ArtsATL > Music > Review: The Chamber Cartel rings in the summer season in the heat of “Riding With Death”

Review: The Chamber Cartel rings in the summer season in the heat of “Riding With Death”

Chen's "Made in China, Made in California.”
The Chamber Cartel performs Neal's "Adhmad." (Photos by Mark Gresham)
The Chamber Cartel performs Neal’s “Adhmad.” (Photos by Mark Gresham)

Memorial Day Weekend is the putative beginning of summer in Atlanta, even if the official solstice is still one month away, and the weather is hot. Scheduled against a bevy of holiday events, including the Atlanta Jazz Festival, “new edge” music ensemble Chamber Cartel presented “Riding With Death,” the third concert in its Arcana series on Saturday evening at Erikson Clock in the Castleberry Hill arts district.

The concert opened with “Adhmad” by Adam Scott Neal. Neal is an Atlanta native who has recently completed a PhD in music composition at the University of Florida, all the while keeping his close ties with his hometown both as a composer and as co-artistic director of Terminus Ensemble. “Adhmad,” for flute, cello and percussion, was part of his doctoral recital this past November. The seven-minute piece begins with some ominous long tones from a large drum and cello, capped by a few notes from flute, before launching into short phrases of rhythmic and timbral interplay with conspicuous silences in between. The brief conclusion emulates the piece’s beginning. 

“The Space Between One Stone and the Next” by John Turner was inspired by the composer’s musings about Zen rock gardens. The compositional process incorporated both controlled probability distribution and aleatoric processes like coin tossing and rolling dice to make decisions. The sonic result in performance was somewhat floating and nonassertive, as could be expected.

Two of the works performed have direct relationship with a specific piece of visual art. “Riding with Death,” by Chicago-based Drew Baker, was inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat’s work of the same title. Commissioned by Chamber Cartel, it was premiered by the group in March of last year. The piece incorporates a relentless 17-bar passage on electronic piano that is repeated over and over, sounding as much as anything like a small hammer striking an anvil, overlaid with looser long tones played by viola and bowed crotales. Mische Salkind-Pearl’s “Still Life,” which followed, is a far less emphatic piece that was written after the final still-life painting of artist Hyman Bloom.

Chen's "Made in China, Made in California" by the Chamber Cartel
Chen’s “Made in China, Made in California.”

New Jersey–born and California-raised, Carolyn Chen says of her music, “I make music to look into the inner lives of things. I work with sounds and habits of social and natural spaces, situations and objects.” Completed in 2013, Chen’s “Made in China, Made in California” is an eight-and-a-half-minute video with spoken and ambient audio tracks plus live music.

The work juxtaposes contrasting perceptions within each country about the other, incorporating video made in 2012 when she was visiting China for the first time. “I asked some people in parks and parking lots in China and in California how they imagine the other place,” she writes, videotaping the responses. She composed the music to go with the compiled clips as if in conversation with the thoughts. The video dominates the performance. It also includes bilingual captioning, but in this performance the captioning, key to the video, was mostly obscured by the musicians.

Up to this point, all of the works performed were for mixed trios. Chen’s piece required a larger ensemble plus conductor, as did “Uptown” by Marcos Balter, which followed. Overall, the concert required a dozen musicians: flutist Judith Gilbert, clarinetist Courtney White, saxophonist Brandyn Taylor, violinist Adelaide Federici, violist Cecilia Trode, cellist Christina Chen, bassist Gabriel Monticello, percussionist Caleb Herron, guitarist Thomas Avery, harpist Connor Way, pianist Amy O’Dell and conductor Paul Scanling. All performed ably.

“VLA.EXE” by Joseph Eidson closed the program, the first completed part of a larger work in progress entitled Cosmic Musicology to be premiered in toto by Chamber Cartel later this year. The music involves both a sextet of live performers (sans conductor) and eight-bit digital sound chip used in the original Nintendo Game Boy. It was an interesting mix of characteristics of live and self-conscious electronics.

On the negative side was the ambient heat retained by Erikson Clock from midday temperatures all the way to the end of the concert. My own T-shirt was rather soaked. The air outside the building was noticeably cooler than inside, even after 10 p.m. Keep that in mind for the next few months; be prepared and dress accordingly when going to events there.

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