by Lindsay Koob
The first number — Danish composer Per Norgard’s I Ching — is an all-percussion piece, from which we heard two movements: “The Gentle, the Permanent” and “Towards Completion: Fire over water.” The work’s title is that of the Chinese “Book of Changes” that addresses ways of bringing order out of worldly chaos. Kennedy described it as an exploration of “rapidly changing events” — like the reconciling of opposing rhythmic patterns as they “phase” or fade in and out of each other.
You should’ve seen the huge battery of assorted percussion instruments onstage. As Kennedy told us, such stagefuls of instruments are becoming obsolete among the composers of today — who are able to generate just about any kind of percussion sound they need on their laptops. At work (and I mean WORK) was fabulous Spoleto Festival Orchestra percussionist Eric Shin — whose playing has floored me in Spoletos past, too.
The piece began with some doodling on some sort of keyed instrument mounted atop a single timpani drum, with what sounded like exotic cowbells and sleigh-bells. Things got really interesting later in this section, as he manipulated the timpani’s pitch-pedal, producing some far-out “wowing” sounds. Here’s where the opposing rhythms Kennedy spoke of were first heard.
Shin then moved on to his big drum-array, where he laid down some of the most spectacular drum-work I’ve heard lately: his drumsticks were a blur. And, boy, was it LOUD. He then shifted to another set of instruments: a vibraphone (I think), plus what looked and sounded like mini-sets of tinkly wind-chimes and a tuned bamboo-stick contraption (didn’t catch the name). From there it was back to the big drums, whence we heard all kinds of patterns and textures. The piece ended with a single, big gong-note.
Then came the concert’s main fare: three absorbing (and often very funny) pieces by Utah resident Phillip Bimstein. His shtick is to collect digital samples of everyday sounds, inside and out, and manipulate them into canned soundtracks consisting of “choruses” of layered sound and/or rhythmic patterns. But have you ever a chorus of cats? Or cows? Or chugging rhythmic patterns from such creatures? It was a real TRIP! Playing over these soundtracks were real, live SFO musicians.
First up was Cats in the Kitchen, which Kennedy described as a sort of “Sinfonia Domestica” for cats and kitchen sounds — plus oboe (Alison Chung) and flute (Clint Foreman). The three movements were “Eggs and Toast,” “O Sole Meow” and “Where’s your Mouse, McGee?” I won’t attempt to break them down for you — but we got artful pastiches of any kitchen sound you’ve ever heard (eggs breaking and frying, toaster popping, coffee pouring, etc. — as well as the full feline sonic repertoire (meows, hisses, screeches, purrs, etc.) and even a human voice in the final section. And nobody can deny that it’s real, accessible music. It was not only catchy, but hilarious: at times, the musicians — while contributing tunefully — could hardly keep straight faces (laughter can be a problem when you’re blowing on an instrument). A gaggle of small children sitting near me really dug it. Gotta find a recording of that one to play for my cat person friends (and my cats).
Then we got Half Moon at Checkerboard Mesa — which I heard as a sort of mini-concerto for solo violin and orchestra — only the “orchestra” was an assortment of crickets, frogs and coyotes, as recorded on Checkerboard Mesa in Utah. But — thanks to Bimstein’s digital wizardry and musical instincts — these seemed to be virtuoso critters: able to howl, bark, croak and chirp in chorus, rough tune and perfect rhythm. But In fact, the only virtuoso present was SFO violinist Byron Hitchcock, who played splendidly. Despite a few tongue-in-cheek moments, this one wasn’t as funny — it was more of a natural night-scene in music.
The final number was Garland Hirschi’s Cows — the piece that got Bimstein rolling in this particular direction; it quickly gained cult-fave status after it first appeared in 1992. The piece employs both human and bovine speech samples (plus the sounds of milking machines and other cattle-farm devices), spread across three movements: “A little bit about my cows,” “Pastureale,” and “MOOvement.” The human voice is that of cattleman Hirschi, heard in repetitive patterns over a fairly sophisticated cow chorus.
This one also called for an ensemble of live players: violinist Fang Rong Wang, cellist Aleisha Verner and clarinetist Michael Byerly (who did his own mooing on a BASS clarinet, too) — plus festival piano workhorse Michael Baitzer on keyboard and percussionist Eric Renick on xylophone. A couple of them doubled on whistles and tambourine. The piece ended up sporting a huge range of sounds and effects — and it was very MOOving.
What more can I say, except that you should’ve been there.