MARK GRESHAM | 8 JUN 2021
This past Thursday, contemporary music ensemble Bent Frequency presented the final virtual concert of its 2020-21 “SUSTAIN” season. Unlike their previous live-streamed concert on April 1 from the Breman Museum in Atlanta, this one was prerecorded, edited and then streamed as a premiere from the YouTube channel of the Georgia State University School of Music, where the ensemble is in residence.
The concert, most of which was recorded at GSU’s Kopleff Hall, opened with Improvisation #4 by bassoonist Katherine Young and percussionist Stuart Gerber. Gerber played a standard drum kit with additional small percussion on a side table. Young’s bassoon was amplified, with the output passed through electronic effects.
Young and Gerber recorded four totally improvised pieces with the original plan being to use one of them in the performance stream. That plan changed. Gerber, who is also co-artistic director of Bent Frequency, explained: “All of them turned out really great. We had time on the program for two and I had the idea to bookend the concert with them. The fourth one seemed better to begin the concert with and No. 1 worked better at the end.”
Pianist Erika Tazawa performed Quiet Rhythms No. 9 and No.18 by William Susman.
Susman is a classically-trained pianist whose approach to composition has been impacted by playing in various jazz and Afro-Cuban ensembles throughout his career. His Quiet Rhythms is a series of short piano pieces that, like the preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, are written in pairs, each pair consisting of a prologue and an action.
Susman composed each “action” first, making it syncopated and rhythmic. By contrast, each corresponding “prologue” uses the same harmonic patterns as the action it precedes, but is not syncopated, as sort of smoothed-out version of the action that follows. This pairing results in what the composer describes as “highly energetic grooves and hypnotic modal-based harmonies.” At least that is the thumbnail sketch to describe the complete four volumes of 11 pairs each.
Tazawa played Nos. 9 and 18 effectively enough, although the video abruptly cut off the fading resonant tones of her sustained final chord, spoiling the effect. I found the “action” of No. 9 by far the most interesting of the lot, the rest coming across to me as very ordinary minimalism without much compositional distinctiveness.
Gerber returned with flutist Sarah Ambrose to perform Duo for Flute and Percussion (2013) by Yiheng Yvonne Wu.
Differing sonic worlds of percussion and flute are explored in the two-part work. A spacious opening developed through a process of shortening time frames towards a denser and more angular sonic texture. The initial feeling of temporal expansiveness returned in the second part, with more of a focus on sonic gesture, including asking one player to complete a gesture begun by the other.
For her segment Bent Frequency’s co-artistic director and saxophonist Jan Berry Baker performed hush (2018) by Gilda Lyons. Baker recorded her video in Los Angeles, in the state-of-the-art recording studio UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, where she is not associate professor of saxophone and music performance. The studio walls seen behind her incorporate a custom-designed wooden “baffle” of Douglas fir and spruce which makes the acoustics live enough to sound warm and vibrant, yet dry enough to offer clarity and control for the performer.
In addition to solo alto saxophone, the piece requires the performer to make vocalizations and percussive sounds on the body. The result is a somewhat mild agitprop music theater that attempts to explore impact of “received gendered language” through specific phrases that have evolved in meaning for the composer over her lifetime.
The concert closed with a second Improvisation (No. 1) by Young and Gerber.
None of this program seemed to me to be the kind of electrifying repertoire that Bent Frequency and other local contemporary ensembles have come to be known for over the years, the kind that makes the listener go “Wow!” in response. Could part of the problem be a general exhaustion on the part of both audiences and performers with online streaming of concerts under pandemic conditions? Hard to say. We’ll have to wait until restrictions on live concerts are further abated in order to find out, hopefully fully so by the beginning of the coming new season. I know I’m ready for a return to live, in person concerts. ■