I/O Ensemble kicks off season with ‘THE BOX’

Last Friday, the ’62 Center hosted the semester’s first musical performance. Titled “Repeat” and directed by visiting Artist-in-Residence Steven Bodner and Percussion Ensemble Director Matthew Gold, the concert was the most recent from a series called “THE BOX – music by living composers.” I/O Ensemble, the house band for “THE BOX” concerts, joined with alumni and students to perform difficult modern works of living composers, notably two faculty compositions from David Kechley and Ileana Perez Velazquez. The program was diverse and provocative, challenging the audience as much as the musicians.

Attending a musical performance within a theatrical space was a lively contrast to traditional music performances. The I/O Ensemble, which continually strives to create programs that make full use of their physical environment, chose the appropriately stark setting of CenterStage, where exposed brick and metal beams were reminiscent of a small New York City performance space. Small clusters of instruments were scattered across the theater, and half of the stage was lined with a wall mimicking a living room, a set left over from rehearsals for the upcoming summer theater lab performance. This simple layout aroused a feeling of curiosity and anxiety early on from the audience and led to a highly intimate performance.

An arrangement of David Lang’s “Dance” began the evening with remarkable forward momentum. The first sound in the piece was vocal, not instrumental: “Dance,” spat out a voice from the balcony, and the performers dived into synchronous playing. The musicians became like puppets, forced to dance through pulsing phrases in an unsettling soundscape. Juxtaposing that was the brief and introspective “Spirited; as if from a distant Appalachian hill” for clarinet, a piece by Eric Mandat from his larger work, “Folk Songs.” Jonathan Salter ’02 performed the unique technical requirements of the work delicately, ranging from playing multiple notes at once to emitting nothing more than breath. The lights stayed up over the audience for this interjection, momentarily transporting them to a far-reaching landscape.

Following that was Alex Mincek’s “Nucleus,” described by the composer as a “Blade Runner-esque dystopian soundscape” in the concert notes. Bodner and Gold exploited their instruments in ways difficult to even imagine in this duet for saxophone and percussion, respectively, exploring the range of sounds their instruments could produce. The piece aimed to reveal subtlety within the seemingly redundant, an endeavor that contrasts the mechanical with the humane. Resembling free jazz, silence was given weighty importance in between sporadic and irregular grooves. Bodner and Gold demonstrated outstanding stage presence and communicated well with each other and the audience.

Salter then performed another work from Mandat’s “Folk Songs” entitled “Expansive; as if hurdling through space.” The solo clarinetist rocked back and forth with melodic lines and flickers of dissidence. One memorable effect required Salter to sing as he played a note through the clarinet, producing a thick and vibrating sound. The character of the piece was much like Mandat’s first “Folk Song,” once again transporting us to a vast pastoral setting.

The first half of the concert ended with faculty composer Velazquez’s “Light Echoes.” The piece, wrote Velazquez in the concert notes, was inspired by an extraordinary astronomical event where the star V838 Monocerotis suddenly expanded to become the brightest in the Milky Way and then, just as suddenly, faded. Starting from a place of uneasiness, Velazquez’s piece opened up into a dramatic section where the piano sounded off raptures of tonal chords. Gold, joined by Artist-in-Residence Doris Stevenson on the grand piano, athletically bounded back and forth around his circle of percussive instruments. “Light Echoes,” eminently aware of the multiple percussive textures involved, included powerful moments where gongs were used to create heavy drones.

The second half of the evening began with another David Lang arrangement titled “Drop.” As with the opening piece, a voice commanded the musicians to “drop” and the piece slowly began. A work with two distinct sections, the cello and saxophone were given elevated roles throughout, as if interacting in conversation. This led into Rebecca Saunders’ “Into the Blue,” a piece for any six players regardless of instrument. The piece was broken into short segments with space and silence in between. The music was characterized by a rising or falling motif that was passed around from musician to musician. Saunders gave the audience time to experience the unique sound of each instrument while also conveying an ominous feeling throughout.

The closing piece of the night was Kechley’s “Design and Construction.” As the title suggests, this work reflected the link Kechley observes between architecture and performance. It was written specifically for Bodner on three different types of saxaphone (alto, baritone and soprano – one per movement), Brass Ensemble director Tom Bergeron on trumpet and Gold on percussion. The performers displayed their virtuosity in this fast, harsh and constantly changing piece. The most musically accessible piece of the night, “Design and Construction” was a good choice for closing. Yet though the audience appeared appreciative, the radically different tone of the composition, as compared to the rest of the performance, seemed misplaced and difficult to fully experience. After over an hour of music that paid attention to texture, subtlety in repetition and the exploration of instrumental sounds, one felt conditioned to listen in a particular way that made “Design and Construction” overwhelming. Despite its exciting climaxes, surprises and intricate grooves, it didn’t seem concerned with sound in the distinct way of the rest of the evening. Though a technically and musically substantial piece, “Design and Construction” failed to match the other performances of the night.

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