A few years ago, Bent Frequency was arguably the region’s most interesting and exciting musical ensemble. With a love of the avant-garde classics and crack virtuosity, the group brought to life great music that we read about but rarely hear in Atlanta, from an all-John Cage extravaganza to the cool sounds of the French spectralists to, not long ago, an evening of experimental music and film by Mauricio Kagel.
More recently, including in an hourlong concert Tuesday in Georgia State University’s Kopleff Recital Hall, Bent Frequency performances have seemed like mutual back-scratching exercises with other academic institutions. It shouldn’t matter that most of the composers on Tuesday’s program are professors — talent resides in many locations — but the dullness of the music suggested that these works might have been selected for reasons other than artistic merit.
The most compelling piece came first. Josh Levine wrote “Transparency (Part 1)” as his mother was dying in 2004. (The title comes from a line in an Octavio Paz poem: “Mortality is transparency.”) Percussionist and Bent Frequency co-founder Stuart Gerber has a strong sense of theater. Walking quickly onto the stage, he made a beeline for a big bass drum positioned horizontally and struck a terrifying thunderclap. Then another, another, another. So loud were the shocks that they left a sonic residue in the air, like the background hum of the expanding universe or the disorienting haze after a bomb has gone off. Slowly the work took shape, and Gerber used mallets and his flattened palms and scratched at the floor with his foot. Four tinkly triangles, at the opposite end of the timbral spectrum from the bass drum, created their own overlapping overtones, which almost seemed like processed electronic music, an unreal sound. Despite the economy of instruments — none of them traditionally expressive — “Transparency (Part 1)” is an emotional little work, filled with sadness and longing.
John Drumheller’s “The View From Dead Horse Point,” depicting the desert Southwest of Canyonlands National Park, premiered earlier this year and was here performed by Tania Maxwell Clements. She played a plugged-in viola whose sound was processed through a computer, adding atmospheric ripples and echoes and Doppler effects. Clements is an excellent player, with a gorgeously wide tone and the natural phrasing of a storyteller. But if I hadn’t known the title or read the composer’s program note — “sounds that are reminiscent of the vivid and psychedelic colors of the desert” — I might have assumed the piece was a memorial to something else, perhaps the London Blitz of World War II, with siren-like wails, the plink-plunks of a gentle rain, and the anxiety of awaiting something big about to burst — with the barren, after-the-destruction loneliness of the survivors at the end. The link between what music sounds like and what we’re told it’s supposed to sound like — the power of suggestion — is a fascinating component of what is essentially abstract music.
The concert went downhill from there. David Crumb’s “Awakening,” for trumpet and percussion, is from 2000. Near its start and end we catch the sound of a far-away muted trumpet, an iconic American sound embedded in our subconscious by “Taps” and Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” That opening mood was broken by a loose quotation from Stravinsky’s “Petrouchka,” one of several intriguing moments that never went anywhere interesting. Trumpet player Amanda Pepping and Gerber had trouble making a convincing case.
“Back Jump,” by Ben Stonaker, is scored for flute (Sarah Kruser Ambrose) and alto sax (Jan Berry Baker) and gloomy, mood-depressing computer processing — a generic representation of the international academic style.
Finally, in the straight-to-DVD category, Hubert Ho’s “A Dangerous Game of Hide and Seek,” from 2006, drew inspiration from a gray-on-gray Expressionist soundworld and from the chamber-music theatrics of George Crumb. With pianist Peter Marshall joining trumpet, sax and percussion, and conducted by Robert J. Ambrose, the “game” started innocently enough, with gastric noises, spare textures and a general sense of atonal compositional control. Soon two of the players had abandoned their positions on stage and were play-acting a game of rock-paper-scissors; then they fled the stage altogether and hid in the seats amongst the audience. When that duo took up new positions in the auditorium and kept the music going, the trio on stage got into the act, skulking around as if in a Mel Brooks remake of James Bond. It was silly, not funny, and the music wasn’t very interesting.