The Saturday night slot at the MATA 2014 Festival featured the American debut of Oscar Bianchi’s challenging cantata Matra (2006 – 7). The swirling 50-minute program was performed in front of a packed house that included the exuberant young composer, who briefly explained his inspiration for the composition. Bianchi said that “matra” in its purest sense is translated as “matter,” which was no surprise given the eclectic and explosive turns that dominated the piece, and that often brought the ranges of the instruments and voices to their most visceral levels.
The three groups of performers featured a vocal sextet—the Neue Vocalsolisten; an instrumental ensemble—the International Contemporary Ensemble (I.C.E.); and a solo trio of contrabass saxophone, contrabass Paetzold recorder, and bass flute. These three groups were united under the capable and poised direction of conductor David Fulmer.
The performance began with the solo trio—a group of “low instruments” according to Bianchi—creating an eerie mood, with the bass flute, played by Alice Teyssier, producing a particularly sinister ambience. For several minutes, the trio eased into the unconventional rhythm of what was to come. As the vocalists and the instrumental ensemble gradually joined in, Matra sprang to life with twists and turns that quite clearly demanded a great deal of labor and endurance from the performers. Moments of harmony in I.C.E.’s string section, in particular, proved to be fleeting, as sudden bursts of energy jolted the music into a thrilling whirl of intense turbulence.
At the core of the performance were the Neue Vocalsolisten, three female and three male vocalists. The group intertwined texts from Lucretius’s “De Rerum Natura,” the Gospel of Mary, and the “Vigyan Bhairav Tantra” into the mix, reciting the lines mostly in quarter-tone harmonies. The articulations were often difficult to decipher—and unquestionably difficult to perform—but were delivered assuredly. Short gasps, guttural yelps, and glottal effects from the talented singers all combined to add another level of diverse instrumentation. When the performance wound down, and the instruments died away, the soprano repeated the final words of the text with a chilling sense of clarity and resolution. It was time for all to catch their breath and for the audience to slowly exhale.
Bianchi’s Matra proved to be an exercise in circular motion, and a study of the forces of nature that compose matter. The performance included moments of smooth harmony which, juxtaposed against the dense rhythms and visceral outbursts of energy, created a beating pulse that represented the cycle of human life. Bianchi’s tireless and passionate composition, although at times demanding and a challenge to fully comprehend, was a triumph.
CHRISTOPHER NELSON lives and works in Brooklyn.