by Emily Kerski
The lobby of Constellation is like a warm living room; there’s something about the glow of the low orange lights, the sense of community as people gather at the door. It seems everyone knows everyone as they discuss projects, ask fellow musicians about what is coming up next, catch up with colleagues, revisit connections, dream bigger, make plans. There’s this papable, high-intensity passing of ideas, of events, of visions, of energy in new music that I feel reverberating each time I come here.
It was in this place of exchange that two ensembles with strong ties to Chicago, F-PLUS and ~Nois, came together to present a dynamic double bill Frequency Series show on September 23. F-PLUS, a clarinet, violin, and percussion trio, is in its third year of commitment to the establishment of a diverse body of repertoire for their distinct ensemble; ~Nois is also in its third season, exploring a congruence of classical contemporary and experimental improvisatory styles as a saxophone quartet.
Both groups presented four-piece sets of recently written or brand new material (works from within the last ten years, including four world or Chicago premieres), with the notable exception of ~Nois’ interpretation of Pauline Oliveros’ 1986 Thirteen Changes.
F-PLUS kicks off the night and I am eager to hear the potential of these three instruments working together, except there is no violin in sight and instead – in a daring plot twist – the first piece (Brooks Frederickson’s streams) features none of their usual instrumentation. Instead, the musicians stand behind and strike brake drums, producing an otherworldly, ethereal effect.
For the rest of the set, each musician returns to their typical instrument and Liza Sobel’s Trio for Clarinet, Violin, and Percussion is next premiered. Sobel’s piece deftly explores a rich newness that can be found within traditional forms (e.g. the structure of a four-movement instrumental work, complete with a third movement minuet). It is exquisitely well-crafted, exploring common possibilities between the timbres of all instruments to the extent that they sound as one. The players move with exceptional unity and clarity, showcasing well a fresh regeneration of a familiar musical argument.
The world premiere of Nicholas Cline’s knar follows, wildly energetic, demonstrating the ensemble’s fearless approach to any kind of virtuosity or technique a composer may call for.
Howie Kenty’s Horrorscene arguably stole the show with its chilling exploration of current themes through horror movie tropes. The composer spoke about his desire to approach the current political situation in a tonal/musical way and decided to use fittingly haunting text and vocalization to do so. The piece unfolds like a dark operetta, following a narrative and requiring the musicians to sing lines of text both in harmony together and individually. The piece began with a clever monologue of sorts, wherein the clarinetist encouraged the audience to vote in midterm elections, moving smoothly into the first question of the written text of the piece: “A choice: which is your true head?” which was repeatedly sung with increasing rhythmic complexity throughout. The sung lines of text melded brilliantly with the instrumental effects and melodic lines, creating extremely complementary vocal and instrumental dialogue. The players approached the quasi-performance art elements with the uncompromising commitment which characterized the entire show. The work as a whole merited such vigorous applause that my pen is now lost to the depths of the Constellation floor.
It will be fascinating to see what other repertoire emerges from this ensemble’s calls for scores in future, as already such a staggering depth and range of repertoire has resulted from the group. Several of the pieces in the show utilize what F-PLUS percussionist Josh Graham calls his “suitcase percussion setup,” that is, only so many instruments as can be easily transported are used; this percussion instrumentation is the focus of the group’s current/near-future call for scores. There seemed to be no limit, even if smaller or fewer percussion instruments were used, to the soundscape that could be achieved by this ensemble.
The ~Nois set opened with two works of great contrast: Hans Thomalla’s bombastic Albumblatt II juxtaposed with Gemma Peacocke’s cathartic, introspective Dwalm, which were both performed in front of an animation by Xuan (Amy Zhang). The composer/performer pairing of Peacocke and ~Nois was recently born at the 2018 Blackbird Creative Lab and seems to have been quite fruitful for both composer and performers.
The world premiere of Darcy Copeland’s even the words that we are speaking now was particularly memorable in its nearing of something so rare and pure: true silence. The work is centered around a delicate set of soprano saxophone multiphonics, which Copeland said she was drawn to for their fragility and elusiveness. The homogeneity of four soprano saxophones is marvelous and was especially effective in the multiphonic writing.
The quartet’s thoroughly original take on Oliveros’ improvisatory masterpiece Thirteen Changes expertly maximized the potential for creative spatialization. Although this is a freely improvised work, it was clear from their careful choreography (sometimes playing in duos, sometimes as a full ensemble, spacing throughout the room, decisions to walk through the audience) that the ensemble has both performed the piece before and done a fair amount of planning in advance. Yet, I loved the moments in which I caught the players truly marveling at each other’s sound experiments, as if hearing them for the first time. There was a tangible eagerness from both the players and the audience to discover what would take place as the piece developed.
Some truly innovative musicianship came to light as the work evolved, including effects on the mouthpiece and without the mouthpiece, playing into a cell phone call across the room, vibrating springs on the saxophone, playing through a megaphone, a gorgeously lush and inexplicably tonal chorale section which emerged from nowhere – a showcase of raw creativity throughout.
Certainly look out for ~Nois’ debut album to be released in 2019¹.
F-PLUS returned at the end of the night to join ~Nois for a loosely structured/improvisational piece by Andy Akiho, Karakurenai. The two ensembles share such an easy camaraderie and wide-eyed, youthful exuberance that it was impossible not to be charmed by this spirited conclusion to a fantastically varied show.
¹ (meanwhile, you can learn more and see their hilariously edited promotional video here.)