Sounds Like Now—a festival celebrating the 15th anniversary of Interpretations, the new music series founded by baritone Thomas Buckner—took place last October at the same time as the CMJ Music Marathon. It’s funny to think about that week: while twenty-something indie rockers were busily toying around with various retro (and once innovative) styles, performers/composers old enough to be their parents—or grandparents—were still pushing boundaries.
Composers Tom Hamilton and David First, who curated the festival, selected performers from a roster of artists who had previously appeared in Interpretations. Sounds Like Now jammed a lot of music into a short period—six long concerts in four days—but fortunately each artist was given ample time on the La MaMa Etc. Theater stage.
One thread that ran through the festival’s diverse programming was the Progressive Dinner series, a sort of minifestival in itself. A different installment of the series opened each concert. The first dinner, which kicked off Thursday night’s opening show, was a solo performance; with each successive dinner, an additional player was added to the bill. The six performers were pianist “Blue” Gene Tyranny, saxophonist Jon Gibson, trombonist Peter Zummo, violinist Leroy Jenkins, bassist Mark Dresser, and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. The iterations—solo, duo, trio, quartet, quintet, sextet—were linked—or not—in a number of ways.
Tyranny dedicated his solo piano performance to Ray Charles and John Kerry (whose hope of unseating W. still seemed bright). The piece, a multifaceted meditation that made references to “America the Beautiful,” was imbued with jazz harmonies, pop allusions, minimalist gestures, and Tyranny’s uncanny ability to make it all hang together. Was this pop? Jazz? New Music? Improvised? Composed? The festival was off to a good start.
Annea Lockwood’s “Luminescence,” performed by a chamber ensemble conducted by Petr Kotik, took its text from eight poems by Etel Adnan. The piece featured lovely timbres and integrated instrumental music, spoken text, and singing in strikingly organic ways. Later, Kotik and the S.E.M. Ensemble performed an excerpt of Kotik’s The Plains of Gordium, in which six percussionists quietly played rhythms using mallets. The results evoked court music from a strange, muted planet. Occasionally, bells were struck by metal rods, the high tones contrasting with the muffled drumming. The audience got restless, but I liked this otherworldly music, which felt like it could go on forever.
Alvin Lucier’s “Kirilics” for baritone, voice, French horn, and oscillators and “Opera with Objects” followed. Both pieces emphasize visual and conceptual concerns as much as musical ones. In the first, oscillator sweeps and long tones sounded while a spotlight was cast on Alain Kirili’s sculptures. For “Opera,” Lucier tapped ordinary objects with pencils to create slightly varying sounds. “Opera” displayed Dadaist humility: the grandiose extravagance of opera reduced to one man making small sounds.
The next night’s Progressive Dinner found Tyranny teamed up with alto saxophonist Jon Gibson. The duet had the feeling of light jazz, but at times tensions nicely ruffled the music’s surface. A new piece by David Behrman featured a text that offered practical advice for political protestors at the 2004 Republican Convention. The blunt language contrasted nicely with the music’s moody abstractness, and Peter Zummo’s sensitive trombone blended well with Ralph Samuelson’s shakuhachi and Behrman’s electronics. Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, and drummer Tani Tabbal wrapped up the evening with a potent improvisation. Abrams’s motoric rhythms, all-over-the-keyboard firestorms, and atonal chord clusters were matched by Mitchell’s intensity, and Tabbal’s rhythms managed to be both free and foundational. The crowd loved it.
Saturday afternoon’s show opened with the third Progressive Dinner. This set, with trombonist Zummo joining Tyranny and Gibson, had a totally different vibe from the second dinner installment. Zummo brought the abstract blues to bear on the proceedings, as edginess replaced Friday night’s lightness. Robert Ashley’s “Empire” featured the talk-singing voices of Ashley, Jacqueline Humbert, and the composer’s son, Sam Ashley, accompanied by Tom Hamilton’s mixing and processing of the electronic score. Ashley works magic on mundane subject matter through his use of rhythmic, layered speech-song. In “Empire,” ketchup, railroads, tomato soup, and family history enter an exalted realm.
Pan-African philosophy, Balinese music, modern composition, invented instruments (crafted by the composer), and theatrical presentation were some of the elements at play in the Jamaican-born Douglas Ewart’s “Word Sound Is Powder.” The next performer, David Rosenboom, referred to “time-space configurations,” “unstable systems,” and “sound orderings” in his program notes, but his music also offered more concrete pleasures like intriguing trumpet lines and energetic, Nancarrowesque piano explorations.
Sunday night’s concert was a strong closer. “Two Party System” found curators First and Hamilton on electronics (First also played electric guitar), playing with Flux Quartet violinist Tom Chiu and Bruce Gremo on shakuhachi. The group created a shimmering, pulsing bed of sound filigreed with finely honed details. Joan La Barbara and the ensemble Ne(x)tworks performed an excerpt from La Barbara’s new opera WoolfSong. The ghostly piece was haunted by the wind and creaking tones, and La Barbara’s extended vocal technique was spookily dazzling.
After Kyle Gann presented three piano studies for Disklavier, and composer George Lewis paired with the German duo 48Nord for an engaging performance, Morton Subotnick wrapped things up with “Until Spring Revisited.” Using a laptop instead of analog synthesizer, Subotnick reworked and expanded his 1976 composition “Until Spring.” Subotnick’s dialogue of spatialized sonic phenomena created distinctive, ephemeral soundings throughout the room, an ever-changing constellation as wonderful as a starry sky. Rock bands have been influenced by the sort of electronic music Subotnick has made for decades; maybe Subotnick and a band like Black Dice could share a bill at the next CMJ Marathon.
FRED CISTERNA writes a spoken-word column for Signal to Noise magazine.