‘Rituals’ review: ambient tension

Contemporary classical music ensemble Sound of Late's dive into ambient sounds achieves incomplete immersion


“Listen closely to the cycles of your breath as you sink deeper into a universe of sound.” As that promotional quote for its May 19 show Rituals at Portland’s N.E.W Expressive Works indicates, Sound of Late invited us to lose ourselves in the spatial and immersive qualities of sound. Unfortunately, while waiting for this “universe of sound” to engulf me, Rituals played out as a fringe avant-garde chamber music concert that I would be cautious about who I invited to. The promised sound world was almost tangible and the show was teetering on something more, if only Sound of Late had believed in the validity of their vision and not sacrificed it to composers’ isolated visions of their scores.

Sound of Late’s ‘Rituals.’ Photo: Carlin Ma Photography.

Sitting in a circle, the audience’s experience centered upon the sound oscillating from inside to outside the circle. The Portland/Seattle new music ensemble performed Sequences by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Gjallarhorn by the Oregon electrical engineer/composer Chet Udell, in the speaking silence by Oregonian Andrea Reinkemeyer, and Et Nunc by Brooklyn based Alvin Singleton inside the audience circle. In between each of these pieces, a passage from Thirteen Changes by Pauline Oliveros would be played from outside the audience.

Once the listeners drained the open bar and sat down, Sound of Late violist Andrew Stiefel explained the show’s structure and spatial elements, which I usually find unnecessary. Disclaimers and justification of an aesthetic vision make a group appear uncertain. If acts such as Kanye, Gwar, and Ho99o9 aren’t explaining themselves, neither should you. A note in the program would have been equally informative, and allowed the unknown to surprise.

But this time it made sense, as the show began with Pauline Oliveros’s Tuning Meditation, which required instructions for audience participation: breathe in, audibly breathe out, breathe in, sing a single pitch while breathing out, and repeat. Tuning Meditation invited the audience to focus on the act of sound creation, practice active listening, and perform personal musical reactions to the soundscape. Still, the instructions for participation could have been given without the added explanation of the rest of the show.

I wanted this performance to be more of the immersive world it was grasping at, but some elements of the scores often prevented that. Flutist Sarah Pyle, clarinetist Colleen White, saxophonist Sean Fredenberg, bassoonist Javier Rodriguez, and bassist Milo Fultz in varying ensembles performed Sequences, in the speaking silence, Et Nunc, and the interspersed Thirteen Changes, which all hovered in a limbo between ambient music and development music.

Fultz, Rodriguez, and Pyle in Sound of Late’s ‘Rituals.’ Photo: Carlin Ma Photography.

Ambient music entices the listener in by providing lots of space for ideas to settle, trance-like melodic repetition, and often long drone effects. In contrast, development music retains the listener’s attention and curiosity through the Western Classical tradition of sequencing, retrograde, augmentation, inversion etc. However, music that lives in purgatory between these two musical worlds is much more difficult to write compellingly. It too often sounds like development-based music that fails to develop in new and interesting ways, or like ambient music failing to believe in the effect. In the speaking silence, Et Nunc, and Thirteen changes all wound up in this purgatory.

Weaving a complex rhythmic pattern using key clicks, audible breathing, and staccato burps from the baritone saxophone that slowly morphed into long sustained meditative tones, Thorvaldsdottir‘s Sequences for bassoon, bass flute and clarinet, and baritone saxophone cleverly avoided this problem. The long saxophone tones started as the very natural length of a breath, and throughout Sequences almost imperceptibly crept faster. This gradual acceleration created tension via the composition’s ambient tones, similar to rhythmic tension, but using lengths of time that are difficult to recognize as rhythmic, which obscured the source of tension. Even though this effect could theoretically be identified as rhythmic diminution, it isn’t experienced as such.This obscurity places the effect (and composition) within the ambient realm.

Sequences achieved a ritualistic quality from this ambient tension, rather than relying on the expected development of its melodic material, which would have damned it to the Ambient vs. Development purgatory. While composed of the same basic alternating building blocks of extended techniques and long tones, most of the program’s compositions never achieved this ambience of ritualism.

Udell’s Gjallarhorn for solo horn and motion-sensored electronics also suffered from the Ambient/Development dilemma of too much activity to achieve a trance effect and too little development to be captivating throughout the whole performance. But as with most of the compositions on the program, many elements of Gjallarhorn really served Sound of Late’s intention of “sink[ing] deeper into a universe of sound.” Moreover, SoL’s Rebecca Olason really sold the visual performance of activating the delay, pan, and electronic sound source effects via motion, swinging her horn violently to the left or right to activate a panning and delay effect, or picking her horn up and an electronic accompaniment would join briefly. Another constant prerecorded electronic accompaniment provided a consistent canvas for the horn part to unfold over.

Sound of Late’s Rebecca Olason in ‘Rituals.’ Photo: Carlin Ma Photography.

Tuning Meditation was the most successful work of Rituals because it wasn’t bound to a score and was allowed to grow organically in the moment of creation, which really brings up the Schoenberg/Cage dilemma (that divided much of 20th century composition), and how Sound of Late sacrificed their performance to the Schoenberg camp. Schoenberg’s aesthetic vision insisted on absolute control via a score predetermined by strict principles like atonality and serialism. By contrast, Cage argued that Schoenberg’s aesthetic effect could be achieved with no control (that is, leaving crucial artistic choices to chance rather than imposing the composer’s will on them), meaning that the artistic effect, different each time, suited each performance.

I am unconvinced that Sound of Late’s aesthetic vision for their show was best served by exacting obedience to the scores, and therefore, the music within that context wasn’t best served either. The electronics were already at the show, so why not use them in other scores? A touch of reverb or delay can do wonders for the ambience of a work. Or if a section of work doesn’t fit the dramatic arc of a show, why not chop it? Within a programmed arc, the vision of a singular composition is secondary to that of the whole program.

Sound of Late has already shed so many of the unnecessary boundaries within chamber music that I hope they eventually push past the idealization of the composer as a omnipresent solitary genius and really own their personal ensemble aesthetic. Curating a compelling  show involves more than just picking the pieces to play. It also requires considering how those pieces flow into each other and how the whole evening’s story arc develops. If your show’s success with audiences requires breaking rules, break them. Don’t shy away from making a show better just because it may require making your own decisions to add something or arrange a score. (And I say this as a recovering control-freak composer myself.)

Rituals was a unique show, really without comparison, and I look forward to Sound of Late becoming more of what they already are: talented musicians with a truly unique vision of what a concert experience can be, if only they can follow that vision where it leads.

Tristan Bliss is a recovering classical composer who thought it was dying out, but was fortunately saved and shown it’s merely a matter of definitions.

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One Response.

  1. bob priest says:

    TB is baaaaack!

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