The Box Is Empty
The Century Ballroom
Friday, June 29th, 2012
Written by Heather Bentley
Last Friday, the 29th of June, I had the pleasure of attending The Box is Empty at Seattle’s Century Ballroom. The Box is Empty is not only the name of the musical ensemble but also a philosophical concept.
From their website: Our name is based on a simple concept. Start with a project (i.e. a box), fill it with all of your spirit, energy, and creativity until the project comes to fruition. Then empty the box and start again. The Box Is Empty is a view of the process. All possibilities are open, creativity is unending. Surprise the box’s recipient with the gift of new experience. The Box Is Empty.
It’s clear from the spirited performances given that the organizers and performers are enjoying filling their empty box and sharing its contents. Consistent with current efforts to update the classical music experience, the event had the vibe of a happening, and indeed, swankiness was on display and liquor flowed, if not freely, at least within reach.
The choice of the Century Ballroom is an interesting one. At the heart of the Pike/Pine neighborhood, the location is central to unalloyed Seattle coolness. On that particular evening, there was a sort of loudish rally going on across the street at a park, I spotted two men sporting green mohawks, a social dance class was happening on the other side of the hallway, and it was what passes for a warm day in Seattle, enough so that big industrial fans were running during the four intermissions/libation opportunities and the windows were open to the street noise. I love all of this because it puts art music (can anyone come up with a name for this music that isn’t contemporary classical or alt-classical??) right at the center of the street traffic and casts it on similar terms to an art opening, an independent film or a club event: things that sophisticated people of any age would be drawn to and that satisfy the desire to have a fun and social night out.
My only small regret is that the Century Ballroom lacks a beautiful natural acoustic, and while the amplification of the individual instruments was expertly done, I found myself missing the patina of natural sound that normally emanates from the player’s center, but in this case was relocated to the speakers. I am most likely out of step in this regard, because we live in a world of recorded sounds and speaker-driven musical conveyance, but I do cherish the acoustic realm.
I enjoyed all five of the pieces tremendously. All were conducted with enthusiasm and precision by Jeremiah Cawley, one of the Directors of the group. Kudos to Mr. Cawley for his selection of contrasting, interesting and appealing works to share with the public.
The senior composer featured, Michael Gordon (b. 1956) appears to have worked with everyone, everywhere, from collaborations with dance and theater,
to opera, chamber music, symphonic music and film projects. His output includes multimedia performance which add “dimensionality to the traditional concert experience” through the use of large projections. His compositional pedigree is secure as a graduate of the Yale School of Music. The evening’s only composition from the 20th century, “Four Kings Fight Five” (1988) starts as a compellingly visceral wall of sound whose performance enthralls as the players assiduously strive to keep with the beat. Scored for chamber ensemble of strings, woodwinds, synthesizer and guitar, Gordon challenges the performers separately to keep up with the math, splitting a 9 beat measure in to subdivisions of 6, 8, 9, 12, 13.5, 24, and 27. What could otherwise feel like a metal thrash turns into a complexity-induced mosh of heady intensity. I particularly like the way he builds to the oasis of thinned out texture toward the middle and end of the piece, exposing just a few instruments in trios, duets and solos post-din.
Aligned with the notion of empty boxes is the John Cage-ian idea that the framing of sounds around us is art enough. Nat Evans (b. 1980) is a great champion of repurposing found sounds. He creates scores that are combinations of field recording plus live instrumental performance. In “Hear No Noise” (2012), premiered at this show, a recording of noisy morning birds provides the bucolic backdrop for a chamber setting of a 9th-century Chinese poem (sung in English translation). Evans’ use of long glissandi in the strings alighting and resting on unexpected chords is a particularly attractive musical device to create the lush harmonic foundation the song rests atop. Soprano Maria Mannisto offered a glimpse of her spectacular range of musical expression in her lovely rendering of hermit-monk Han Shan’s paean to aloneness without loneliness.
Nat Evans: Hear No Noise (rehearsal excerpt)
Scott Gendel’s (b. 1977) “For Lotte, Asleep” (also premiered this evening), was the only piece on the program that I would have preferred to see performed without a conductor. In three similar lullaby-like movements, the string quartet with piano float lovely tonal melodies – as Gendel writes, “full of inward thoughts, repetitions, rocking motions, and soothing gestures” which were composed when his daughter was an infant. Absent any challenging rhythms, the ensemble would easily have been able to navigate the score on their own, and the result may have been more intimate. As it was, violinists Alina To, Mara Sedlins, violist Olivia Thomas, cellist Alex Ho and pianist Melisa Thorne delivered an understated and unhurried performance with a particularly beautiful blend of sounds in the strings.
The last two pieces on the program, Amy Beth Kirsten’s (b. 1972) “L’ange pâle” (2012) and Michel van der Aa’s (b. 1970) “Here (In Circles)” provided the real opportunity to experience the consummate artistry of Maria Mannisto. She is a soprano capable of blending into the woodwork of instrumentalists as easily as being an operaticdiva. That is a neat trick. Mannisto can handle the most complex and rapid twelve tone riffs alongside gorgeous, soaring melodies. “L’ange pâle” features a nice section where the soprano and flute trade hockety half-steps ping-ponging back and forth across the stage, evidently in a competition for superior breathiness.
“Here (In Circles)”- the US premiere of a work from 2002, uses an endangered species of technology, the hand held tape recorder of my youth, to complement the proceedings. As the soprano records and plays back specific bits of the live performance, the players essentially begin to accompany themselves, though the dorky little speaker on the tape recorder offers but a pale scrubbiness of the actual sound. It’s not till the familiar old tape recorder rewind sound becomes part of the score that the true madness of this piece shows itself–as the program notes mention, “Van der Aa’s texts are intentionally murky, strengthening the intended ambiance of disengaged derangement.” Mannisto’s high-octane delivery of the score’s increasing emotionality was the zenith of a compelling evening of musical offerings.
I look forward to the next The Box is Empty show.
Heather Bentley is the creator and writer of HemidemisemiThoughts. While she’s not writing, she’s known for her skills as both a violinist and violist.