Where the Wild Things Are

The "Unruly Music" series brings new works that can break the boundaries of classical music.

By - Apr 15th, 2015 12:03 pm
Quince -  Left to right: Amanda DeBoer, Liz Pearse, Kayleigh Butcher, Carrie Henneman Shaw. Photo submitted by Unruly Music Director - Chris Burns

Quince – Left to right: Amanda DeBoer, Liz Pearse, Kayleigh Butcher, Carrie Henneman Shaw. Photo submitted by Unruly Music Director – Chris Burns

Twice a year, the UWM Peck School for the Arts brings cutting-edge contemporary musicians to Milwaukee through the “Unruly Music” series. Directed by composer Christopher Burns, the mission of the series is to explore “contemporary trends in chamber music, improvisation, electronic sound, and multimedia, spanning a wide variety of genres and styles.”

This kind of series can feed the imagination of budding composers. The concerts are free and tend to have a small audience, yet they can be be very interesting, offering music that can stretch the limits of classical genres. And they bring to Milwaukee the leading performers of these cutting edge forms. Programs tend to mix very new, often experimental compositions with established “classical” works – that is, works that have been around and well received for a decade or more!

The spring series features a new mixed chamber ensemble on Thursday evening, an a capella soprano quartet on Friday evening and a duo on Saturday evening blending violin, bassoon, sound sculptures, video and live electronics.

Suono Mobile USA Ensemble - Photo by Jennifer Mandel

Suono Mobile USA Ensemble. Photo by Jennifer Mandel

Thursday Evening, April 16: Featuring Suono Mobile USA, established in 2012 by saxophonist Nathan Mandel and composer Philipp Blume. As part of the larger Suono Mobile initiative for new music worldwide, Suono Mobile USA is “a modular collective, a sort of think tank, for presenting and curating modern and new musical works, programs, and art/music initiatives.”

The eclectic ensemble of nine musicians includes violin, guitar, piano, saxophone, trumpet, contrabass, percussion, tape and voice. An established contemporary Quartet (1950) by Stefan Wolpe opens a concert that will include two world premieres.

Artistic director Philipp Blume will premiere his work Versions (2015) that allows seven different strands of activity to evolve simultaneously within the ensemble. As he described the process, “each strand has the potential to act as a petri dish, a substrate, a vehicle, for all the others, but repeatedly trades this potential for opportunities to instead be disruptive.”

Nathan Mandel, Suono Mobile USA co-director. Photo by Jennifer Mandel

Nathan Mandel, Suono Mobile USA co-director. Photo by Jennifer Mandel

Ideas are often central to contemporary composition. Colin Holter‘s The Senses Tablecloth (2013) “while strictly notated in its rhythms, takes such delight in ambiguities of phrasing and harmony that the performers are challenged nearly to their limits as they try to keep those ambiguities as open as possible.” His work suggests “a rippling surface of musical fabric that warps its shape .. to map five senses into one – hearing.” By contrast, in Joan Arnau Pamie‘s Canvas (2010) “the rhythms are left ambiguous, but now the articulations become highly specific.”

Friday Evening, April 17: The four woman a cappella group, Quince, performed in the Fall 2014 Unruly Music series. They return to conduct workshops with local composition students. The majority of the works on this evening’s program feature world premieres of student compositions.

Quince specializes in vocal music that freely traverses the soundscape more precisely than the fixed “tempered” scales of western instrumental music. That is, their voices can express tones “between the notes.” This is not as unusual as it sounds. Even a barbershop quartet seeks an harmonious blend that is truer to the composite sound than fixed note instruments would permit. Quince also favors music which explores the sounds of words, seeking “music” in the articulation of syllables and phrases. These special skills invite composers to experiment with a unique palette of sound.

Established composer Jonathan Sokol wrote Le Saleve (2011) which features an alliterative poem – a love story told almost entirely with words beginning with or sounding strong s’s:  “Silence strong, sirensong, swaying shaped, sure…falling silentsure, harpstrings, heartstrings, sighing into the clouds.” The sung text transforms into direct chords that “slide fluidly from one to another.”

Katherine Young - composer - Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Katherine Young – composer. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Each of the student compositions seem tailored to the unique talents of the Quince quartet. Joshua Backes contributed 30 Lashes (2015) to poetry he wrote “based on my interpretations of eastern philosophies and dialogues.” Anatasya Koshkin composed Siberia (2015) “to depict the presence of words and sounds that evoke a sense of remembered place and certain kind of a natural environment.” Robert Lane Tolson Jr. wrote Witty Name (2015) to “attach twelve sounds (phonemes) to their own chromatic pitch.” Warren Engstrom‘s hushers (2015) exploits “four consonants in the Russian language characterized by their noisiness.” Monte Weber explores the slightly different meanings as the text from Alvin Lucier‘s work, I am sitting in a room, is “fragmented, repositioned, and reordered to create a slightly different narrative.”

Saturday Evening, April 18: Collaborating composers Katherine Young and J. Austin Wulliman will perform a single large scale work – Diligence is to Magic as Progress is to Flight. Wulliman will play violin and viola (both “prepared” and “normal” instruments) joined by Young managing video and electronics. Video elements include visuals used as a score for structured improvisation. A sound installation can be heard before the work begins.

A review of the group’s Chicago premier of Diligence (in 2013) in NewMusicBox offers an interesting take on the music:

J Austin Wulliman - composer

J Austin Wulliman – composer

“What made Diligence so satisfying was that it brought the greatest strengths of both composer and performer into bold relief. Young’s compositional hallmarks—her visceral approach to sound; her organic use of repetition, structure, and pacing; her attentiveness to the smallest details of timbre; her adventurousness in using instruments in unexpected ways—made the work feel like a living thing, breathing and unfolding as the evening progressed. And Wulliman’s strongest characteristics as a performer—his intensity of focus, his absolute commitment to each musical gesture—made listeners feel that the pair’s collaborative vision was being fully embodied in each moment.”

Selections from this evolving work may be sampled on YouTube and Parlourtapes.

The most gratifying part of a series of concerts like this is to witness new Milwaukee composers finding their voice and to appreciate the broad palette they have to draw from as 21st century classical music develops.

All three concerts begin at 7:30 PM in the UW – Milwaukee Recital Hall – 2400 E Kenwood Blvd. All concerts are free.

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