The MATA Festival turns 11 this week, and I’ve caught the first two nights, with the third (out of four) to come on Friday. There’s been a variety of polished, mostly well-made music with a stellar group of performers. This is a festival, and an organization, dedicated to emerging composers, so there are generational thoughts and questions about What It All Means that I’m chewing on at the moment — while reaching for Kerouac — but still want to discuss my impressions of the music so far.
Each night, Tuesday and Wednesday, had a very different and complementary quality, with the former firmly in the territory of post-Minimalism and post–Bang on a Can, and the latter certainly more experimental. Tuesday the features were an audible beat, a clear and frequently shifting pulse, consonant, simple harmonies and phrasing not unfamiliar to anyone who grew up listening to rock music. Wednesday there was music for laptop, experiments with tunings, processes, alternative instruments and an emphasis on open structures and improvisation.
What stood out on Tuesday’s program, performed by varied groups from the superb ensembles The Knights, were Justin Messina’s AM: Obama and Joe Pereira’s Echi Dromi. Messina’s piece was the most experimental work on the program, a duet for percussion and the processed sounds of AM talk-radio hosts calling out our President’s name. It was an experiment that only half-succeeded; the percussion part was interesting and well-crafted, the electronic part underdone, seeming to exist in a different musical framework than it’s human partner, and ultimately not conveying any particular context or meaning for why we were hearing “Obama” being shouted. Echi Dromi, a personal creation of an imagined Middle Eastern music, was gripping, expressive and exceedingly well-crafted, through composed and given a great performance by Alex Sopp on flute and Joe Gramley on percussion. While the rest of the concert featured familiar repetitive structures, these works keep going to unexpected, intuitive places.
The opening work, Francesco Antonioni’s Macchine Inutili, is certainly a product of the generation that follows David Lang (as he is part of the generation that follows Steve Reich and Louis Andriessen); pulse-patterns with shifting rhythms, juxtaposition of slow, long lines against faster repetition. It’s a polished piece. The opening movement of a cello concerto by Mike Block was performed, the composer as soloist. It’s lively, fun, light-hearted, although since it’s put together in fragments that are placed sequentially — some returned to — it seems much more like a closing movement, one that sums up the preceding music and eschews development for conclusion. Cordavi and Fig was a large ensemble piece by Ted Hearne, with intriguing textures and sonorities. It flirts with disintegration and ends with a welcome indeterminacy. A highlight was Sarah Snider’s lyrical trio for viola, bass clarinet and marimba, good music that could have gone on longer. The capper was Product No. 1, an oddly compelling instrumental/vocal chorale — the musicians sang while playing — repeating a tune the composer, Andrew Hamilton, had overheard. The repetition was straight, a la Gavin Bryars, and while it went on too long, it had a pleasingly boozy quality which lingered after the applause had ended.
Wednesday prominently featured laptop musician Sawako, who combines electronic music with field recordings and also works with live performers. Her set included a duet with Miguel Frasconi playing glass instruments — including water containers — and two violinists. Like all good electronic musicians, she has a great ear for timbre and is comfortable with indeterminate structures. Her experiment with sine-tones and the violins moving in and out of pitch was a lesser version of the work of Alvin Lucier and Giacinto Scelsi, but her opening and especially concluding pieces, then, opening again and coda, were mesmerizing.
The second half was provided by another terrific ensemble, Ne(x)tworks, all superb musicians, especially the pianist Stephen Gosling, who gave a powerhouse performance of Kate Moore’s Sensitive Spot. This is a kind of etude, which places the pianist amidst recordings of the same piece, a perpetuum mobile of repeated chords and bass notes. The result is a rich, beautiful texture, full of shifting details, a demonstration of the specific, internal activity in a seeming wall of sound. Shelley Burgon’s Josephine’s Tiger was a limpid, dreamlike large ensemble work, sonorous and deliberately fragmented and introverted and was a complete success. Raster for quintet from Christopher McIntyre and Cornelius Duffalo’s mindscape 2 were a little more problematic. Raster is meant to be aggressive and to challenge the audience’s ears and expectations, which it does. Structurally it does not convince, though; there is a massive piano interlude in the middle which seems to belong to another work, and the disjointed, wry climax feels unprepared. Duffalo’s piece was heavy on improvisation, which I say as an experienced, and experimental improviser, is a good thing. The danger is that improvisation becomes just another kind of predictable music, and while in this case the musical results were clear and solid, the sense that anything might happen, that something completely new might be said, was missing.
These were good programs, with accomplished musicians and composers. Not everything is going to work completely, nor should it — the development and presentation work that MATA does is just as much a process as the music itself, and the composers are speaking clearly to an interested and attentive audience. The series continues Friday and Saturday and Le Poisson Rouge, with more excellent musicians, including Now Ensemble, So Percussion and Cenk Ergun. It’s a spring awakening.