in order to make its impact with patience, without emotional hurry, a calming counterpoint to our increasingly frenetic society.
The audience itself, a few dozen listeners who almost all appeared to be in their 20s and 30s, strongly countered the popular belief that young people have short attention spans. On the contrary, they were quietly focused, even meditative.
All in all, this first outing of Chamber Cartel showed genuine promise, and if the group can sustain this level of work at the proposed one concert per month, that promise can quickly grow.
Herron says this kind of aesthetic represents the direction he envisions for the group, as well as his personal development as a percussionist, although not something expressed as a rigid manifesto. “It’s less than a designed statement,” he says, “but it’s not just picking random pieces that I think sound cool.”
“What attracted me to Feldman,” Herron explains, along with John Cage, John Luther Adams and a few other composers he admires, “is I think that these composers found some sort of ‘truth’ in their music. You can’t really put your finger on it, and I don’t think it is absolute, but it persists, it is.”
He also points to the chaotic nature of current times, and sees these aesthetic choices as a turning point in his own life. “I’m almost 30, and these composers speak to me. And I feel drawn to them for the sheer stillness that they impart.”