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Dirt and Copper Debut Showcases Intriguing New Works

September 24, 2018

Center for New Music

Dirt and Copper, the latest new-music collective to emerge on the scene, had its grand coming out on Friday. The group played its first full-length show at the Center for New Music, and it was a hit.

With guest Julie Herndon, a composer-pianist earning her doctorate at Stanford, the quintet played a program of six works — each written by a different member of the group, like a calling card. The pieces were different enough (yet within a defined sensibility) and short (but not insignificant). Plus, there were program notes — a rare commodity at this particular venue.

Percussionist Tony Gennaro contributed Pillars, in which nothing feels solid. It’s as if a minimalist composer was commissioned by an audience of finicky toddlers: rhythmic patterns repeat, but change so quickly as to be almost jarring. Articulations — lugubrious violin strokes against sharp strikes to a flower pot — mix in surprising and complementary ways. Grooves are fleeting and pulses far from insistent; in fact, the work itself feels somewhat noncommittal — yet still enjoyable.

More settled is Brief Candles, a sort of meditation on air by guitarist Matt Robidoux. Quiet, un-pitched blowing blooms into expressive swells, organized into almost imperceptibly changing pitch centers. The sound of the electric chord organ — which, in a given cluster, seems to emphasize certain notes — makes it all the more interesting, the timbre differentiating the work from the many others like it. And, on Friday, the ensemble played the drones with particular smoothness.

Only after the concert did I match each piece with its composer — and found that often, the instrumentalists had written in ways that I wouldn’t have expected. Violinist Golnaz Shariatzadeh’s Limoo, for example, foregrounds breath (and, in its violin writing, uses flautando bowing to approximate exhaling in an authentic way). In this time-suspending trio, many of the gestures — and especially the unique sound of the prepared violin — are compelling, if the rate of activity sometimes seems flat.   

Pianist Julie Herndon’s Out of This (.01) was the most visually interesting work. In the dark, three players (flute, bass clarinet, and percussion) congregate around the piano, reading off of lit acrylic scores. It’s ambient bedtime music: slow-moving combinations of gentle consonances, like a slightly more serious Ryuichi Sakamoto. In fact, these kinds of harmonies benefit from being pristine, but in the perfect intervals, especially, less-than-perfect tuning was noticeable (the group played A’s many times throughout the evening, but never really tuned). Still, the reflective quality of Herndon’s work came across.

At the other end of the spectrum was the chamber concerto by clarinetist John Ivers. Open-ended timing in Wind, Unwind creates a palpable playfulness, densely active figures contrasting with jazzy lyricism. Yet structurally, the work feels grounded, the sections — signaled, in part, by hand bells — suddenly asserting themselves like theatrical sets unfurling from above. It’s a piece that calls for multiple listens, but it was engaging this first time through, and Ivers certainly knows how to write for himself as a soloist.

On the other hand, each individual is a true soloist in Rota Fortunae, by flutist Michelle Lee. The players perform personal scores based on their astrological birth charts, and, as in Shariatzadeh’s work, it was intriguing to hear similar ideas transformed through the lenses of different instruments and their techniques. The music is episodic, but through-composed with a kind of quiet purpose, and the balance of instruments was impeccable throughout.

Rebecca Wishnia recently earned her master’s degree in violin from UC Santa Cruz, where she studied with Roy Malan. A passionate chamber musician, she has performed in a variety of ensembles around the Bay Area, in addition to studying and teaching chamber repertoire at festivals each summer.

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