Spontaneous Combustion reviews 1: from hub to sandbox

Two extraordinary young East Coast new music quartets light up the new music festival's first edition

Editor’s note: ArtsWatch deployed a small squadron of reviewers to most of the Spontaneous Combustion Festival’s seven programs spread over 17 concerts in three cities. Here are some of the highlights of the first edition of this valuable new addition to Oregon’s music scene. Read part two here.

Sandbox Percussion started their concert in January’s Spontaneous Combustion New Music Festival with a bit of theatricality, the four percussionists emerging singly from backstage, each in turn adding his phasing rhythmic patterns to the ligneous melee of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood — performed, quite appropriately, on actual slabs of wood (rather than the usual tuned claves). The thing about a piece like this is that if you can just rip through it accurately, that’s really good enough to sell it for most listeners. Reich’s intentionally transparent, semi-automatic compositional process carries the work, and the sheer athleticism required to perform it is impressive enough that matters of interpretation are almost unnecessary.

But no, just as Sandbox insisted on using authentic instruments (can we call this a Historically Informed Performance?), these four decided to be insanely, obsessively precise down to the last little detail, executing unbelievably smooth level changes and cross-fades like a four-man mixing board. Their rhythmic intonation, so to speak, would make the whole city vibrate if a choir were doing it.

Sandbox Percussion performed in Portland’s Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music.

And yet within this strictness was a great deal of expressivity, even individual freedom (much like that imaginary choir we mentioned, which may as well be Hilliard Ensemble since that’s who we’re all imagining anyways). In Sandbox’s subtle, dynamic blend, “soloists” could pop out of the texture just with a shift in their posture; the Old Church’s sensitive acoustics are more than capable of picking up such tiny cues and broadcasting them all over the room, and the concentrated awe on the players faces told me they knew this perfectly well. These little solos, never obtrusive and always musical, made living music out of simple patterns and four planks. And that was just the opener.

It ended up being a whole evening of this sort of thing, uncommonly intimate percussion playing like we heard in this same venue nearly two years ago. It became clear that these four spend a lot of time working together and basking in the “simple joy of playing together.”

The last time I heard superstar percussionist Ian Rosenbaum, he was playing a bunch of Andy Akiho music at Chamber Music Northwest. But, Rosenbaum said, this would be “the first time our group has played this beautiful city.”

Sandbox commissioned the next piece, L.A. composer Thomas Kotcheff’s 35-minute kitchensinky Not only that one but that one and that one too, in 2016, and the instrument list hints at why they only performed the third movement on tour. Rosenbaum described the movement’s array as “all sorts of shimmery metal instruments, like windchimes in a toy neighborhood in a giant’s musical toybox” — in our mundane reality, that meant a bunch of little finger cymbals and tuned metal tubes scattered around the stage, nestled around the vibraphone. Antiphonal shimmerings coaxed beauty from the interplay of chaos and order as complex polyrhythmic figures hopped back and forth over a clear pulse and basically tonal harmonies. The texture emerged as something quite a bit richer than I might have expected from a bunch of toys, building to a glimmering crescendo before receding via gradual thinning to a subtle, ringing nothingness.

Sandbox performed at Portland’s Old Church.

Sandbox member Victor Caccese introduced his own Bell Patterns as “the third pillar of what we do as a percussion quartet.” The three pillars, Caccese explained, are: Reich’s ‘70s works, which “brought percussion center stage”; commissioned works like Kotcheff’s; and their own compositions. Caccese described himself as “not trained as a composer” and acknowledged the role his bandmates play in developing the finished product.

It’s easy to hear why a composer would want to workshop something like Bell Patterns with this group. The whole thing is built out of interlocking parts, starting on tuned handheld call bells (like in hotels) before migrating to the vibraphone, and what really impressed me was how deftly Caccese developed multiple melodies out of simple rhythmic cells distributed throughout the group. Each player’s part was a combination of muted strokes and free ringing ones, and the resultant four-note-melody-over-clicking-groove got stuck in my head for days. (It wasn’t too different from the kinds of interlocking parts you hear in Balinese music.) Once they added the vibes, a new realm of possibilities opened up: eight hands on four bells and four mallets and a whole lot of damping and muted strokes and general percussion quartet badassery.

And then the bows came out. For Elliot Cole’s Postlude, fingertips drumming directly on the vibe’s metal bars set up a vamping chordal groove thing while no fewer than six bass bows did their creepy work, producing gleaming rays of metallic tones that came together in a long, complicated composite melody. I’ve never heard anything quite like it, least of all from a percussion ensemble.

Sandbox’s other resident composer, Jonathan Allen, described his Sonata as being deliberately unprogramatic. “There are so many subjective experiences of an objective thing,” Allen said from the stage. “We’re all gonna hear the same thing, but have different experiences of it, which is the reason for the bland title Sonata. Whatever you think about it—you’re right!”

Once again all four players surrounded the vibraphone, this time supplemented by a concert tom, a guiro, and a suspended cymbal. Against a Reich-like ambiguous polymeter, a single repeated note supported a nice descending chromatic line, all culminating in an intense, intricate bit of counterpoint that reminded me of how foundational Bach’s music is for developing percussionists.

Akiho and Rosenbaum at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo:

Which brings us back to Andy Akiho. Sandbox performed his Karakurenai (Red)—one of several color-themed pieces Akiho has assembled over the years—with the breezy confidence of players who are well-acquainted with the composer. Akiho’s music isn’t easy, or anyways it isn’t easy for non-percussionists who don’t understand his music’s idiosyncrasies, and Sandbox’s handling of the work’s rhythmic intricacy and populist grooviness was splendid. Rosenbaum, Akiho’s most frequent collaborator, has been playing this piece for years and it shows; what I wasn’t prepared for was Caccese’s exquisite tambourine work, probably the closest thing I’ve ever heard a Westerner come to the insane subtleties of Selvaganesh’s kanjira playing.

This is one thing I love about Akiho’s intentionally customizable music, which often begins life as solo steel pan music before appearing in “flexible instrumentation” format and/or rearrangements for various different ensembles (consider the history of the same composer’s 21, which exists in versions for cello and steel pan, cello and marimba, and most recently a version for steel pan and marimba). On top of that, there’s usually more than a little room for improvisation (despite, once again, a tightly controlled inner process), so there’s always the possibility of little surprises like this one (oh, and parties like this one).

Sandbox’s fourth member, Terry Sweeney, closed the concert with a pretty good explanation of the phase process that drives Reich’s Drumming, from which the group elected to perform (as is customary) only the first movement, which conveniently requires nothing more than four sets of bongos and a pathological attention to detail.

Fortunately Sandbox brought both with them. That dynamic rhythmic intonation that  opened the concert was in high gear all through the movement. These guys may have done a better job with the phasing than Reich’s own group (Blasphemy! Shame! Scandal!), and overall their feel was broader, more overtly informed by both the Ghanaian rhythmic sensibilities that birthed the piece in the first place and various other international percussion traditions (I personally heard a lot of Japanese and Korean overtones). This is music for dreaming, sure, and it’s all too commonplace to call this stuff “hypnotic” and whatnot, but in Sandbox’s hands it was also music for rocking out to. I could have danced all night. — Matthew Andrews.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

Hub New Music

Hub New Music, an innovative Boston-based group shaking up chamber music, has members younger than 30 years old who make clarinet, violin, flute and cello play as one— if not always harmoniously. But harmony has never been the main component of 21st century music. Unique unfamiliar rhythms and unexpected twists and turns trump harmony. Hub plays an unusual combination of chamber music instruments (including flute and clarinet), and especially for their final piece, the off-beat mix worked.

The four accomplished musicians who’ve been together for five years — Michael Avitabile on flute, cellist Jesse Christesen, clarinetist David Dziardziel and violinist Zenas Hsu —played to a paltry audience of a dozen on Jan. 23 at the Old Church in Portland. The small turnout didn’t disrupt their poise, but what a shame more music-lovers didn’t open their ears to this original, complicated sound that brings life to living composers’ works and realties in such an acoustically alive venue.

Spontaneous Combustion Festival of New Music brought Hub New Music to Portland’s Old Church. Photo: Angela Allen.

The group played their friends’ music, or composers with whom they’ve become friends. Laura Kaminsky’s moody eight-movement The Full Range of Blue (though Hub performed only six movements due to time constraints) is in part a meditation on nature yet ends in the spooky sadness of the 9/11 aftermath. Oregon-born David Drexler’s evocative six-minute Forgotten Dawn, winner of the Spontaneous Combustion International Call for Scores, preceded Kaminsky’s piece.

Robert Honstein’s 30-minute Soul House unfolds in eight movements, each named for a part of a house (Stairs, Alcove, Driveway, Hallway, etc.), with the most lyrical called “Secret Place.” The piece, which Hub commissioned and premiered in Seattle the night before the Portland concert, conjures up childhood nostalgia as the music moves from room to room, pulling us along, telling us a story, evoking memories. A recording has yet to be made of Soul House, but when it is, count me in for a download. — Angela Allen

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

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