Emory Chamber, MOCA GA showcase contemporary Atlanta composers

The Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta featured four contemporary Atlanta composers at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia Sunday for an evening of modern classical music which notably featured performances by Emory’s own Vega Quartet.

It was an apt location: the museum — which featured an array of surrealistic visions — was a stark reminder that the label “contemporary” in art can be as much of a freeing of the creative mind as it is an excuse to randomly throw paint on a canvas in the name of abstract modernism.

The world of so-called “contemporary” music is much the same. For every boundary pushing revolutionary like Arvo Pärt or Max Richter, there’s a John Cage or Mats Gustafsson — oddball purveyors of abstract noise who carry themselves with an air of musical legitimacy.

The concert began with the Vega Quartet performing selections from David Kirkland Garner’s “i ain’t broke (but i’m badly bent.)” Garner, like all but one of the composers on the bill, was on hand to introduce his composition and described his piece as an effort to translate fiddle tunes from various folk traditions into the string quartet setting.

Those themes served as the basis for a set of engaging enjoyable passages but they all seemed to conclude far too soon — as though Garner sought only to fulfill his curiosity at the prospect of hearing the themes played out by a string ensemble and no further delving into the compositional possibilities presented by the adaptation process. Ultimately, the music itself was calming and captivating but the stop/start quality of the sections when presented together left the feeling of being continually jerked awake as one tried to drift off into a pleasant sleep.

Alvin Singleton’s “Argoru III,” a flute solo here performed by James Zellers, emerged as one of the evening’s better examples of the possibilities of contemporary composition. Just as the word “contemporary” in the world of visual arts is secret code for throwing off the Romantic standards of form and structure associated with previous eras of painting so the “contemporary” in composition is associated with the abandonment of traditional notions of melody and rhythm and is therefore always skirting the boundary between music and noise.

“Argoru III” is a prime example of that boundary pushing paying off. There are transient hints of a developing melody, but by and large Singleton is more focused on exploring the tonal shape of the flute’s sound. In doing so, he commits significant time to overblowing the flute and exploiting the sonic clashes that occur when the instrument trills on dissonant intervals.

The reason it works is that even in absence of a defined melodic structure it is always apparent that there is a harmonic system — however exotic and unconventional it may be — from which Singleton is deriving the composition as a whole. The awareness of that larger cohesion made “Argoru III” feel like an ongoing journey rather than random probing.

Mark Gresham’s “Genshi” would, unfortunately, land on the less palatable end of the contemporary spectrum. A duet for violin and clarinet — here played by Helen Kim and Ted Gurch respectively — the piece felt abstract and unfocused. Initially there was a soft but deliberate dialogue between the instruments. But as it built up that dialogue became like an argument that pushes past the point of a coherent exchange of ideas and into the realm of angry screaming. The end result was a piece with potential that gave way to the worst excesses of contemporary composition.

Juan Ramirez’ “Suite Latina” was another of the evening’s standouts and saw the Vega Quartet return to the stage. The piece, divided into three movements, is certainly avant-garde in its unconventional structure and use of harmonically tense passages. But, like “Argoru III” before it, the piece succeeds for its use of a clearly defined harmonic system — in this case the compositional underpinnings of various Latin styles. In “Suite Latina,” however, Ramirez never shies away from developing and exploring engaging melodies and it is that capacity which truly sets him apart.

Garner returned to the helm for the world premiere performance of “black, black, black is the colour,” here performed by Vega Quartet violist Yinzi Kong. The piece is another contemporary reimagining of a traditional folk melody, this time “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.” The work was commissioned as an anniversary gift by Emory Chamber Music Society founder and artistic director William Ransom for Kong, his wife, who quipped that her husband’s idea of a gift was giving her more work.

The piece itself saw Garner realize the potential he only hinted at in “i ain’t broke” and saw him develop the original melody into something haunting and visceral that, like Singleton’s work before it, explored the tonal possibilities of the instrument in question.

The entire Vega Quartet returned to close out the evening with a performance of Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, Op. 133, a piece so chosen because it was considered to be wildly dismissive of the musical conventions of its day and, as such, appropriately placed among the other boundary pushing works on display and a fitting end to an experimental evening.

Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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