Howard Wershil | 31 JAN 2024
How do you meld music, dance, and visuals in meaningful ways? That is a challenge not often pursued by participants in any of the above disciplines, yet it can yield unexpected and satisfying results when so pursued. Each year, Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble, a local collection of some of Atlanta’s finest chamber music performers, hosts a composition contest inviting the entrants to create a five-to-seven-minute piece of music to accompany and celebrate a particular work of visual art chosen for the occasion, as well as to accompany movement choreographed for that visual work. Out of all the entries submitted, three are chosen for performance — which means this may well have been the briefest concert of new music premieres I’ve ever attended.
No matter. Amazing things can come in small, concise, and atmospheric packages. Upon arriving at the upstairs entrance at Core Dance in Decatur, the audience is ushered into a highly darkened dance space with a padded floor and instructed to sit along the back or side wall of the room. Looming large upon the wall opposite the back wall, we see a projection of three visual images, the middle of which was selected as inspiration for this year’s competition and functions as the title of the evening’s event. This artwork is by well-known Atlanta muralist Krista M. Jones, who, per her website, is “interested in breaking down subjects into simplified forms and putting them back together in complex ways that challenge the mind.” Ms. Jones was fortunately available at the concert to richly expound upon her techniques and the works she has created.
For me, that approach of complexly rearranging simplified forms provides more than adequate direction and provocation for creating music and dance to apply to the three works of art featured this evening, “Chimera,” “Rising,” and “In Thirds.” Throughout the concert, complete and sectional images of these works are rendered at various sizes and components of these works — the simplified forms, perhaps? — were projected onto the dancers in an intuitive set of pseudo-animated sequences. The audience enjoyed seeing not only the luminous coating on the dancers’ bodies but also a negative space where the shadows of the dancers projected onto the artwork and echoed their efforts. Meanwhile, the music was performed in a cozy rear corner of the space, heard but not easily seen. The entire experience reminded me of the lovely, intimate concerts presented by 1960s-and-beyond composer Gilbert Trythall, where dark, light, sound, and dance all worked together so warmly and comfortably.
The music did not disappoint. It’s enough of a challenge to compose music that purports to relate to a visual work of art compellingly, let alone to accomplish that goal between five and seven minutes. Each of the compositions featured offered its own slant to the concept of mutual sound-site-movement connectivity. My only disappointment was that the composers were unable to attend their premieres. I would have enjoyed acquiring valuable insights regarding their approach to this process.
The first piece of music, Fractured Fairy Tales by Alon Nechushtan, scored for violin, viola, and cello, was fashioned in a decidedly post-Bartok style, offering a comfortable volley between consonance and dissonance that seemed to reflect the color consonances and shape dissonances of the art in question.
The second piece, Cumulus by Priscila Chu, offered an entirely different approach, cultivating long, slow combinations of sustained flute, clarinet, cello, and bass sonorities that microtonally glided and departed into, around, and through each other with masterful grace. Added to this were occasional drum kit embellishments that were both decorative and, at times, expository, creating a fresh-sounding aesthetic that aptly reflected the modernity of its related artwork.
The final piece, Seagulls by Stephanie Chou, scored for viola, saxophone, and drum kit, was the most surprising. Mostly a light, romantic waltz with brief excursions to areas of slight rhythmic ambivalence, I struggled to identify a connection with the Krista M. Jones artwork, which, with its jungle/nature-like intensity and the rougher borders of its component forms, I personally do not find at all reminiscent of anything waltz-related, other than there being three images present. That said, the connection between the music and dancers was lovely, with the dancers winsomely engaging in flirtation and embraces as they each gradually adhered to create their common ground.
Each of the compositions performed by Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble musicians (violinist Charles Gunsaullus, violist Brittany Ross, cellist Ben Shirley, bassist Gabriel Monticello, flutist Judith Klein, clarinetist Bora Moon, saxophonist Eric Fontaine, and percussionist Caleb Herron) were ably and spiritedly conducted by Amy Wilson, known locally for her position as conductor of the Atlanta Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as internationally for her conducting experience with orchestras in the United States, Mexico, and Europe. I look forward to enjoying more of her work.
Dancers Frankie Freeman and “Mighty” Paul Jenkins from Music and Movement combined their mastery of classical and modern dance techniques with break-dance/hip-hop moves, giving their motions more currency and robustness. Both moved with the effortless poise that one would expect of practiced, accomplished dancers, especially in the third work featured. However, in the first two pieces, I was particularly struck by their added ability to exude a stronger sense of physicality in their combined efforts. The sacrifice of a tiny bit of decorum for a wee bit of the brutal worked quite appropriately in the context of the evening’s goals.
After the concert, I had the pleasure of speaking with Tracy Woodard, the executive director of Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble, whose enthusiasm for contemporary music and artistic collaboration is undeniable. Ms. Woodard has a distinguished background in music, is the founder of the Cantos Y Cuentos contemporary string quartet, sits on the board of directors of Eyedrum, and, if that weren’t enough, is President of Mad Housers Inc., an Atlanta-based non-profit corporation providing shelter for the homeless and developing low-income housing, among other noble initiatives. She is seriously committed to exposing new music to a variety of audiences, especially those new, unexpecting audiences that can be found at public events and gatherings. Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble is in excellent hands.
Finally, leaving no stone unturned, you can find Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble’s logo on their website. Check it out. I think it’s the coolest one I’ve seen for a music ensemble in a very long time!
And now, with the brevity of the concert under consideration, I choose to render my review somewhat shorter than is typical. Good things can come in small packages. Sometimes, less is more.
If any of what you’ve read piques your curiosity, you still have several evenings of unexpected musical innovation waiting for you at Georgia State University’s Kopleff Recital Hall through Saturday, February 3, 2024. All concerts are free admission and begin at 7 PM. You can find more information at atlantasoundnowfestival.com. Engage! Explore! Enjoy! ■
- Atlanta SoundNOW Festival: atlantasoundnowfestival.com
- Atlanta Contemporary Ensemble: atlce.org
- Krista M. Jones: jonesyartatl.com
- Stephanie Chou: stephaniechoumusic.com
- Priscilla Chu: priscilachu.com
- Alon Nechushtan: brooklynmusicschool.org/alon-nechushtan