In a split screen view, percussionist Stuart Gerber and saxophonist Jan berry Baker perform the world premiere of "Composite and Parallax" by Peter Van Zandt Lane. (source: video frame capture / GSU)

Review: Bent Frequency brings living composers to the fore in From a Distance

Mark Gresham | 11 NOV2020

On Friday, Nov. 6, contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency premiered a virtual video concert of music by four living composers Mara Gibson, Alvin Singleton, Peter Van Zandt Lane and Juan Trigos.

Entitled “From a Distance,” the video is still available for viewing on demand at YouTube. This episode of Bent Frequency’s 2020-21 SUSTAIN season was produced rather than live-streamed. It made sense and offered several additional options to enhance online audience experience: an introduction by Bent Frequency co-artistic directors Jan Berry Baker and Stuart Gerber, as well as video program notes by the four composers – the downloadable PDF program includes playlist and composer biographies but not notes for the music.

One of the truly awkward factors in live-streamed-only concerts is the matter of musicians taking a bow to the cameras, where the performers cannot see or react to their audience. Bent Frequency’s program does the preferable thing in using simple fade-to-black at the end of each work and eschewing the use of bows. I personally find that the preferable option.

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Where there is also in in-person audience, it is a different matter, because an ovation is an interactive gesture between audience and performers, where the bow is a more natural response to applause, rather than to an empty, silent space where no applause is heard. There is an emotional exchange involved that is necessary for a bow to take place – just as it is totally preferable for the music itself, even though the exchange between performers who are present will suffice.

The four works featured on the program progressed in character from spacious, understated textures to works of greater density and momentum.

After introductions, the program opened with Folium – cubed (2015) by Mara Gibson, performed by Jan Berry Baker on soprano saxophone. Originally commissioned by poet Luisa Sello for viola and audience, the piece developed into three iterations: Folium – prime, Folium – squared for flute and cello and Folium – cubed for soprano sax. All were inspired by Sello’s poem, “Let Clover be Aid” – her only poem in English. Gibson’s website indicates that 2016, a fourth part was added, for string orchestra, and the composer suggests that any parts of Folium can be re-scored for other instruments.

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Jasper Drag (2000) by Alvin Singleton was performed and recorded in GSU’s Kopleff Hall for this video by violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, clarinetist Ted Gurch and pianist Erika Tazawa. Notably, it was Kim and Gurch, along with pianist Laura Gordy, who recorded the work as members of the now-defunct Thamyris – at the time Atlanta’s premier contemporary music ensemble, a laurel wreath now worn by Bent Frequency – as part of the album Sweet Chariot (Albany Records, TROY1501), the third in a series of CDs from Albany Records exclusively featuring works by Singleton.

Folium – cubed is only about six minutes long; Jasper Drag about 10-½ minutes. Both of these works make sparse use of a limited number of musical gestures that are developed in the course of the piece, in the manner of a narrative thread – although it is important to recognize that in the case of Singleton’s music, there is never actual narrative, story or implied imagery. As Singleton says himself, the titles of his compositions serve only as “markers” and never as descriptions or portrayals, although the title Jasper Drag refers directly to the June 7, 1998 incident on Jasper, Texas, in which three white men dragged a black man to his death after chaining him to the back of a pickup truck.

Violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, pianist Erika Tazawa, and clarinetist Ted Gurch perform "Jasper Drag" by Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton. (source: video frame capture / GSU)

Violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, pianist Erika Tazawa, and clarinetist Ted Gurch perform “Jasper Drag” by Atlanta composer Alvin Singleton. (source: video frame capture / GSU)

The video switches to a split-screen more for performance by Baker and percussionist Stuart Gerber of Composite and Parallax (2020) by Peter Van Zandt Lane, which includes an electronic component realized by the composer. About the same length as Gibson’s Folium – cubed, Lane’s Composite and Parallax is by contrast a rhythmically active piece. Making use of some elements drawn from minimalism, it doesn’t fit strictly into that pigeonhole by any means – too much variety for that. It also also has some surprising chorale-like moments that enhance the variety in the first section. The electronic and live elements are well-integrated – although for the video viewer, it’s all received as “digital” in the end: being in a hall with the live performers and the electronics working together would be more revealing of the relationship between them, but in this video medium they meld well as a unified whole.

The final work on the program, performed by Tazawa and Gerber, was Pulsación y Resonancias (2002) by Mexican composer Juan Trigos, was definitely the longest, its five untitled movements at 17-½ minutes in all. Gerber was one of the performers who premiered the work in 2002 at Kopleff Hall together with pianist Michel Fowler as “Ensemble Sirius.” The piece makes use of a large battery of percussion for one player.

Erika Tazawa and Stuart Gerber perform "Pulsación y Resonancias" by Juan Trigos, (source: video fram capture / GSU)

Erika Tazawa and Stuart Gerber perform “Pulsación y Resonancias” by Juan Trigos, (source: video fram capture / GSU)

Trigos claims status as creator of the concept “Abstract Folklore,” a process by which he “abstracts and assimilates various literary and vernacular musical traditions into a modern compositional rhetoric” which involve – true to the title of this particular piece, “primary pulsation, the resonance and the interrelation of polyrhythmic/polyphonic musical events and segments of different density and duration,” in which the materials, while drawn from Mexican folk-sources, are always subjected to innovation.

It appears that many performers and ensembles, large and small, have been avoiding the programming non-pop music that is not “in the public domain” during the pandemic – primarily due to the extra licensing costs involved for uses of works in video and digital streaming. That is unfortunate because it is precisely the work of living artists which need to be performed in this kind of public crisis. It is refreshing to see a group like Bent Frequency neither give up on expertly presenting performances, if only in digital mode, nor to shirk its mission of performing contemporary music, especially of composers who are typically under-represented in the first place. Fingers crossed that we can hear from them again soon.   ■