Sound of Late review: free to have fun

Northwest new music ensemble delights in music by star composer Missy Mazzoli and more

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

There is a certain liberation in the post-tonal, post-post-tonal, post-modern, post-post music Sound of Late specializes in. Music can be chromatic without being serial; it can be complex without being acrobatic. Academic classical music took a long strange turn to the ridiculously hypercomplex from about 1950 onward, and although a few notable rebels found ways to break away from all the Babbittness and Boulezerie the stench of ivory tower still leaves a bad odor in some noses. So it’s something of a relief when a virtuosic, experimental musician like SoL ensemble director Andrew Stiefel says something like “it’s okay to be rhythmic, it’s okay to be melodic, it’s okay to have fun.”

As one of the Pacific Northwest’s newest new music ensembles, Sound of Late has been carving out a nice young niche for themselves here and in Seattle, celebrating living composers, putting on 48-hour composition competitions, and generally behaving like the bunch of brash young academy trained badasses they are. They’re just as experimental as Creative Music Guild’s Extradition Series, though perhaps less sparse and quite a bit poppier. Their usual line-up consists of flutist Sarah Pyle, clarinetist Colleen White, horn player Rebecca Olason, violinist Bryce Caster, violist Stiefel, cellist Elizabeth Gergel, and bassist Milo Fultz—not all of whom play every piece or even every concert—plus various guests and substitutes. I’ve written about them before and expect to do so again next season.

Violinist Thao Huynh, cellist Keith Thomas and violist Andrew Stiefel played music by Missy Mazzoli in Portland and Seattle.

Violist Stiefel, exhausted from playing Seattle and driving back down for this show, introduced SoL’s Magic with Everyday Objects, the last concert of their first season as a group. Stiefel talked a bit about the first piece of the evening, Mazzoli’s 2006 trio Lies You Can Believe In: “Lies in this piece are not so much a falsehood as embellishing a story.” How right he was. Cellist Keith Thomas and guest violinist Thao Huynh joined Stiefel for lots of dissonant drones, complex meters played against open strings, tightly sculpted dynamics, talea-color interplay a la Messiaen and Harrison, and a recurring ascending theme that reminded me of Masada String Trio’s The Circle Maker or King Crimson’s “Talking Drum.”

Flutist Sarah Pyle introduced the group’s premiere of Benjamin Penwell’s contribution: “Our next piece is called friction, for reasons which will become obvious.” Pyle was joined by Fultz and Stiefel, each with extraneous pieces of fricative material and big graphic scores pasted up on giant pieces of cardboard like a science fair project.

Pyle wasn’t exaggerating about the title. All the players took a turn running sandpaper over cinder blocks resting on newspaper draped over little TV trays next to their music stands. A big change in texture came when Pyle picked up a rock and rubbed that against her cinder block. At one point Stiefel affixed a binder clip to his viola to play ridiculous, eldritch, ineffable harmonics. And it wasn’t just the foreign objects. The string players used a lot of overpressure bowing, sliding harmonics, and a fair helping of noisy inharmonic sul ponticello grind to get that beautiful Penderecki horror movie sound. Fultz, seated at his bass, bowed up and down the strings (as opposed to the usual crosswise motion we use for Brahms and the like). Pyle, no stranger to extended flute techniques, did only a little less overblowing than what I expect from her.

Stiefel took a solo with another Mazzoli piece, 2010’s Tooth and Nail, and described it thus: “I like the central ideas she uses: a lie in the last one, a jaw harp in this one,” and called Mazzoli’s music “lyrical and rhythmic.” He gave a little demonstration of sul ponticello, which he described as “a way for strings to use distortion,” and put headphones on to follow the electronic backing track. Stiefel showed off his Experimental Music chops: complex tone, sawing and bowing with bits of pizzicato, dancing along with the backing track’s overdubbed strings and stereoscopic percussive elements. Major and minor blended in a bittersweet lullaby, interrupted figures in the viola slowly filling in the texture before breaking up again, growing increasingly dance-like and frenzied like an ancient haunted reel. Stiefel and Mazzoli’s deft handling of harmonics and bowing tricks evoked the jaw harp’s acoustic wah effect quite nicely.

Pyle announced “We’re going to ‘create’ this piece tonight” from graphic score cobbled together from xeroxes of an old phone book. That was Danish saxophonist and composer Laura Toxvaerd’s Cacklecabin, interpreted in this performance by Pyle, Fultz, and guests Satchel Henneman on electric guitar, Andrew Olmstead on keyboard, and previous SoL curator Justin Bulava on clarinet.

This was The Weird One for this evening. Scattered microbursts of dense musical energy scurried around like one of Ligeti’s electronic pieces or John Zorn’s Naked City band, Henneman’s frizzy, angular guitar harkening back to Bill Frisell’s early, pre-Americana period and John McLaughlin’s work on the surreal modern classical Miles Davis / Palle Mikkelborg outlier Aura.

The swirling eddies of chaotic klangfarben finally slowed and converged—not on anything we would recognize as a consonant chord, naturally, but on a more or less stable sonic tide pool of barely congruent clustered tones.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one amused by all this; I caught Milo cracking himself up, playing high on the neck in duet with Pyle’s flute in a rare moment of melodic lucidity. Olmstead reminded me of Jeffrey Biegel, the pianist I had just seen performing P.D.Q. Bach with Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra the previous night, melodramatically pushing his high notes off the edge of the keyboard, flopping around like Harpo Marx and clearly having a lovely time. I wondered if he was at the same concert.

The Naked City whirligig patrol came back by for one last round at the end with a bunch of quick stop starts and climaxing cluster chords. My how we love our climaxing cluster chords. Merci, Igor!

Sound of Late’s Pyle, Henneman, Olmstead, Fultz, and Bulava played Mazzoli.

“And now for something…completely different,” Pyle said with a mischievous glint in her eye as she introduced the final number, another of Mazzoli’s compositions.

The titular Magic with Everyday Objects was instantly more tonal—dense, pulsing, throbbing chords under long arching melodies passed from flute to bass. Henneman kept up the edgy Brancaian NYC loft guitar work, grinding out crunchy, widely spaced chords and chromatically inflected pentatonic licks throughout. The prevalence of three-quarter time gave the piece a waltzing, cabaret-isch feel, especially during Olmstead’s extended solo, which bordered on the Guaraldian. The jazzy chords circled each other like embarrassed lovers, never quite resolving, in a way that made me think of Gavin Bryars. Bulava’s bendy, sauntering riffs over feedbacking guitar and cantering ragtime piano sounded like if Benny Goodman got really into shakuhachi and started hanging out with Sonny Sharrock.

What a joy it is to discover a new composer! I’m sure half of you reading this already know all about Missy Mazzoli. Fine. Go have a cup of tea. As for the rest of you: check out Missy fuckin’ Mazzoli!  Her “exploded, blown apart, blasphemous church service” album Vespers for a Dark Age—featuring Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche, “new music mistress” Lorna Dune, Newspeak vocalist Mellissa Hughes, Roomful of Teeth’s Martha Cluver and Virginia Warnken, and Mazzoli’s own ensemble Victoire—is available on all the usual streaming/purchasing places, and you can stream her latest opera, Breaking the Waves (trigger warning: yes, it’s based on the Lars Von Trier movie with Emily Watson) for free right here. If you’ve come this far with me, I’m pretty sure Mazzoli’s going to rock your world as much as she’s rocking mine.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer and percussionist at Portland State University. He and his music can be reached at http://composerswatch.proscenia.net/Andrews_Matthew_Neil.htm.


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