Review: Ancient art and contemporary music meet at Carlos Museum

Mark Gresham | 06 DEC 2019

On Wednesday night at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, fans of new music and ancient witnessed a highly successful collaboration between contemporary ensemble Bent Frequency and Emory University. Entitled “Many Voices,” the first half of the event explored multiple creative voices heard in interconnected shared spaces of the Carlos Museum’s second floor galleries, each of which has a different historical “cultural voice” in terms of the works of art exhibited.

Beginning at 7pm when the doors opened, wandering observers first encountered six sound installations, created by student composers at Emory, spread among the various galleries intended as sonic reflections upon the culture and character of the artwork in each space:

L: Percussionist Stuart Gerber performs " to the earth" by Frederic Rzewski. R: Saxophonist Jan Berry Baker performs "Penelope's Song" by Judith Shatin. (credit: Adam Mirza)

L: Percussionist Stuart Gerber performs ” to the earth” by Frederic Rzewski. R: Saxophonist Jan Berry Baker performs “Penelope’s Song” by Judith Shatin. (credit: Adam Mirza)

After a half hour, in the midst of this came a handful of live “pop-up” performances, likewise spread around the galleries in a kind of “dialog” with the gallery spaces and art objects.

In a corner of the Art of the Americas Galleries, surrounded predominantly by clay artifacts from the Peruvian Highlands, percussionist Stuart Gerber performed To the Earth by Frederic Rzewski, a piece performed on clay flower pots struck by wooden chopsticks, which also requires the performer to rhythmically recite an ode to the earth at the same time. It’s a remarkably effective piece, especially in a small space, and even more so performed by someone with Gerber’s acute skills.

Flutist Emily Dierickx nd composer Jue Wang.

Flutist Emily Dierickx nd composer Jue Wang.

Composer and vocal artist Jue Wang and flutist Emily Dierickx performed Wang’s Reading and excerpts from Puppet Show (both 2015) in the Near Eastern Gallery, while in the Egyptian and Nubian Galleries bass Nicholas Isherwood performed his own Improvisations for solo voice from a narrow balcony above an archway guarded by two statues. Saxophonist Jan Berry Baker, accompanied by fixed media on a boom box, performed Penelope’s Song by Judith Shatin in a corner of the Greek and Roman Gallery.

These pop-ups were somewhat staggered in their start times, and repeatedm wuth short breaks,  over the course of about 45 minutes, allowing roving listeners to hear at least two, if not all of the different selections offered.

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After an intermission of sorts, the performers and entourage made their way upstairs to the Ackerman Auditorium – frequent site for chamber concerts presented by the university’s Chamber Music Society (ECMSA) – for a more formal portion of the program.

Isherwood and Gerber opened the segment with Hand (2016) by Eve de Castro-Robinson, who describes the work as “a bittersweet elegy dedicated to my 89 year old father.” The two share a hand condition known as Dupuytren’s contracture. An accompanying video showed stark, stylizes images of their hands in that state, to which Isherwood choreographically connects to the stark images with clapping, ritualistic percussion, and sign language. The larger body of the work, however, built upon Denys Trussell’s poem Touch, with Isherwood utilizing a mix of various types of vocalizations, including harmonic throat singing, which give way to motivic fragments drawn from Chopin’s Ballade No. 1, and The Lord’s my Shepherd. The piece concludes with the declaration. “l am…” and the trailing sounds of crystal glass.

Stripsody (1966) by the notably adventurous American mezzo-soprano and composer Cathy Berberian was created to exploit her vocal technique using comic strip sounds (visual onomatopoeia used in cartooning which are close kin to the expressive but wordless emanata – a term coined by cartoonist Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey fame). So if it sounds funny, well, it mostly is, especially when lifted out of the context of cartooning where they imply a sound, to the spoken voice where they become the sounds they represent. A true classic of the avant garde in which Isherwood’s performance proved a delight.

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Isherwood took a break and saxophonist Jan Berry Baker joined Gerber on stage to perform Cracks by Adam Mirza, with the composer providing electronic elements. Mirza wrote Cracks for Baker and Gerber, but other than that piece of knowledge Mirza provided no notes in the printed program beyond what appeared to resemble a short poem with interleaved lines. That’s okay. Sometimes it’s best just to listen to the music rather than have a composer describe it first.

Kassandra by Iannis Xenakis concluded the concert, with Isherwood again joining Gerber to perform it. It’s a genuine tour de force for a solo baritone accompanying himself on a a psaltery plus one percussionist, although the two roles on this passage from Aeschylus’ Oresteia are both performed by the one male singer. The vocal part is divided between extreme falsetto to portray Cassandra low chanting to represent the elders, allowing the one singer to portray both in the story of a prophecy of doom that is never believed.

The image of a hand looms over the performance of "Hand" by Eve de Castro-Robinson.

The image of a hand looms over the performance of “Hand” by Eve de Castro-Robinson.