CSO MusicNOW There Will Be Blood Review-Avant-Garde MusicNOW Delivers Abundant Novelty

Percussionists perform Dan Trueman's "120 bpm"

The latest offering from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW program showcased several avant-garde works which explored possibilities that were unusual and, to some degree, unimaginable. Bolstered by participation by several members of the CSO and the orchestra’s current Composers in Residence, Anna Clyne and Mason Bates, MusicNOW, performed at the Harris Theater for the Performing Arts, is clearly intended to be an adventurous and hip rejoinder to the standard repertoire.

DJ Justin Reed performs Hommage a Scriabin

Much of the performance was dominated by creative usage of multimedia, using today’s technology, as well as older and obscure technology, to create pieces of music. The opening performance came from an underground DJ, and self-styled “turntabulist,” DJ Justin Reed, whose creation, “Hommage à Scriabin” that explored the synesthesia of the Russian-born composer whose symphonies are to be presented soon under the baton of Riccardo Muti at Symphony Center. Scriabin’s condition caused him to see music notes as colors; he even created an organ which projected colors to correspond to the notes played. The DJ’s composition did the same thing, using synthesized music on turntables which corresponded to a video projection of different colored images; additionally, stage lights, which cast long shadows of Reed on the walls of the theater, changed color as well.

Dan Trueman introduces 120bpm

The second work, Dan Trueman’s 120bpm, featured four percussion players who played identical parts on various percussion instruments that sporadically were able to stop and reset a metronome to which the instruments were connected. Trueman’s logic, presented in a video introduction, indicated that this composition was a kind of revenge against the cold indifference of the endlessly ticking metronome which accompanies a musician’s activity. In what was the most avant-garde move of the evening, two of the players and eventually all four began to pull a machine, originally a controller for an old golf video game, that was hooked up to an electronic sound that could be manipulated with the musician’s movement of the pulleys. The rhythm seemed to contain nods to East Asian music, but there were sounds that I couldn’t fully account for, such as something that sounded like static electricity that seemed to be synthesized.

CSO Violist Weijing Wang performs Salvatore Sciarrino's "Al limiti della note"

After a brief performance of a brooding solo piece for viola by contemporary Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino, Ai limita della note by CSO violist Weijing Wang, a small ensemble played one of Clyne’s compositions, a short piece called “Wonderful Day,” another multimedia creation. Clyne was inspired to compose the piece based on an encounter she had in Chicago with a singing homeless man, whose song and personal story she recorded on her smartphone. She orchestrated the song and mixed the audio track, which tells of the man, Wooly Barbee’s, journey to Chicago and his hardships over his long life. Clyne mixed the story so that it’s often difficult to understand what the man is saying, and the whole concept seems like a mixture of inspiration, compassion, and exploitation.

Performance of Anna Clyne's "Wonderful Day"

In comparison to what preceded it, Jonny Greenwood’s suite from the 2007 Paul Thomas Anderson film There Will Be Blood, which closed the performance, was easily the most conventional piece of the evening. Greenwood has become linked to Anderson by composing the last three scores for the director’s films, including the recent release, Inherent Vice. Anderson’s use of Greenwood’s music has become increasingly operatic, as he sustains use of the Radiohead star’s classical compositions over long scenes, even where music would not traditionally be used. Isolated from the somewhat harsh (but often brilliant) counterpoint that the music creates when used in the context of the movie, Greenwood’s music, scored primarily for strings (only an occasional oboe contribution was mixed in,) seemed fairly conventional but compelling, ranging from a primordial mood created by the early passages, to other passages that depict the wide-open but harsh vistas of the film’s landscape, concluding with a brutal pizzicato piece that uses violins and violas like demented guitars. Donato Cabrera, affiliated with the San Francisco Symphony, led a performance made up of CSO musicians, as well as other local ensembles, delivering a performance that highlighted the tensions of Greenwood's score.

Donato Cabrera conducts Jonny Greenwood's "There Will Be Blood" suite

photos credit: Todd Rosenberg Photography 

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