Rebekah Heller and Ryan Muncy at Spectrum, December 14, 2013
Night After Night exclusive
I first encountered the music of Morgan Krauss almost exactly one year ago in Chicago, during the valiant "(Re)New Amsterdam" benefit concert organized by Marcos Balter and Doyle Armbrust at the Empty Bottle. The day was long and there was a lot of worthy music to take in, but I recall being positively jolted by by the freshness and originality of Krauss's Gravity of Shadows, played by a chamber group then known as Ensemble Vulpine Lupin, now Fonema Consort.
Krauss, currently a doctoral student at Northwestern University, is part of a rich, vibrant and thriving new-music scene in Chicago, but I don't recall having many opportunities to hear her music played here in New York. Needless to say, it was a welcome surprise to learn that two excellent musicians, International Contemporary Ensemble bassoonist Rebekah Heller and Ensemble Dal Niente saxophonist/director Ryan Muncy, would offer a Krauss premiere at Spectrum, Glenn Cornett's cozy and increasingly essential new-music loft on Ludlow Street.
Heller and Muncy, in case you blinked and missed them, released two of this year's most impressive recital discs, 100 Names and Hot, respectively. The idea that they'd be compatible was a no-brainer, I'm sure; anyone would be fortunate to write for this pair, and would almost certainly have fun in the process.
Welcoming a respectable gathering that braved Saturday night's slush to attend, Krauss described the piece she wrote, Divide Its White Laughter into Two, as a song cycle. I feel more than a little derelict in my off-duty duty to have missed the name of the poet whose work she cited as an inspiration, but here's a bit of useful text from the Spectrum website:
Divide Its White Laughter into Two is a work that aims to unveil the malleability of two sonorous bodies in their solitude and in their merging. It is comprised of three movements – two solos and a duet for bassoon and baritone saxophone. The framework for the piece lends itself to the sonic realizations of the instrumentalists' physical awareness in relation to the space they occupy, stamina, their relationship to the musical material and the physicality of the gestures in addition to what that may demand during a performance.
[Update, Dec. 15, 2013, 6:05pm: Morgan has kindly reminded me that the poet who words inspired her piece was Hollace Metzger.]
Starting the piece alone, Heller alternated between brief sung notes and short, sharp puffs of air through her horn. A ruminative soliloquy unfolded slowly: smeared, undulant, awash in disparate breathy textures and jagged contours. Her control, stamina and fearlessness were tested in roughly equal measure in a litany of gurgles, growls and multiphonics, subtly employed.
I wasn't timing the performance precisely, but roughly 15 minutes into what I'd guess to have been a 40-minute piece, Muncy rose from a nearby sofa and joined Heller at center stage for a busy yet low-key and intimate duet. His exacting technique and broad timbral range were well-matched to Heller's qualities, and Krauss made much of their similarities and differences.
Around halfway through the duet, Muncy left Heller's side, pacing slowly and deliberately around a semi-circular arrangement of music stands behind her. As he stopped to play at each station, new aspects of space and trajectory emerged in the music. I didn't see the score, but assume that some degree of improvisatory liberty and spontaneity was involved, at least during the passages Krauss designated as "white noise." (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong.)
As Muncy completed his circuit and returned to center stage, Heller departed, leaving him to finish the performance alone. Muncy's unaccompanied song differed from Heller's in several key ways; in particular, he never sang literally, and asserted a quiet undercurrent of jazzy swing as he played. At the work's conclusion, the three participants eagerly accepted a grateful audience's warm approval.
Even with just the one piece on the evening's agenda, this was a lot of musical information to take in all at once. Krauss's language is distinctive and demanding in its poetic use of complexity and noise. Happily, the concert was recorded – whether for Krauss's SoundCloud page or for something more permanent, I don't know. And as happily, Heller and Muncy will play Divide Its White Laughter into Two again in New York City on March 4 at 10pm, during "ICEstorm at The Stone," a six-night series the International Contemporary Ensemble will present at, yup, the Stone.