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Mixing It Up

July 24, 2007

The sfSoundGroup continued to carve out an exciting niche for itself in its concert Sunday night at ODC Theater. Among all the area’s new-music ensembles, this group has evolved an aesthetic that most vividly brings to mind the Bay Area’s long history of experimentation and boundary-crossing. As usual, the group offered a mix of composition and improvisation, acoustic and electronic sound, local and international voices, and a strong sense of connection to the audience in ODC’s black-box setting.
Soloist-with-electronics works framed the program, beginning with Jacob Druckman’s 1966 work Animus I, which received a strong performance from Toyoji Tomita on trombone. Tomita shaped the work’s fragmentary gestures and vocabulary of growls, breaths, and other extended techniques into a coherent, dramatic whole while playing responsively with the taped part. Like a lot of Druckman works, this has some theatrical gestures thrown in to comment on the music, as when Tomita exited the stage toward the end of piece while the increasingly aggressive tape part seemed to devour the soloist’s voice. The electronic component of the piece, sounding like a lot of the tape experiments of its day, rang strongly of another era, but this remains an engaging piece, especially worth hearing in a live performance.

Concluding the program, Steve Reich’s Reed Phase, written the same year as the Druckman, is one of the earliest of the composer’s phase works. The piece embodies his severe early aesthetic, with the soloist repeating a five-note figure against tape loops of the same sequence. Making a change from the score’s instruction to gradually move out of phase with the repeating loops, clarinet soloist Matt Ingalls instead repeated it steadily against two electronically generated versions of his part that handled the tempo fluctuations. With impressive control of the work’s physical demands — circular breathing is required — and the discipline of staying in rhythm against the time-bending accompaniment, Ingalls delivered an intense, rewarding performance.
Periodically Led by a Laptop
One of the many welcome aspects of sfSound’s approach has been the emphasis on composers performing their own work, as was the case with Christopher Burns’ laptop solo Periodic Table. The composer worked with an intriguing sound palette, subtle variations of timbre and pitch, and programming that led the computer to "improvise" and move the live performer in unexpected directions. Burns crafted a performance that rewarded open-minded listening and a willingness to learn, in the moment, a composer’s highly personal and evolving mode of expression.

Like Burns’ work, Christopher Jones’ piano solo Separate Machines displayed the composer/performer’s ability to choose his own language and speak it decisively. The piece, a series of interwoven episodes using recurring material, varied and reconfigured as it reappeared, had much to recommend it. Jones is a fine player who can balance thick textures and draw many colors from the instrument. Toward the end of this work, its sectional format began to seem a bit schematic and less flowing than at first. Still, the work’s idiomatic piano writing, feeling for space and silence, and refined sense of tension and release made it worth hearing again.

The most moving performances of the evening came in the two ensemble works. Heard in this intimate setting, Elliott Carter’s Tempo e Tempi seemed particularly vital and immediate. The eight-movement setting of Italian poems on the subject of time, in its many dimensions, received a strong performance from soprano Lara Bruckmann and an ensemble of violin, cello, clarinet, and oboe, with Jones conducting.

Bruckmann’s performance was worthy for many reasons, with clarity, well-shaped lines, and affinity for the character of the texts chief among them. The movements containing voice paired with solo instruments were particularly successful, with the two parts mirroring and transforming each other’s affect. In the seventh movement, "Uno," Bruckmann and cellist Monica Scott brought the work to an expressive peak. When the full ensemble was employed, the balances and sense of interplay that Carter’s music calls for weren’t strong at first and seemed to hold Bruckmann back a bit. Yet the ensemble gelled more each time it returned, and the largely muted textures of the concluding movement ended the work with a quiet intensity.

Credited to Ingalls and the sfSound Group as co-composers, A False Awakening was an altogether different work, with its own rewards. With Ingalls, Scott, and oboist Kyle Bruckmann arrayed across the stage and miked, the work begins with a piercing collective opening, then immediately moves to a long passage in which the amplified players improvise quietly and at length with nonpitched sounds. Returning to the pitched opening texture only at the very end, the work had a generous approach to time. The effectiveness of the performance was a testament to the players' sensitivity and awareness as they navigated a terrain in which composition and improvisation blend with and contribute to each other.

Benjamin Frandzel has written on music and the arts for a wide range of publications. He has a background as a guitarist and composer, and has collaborated with dance, theater, and visual artists.