After hearing the excellent musikFabrik of Germany perform John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra Sunday evening at EMPAC, it was clear Cage was the inspiration for much of the other works on the program.
Cage wrote the Concert in 1957-1958 and was considered a groundbreaking piece at the time. While six instruments play isolated tones or sound effects within a time frame based on how fast or slow the conductor moves his arm in a circle, two others play a game of chess. The odd assortment of sounds, which included trombone splats, violin harmonic glissandos and a splash here and there on the piano, were never really duplicated or done in sequence. Volume and density of textures went up or down.
But now, more than 50 years later, five other composers haven’t strayed too far from this seminal piece. The eight-member musikFabrik plus conductor Yordan Kamdzhalov brought their works to life with a skill, dedication, intensity and integrity that was as incredible as the pieces were interesting. Part of the concert featured three works that the ensemble chose from the Harvard University residency it had just completed on Saturday at which it had worked with six composers in the doctoral program. These were included amid the Cage and two other works in the ensemble’s repertoire.
Contrabass clarinetist Carl Rosman began with the solo “Interference” written by Richard Barrett (1996-2000) for voice, pedal bass drum and the instrument. Rosman amazed as he vocalized in syllables over an abstract range of almost five octaves. Now and then he’d hit the drum with his foot. The low tones on this clarinet sounded blurpy with liquid thunks and squeals amid the scales and trills.
It was a soliloquy, which surprisingly not only had an ABA form, but was invested with humor, exasperation and excitement. Rosman was so terrific it would be hard to envision anyone else doing the work.
In Justin Hoke’s “Pantomime-Aria,” the numerous quiet tones from the violin, alto flute, cello, bass clarinet and percussion were bits and pieces of barely there sounds. Hoke, one of the Harvard composers, said he wanted to “create the space between This and That,” which he did successfully and even ephemerally.
Claude Vivier’s “Paramirabo” (1978) had more melody and dark harmonies than any of the other works. The flute, piano, violin and cello were in a kind of dark waltz. What was novel was the whistling one or another player had to do. It added a melancholic air. With only the occasional isolated but delicate passages around sustained tones, the piece seemed conservative without all those odd effects.
The two other Harvard composers’ works created atmosphere. Sabrina Schroeder’s “Spuler” was a short evocation to the aural world of a steel factory: throbs of sound, faint scratches, distant ringing. Timothy McCormack’s “Nous-Apparatus” had a larger scale with a wide and odd assortment of sounds from the percussion, trombone, bass clarinet, flute, violin and cello. Airy swishes, distant rumblings, blats, a piercing tone, scratchy double stops created a dark, mechanical world of science fiction proportions.