An always interesting, often mesmerizing, study in contrasts, the 2014 MATA Festival’s closing concert subverted expectations from the start. In Tai Chi (2013), Chinese composer Ke Xu sought to peer inside the body, limning escalating tension and propulsive release in successive waves of sound. From frenzied bowing to pizzicatos traded across instruments and played in tandem with stamping feet, the Mivos Quartet performed with equal measures of precision and panache.
For Swedish composer Lisa Streich’s Play Time (2012), members of Mantra Percussion sat at an inverted bicycle, one at each wheel and one between them at the frame. A set of crotales waited nearby. Making sounds on “found” objects is nothing new, and the bar for Streich was high. In Mantra’s nuanced performance, Play Time cleared every hurdle with room to spare. Mallet-on-frame tapping gave the work a rhythmic anchor that allowed Mantra to spin music out of sound. Delicate bowing set spokes humming, a tap on spokes became a quiet gong, spinning wheels fizzed and buzzed, pedals cranked a ratcheting chain, and here and there a fulsome, singing note emerged. The only missed opportunity was the choice to bow the crotales, reducing the timbral contrast to a few meek squeals.
In Torus (2012), Yotam Haber—MATA’s outgoing artistic director—set himself not one challenge, but two: the iconic string quartet form as his musical palette and, as his subject, the sculptures of Richard Serra. Haber’s work, no simple mimicry of the monumental, expressed the multiplicity of perspectives encountering a Serra sculpture entails. In another vital, accomplished performance from Mivos, the abrasiveness of rusted metal on the sculptures’ surface came into view. Opening with frenetic ensemble playing, the music continually shifted, evoking disoriented terror as it felt its way along inner curves in search of outer light. Silences figured as hesitations, as if the piece itself was uncertain how to proceed. Only at the end, in a flurry of quiet notes, was the whole revealed. This was music that not only existed as a finished work, but also performed the act of its creation. With sound alone, Haber taught us how to see.
If only Swedish composer Ansgar Beste had taken the works that preceded his as models in composing Pelerinage Fantasique (2012/14). Though Mivos applied knitting needles, spoons, combs, and other objects with complete commitment, Beste’s severe muzzling of his chosen instruments could not be overcome. Paula Matthusen’s strong contribution, The Days Are Nouns (2013), for soprano, percussion, and electronics, banished Beste’s desiccated terrain from view. Jamie Jordan’s pellucid soprano flowed into a light-filled landscape, as if Norwegian painter Harald Sohlberg’s Flower Meadow in the North had unfurled its meadow in the room. In Matthusen’s skilled hands, vibraphones outfitted with microphones bloomed with eerie resonances that richly complemented Jordan’s vocal line; occasional feedback flares threatened to steal away the beauty but could not succeed.
The concert closed with Paris-born Daniel Wohl’s Progression (2013), for amplified string quartet and percussion. Employing shifts in instrumental color along a chord progression, Wohl sought to move seamlessly from light to dark. Starting on bright sonorities and a rolling pulse, he introduced a sense of menace by imperceptible degrees. Midway, though, the relentless pulse overshadowed timbral changes, and the subtle summoning of encroaching dark was lost. At its close, with all instruments but viola and cello silenced, the last impression, rather than of arrival at the heart of darkness, was one of succor and relief.
Susan Scheid writes about music and other matters at Prufrock’s Dilemma (prufrocksdilemma.wordpress.com).