Live: Ensemble InterContemperain extends textures and techniques in Chapel Hill | Music

Live: Ensemble InterContemperain extends textures and techniques in Chapel Hill


  • Photo courtesy of Ensemble InterContemperain
Ensemble InterContemperain
UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
Tuesday, Nov. 10–Wednesday, Nov. 11

I’m gonna geek out here for a minute about sound. It’s the only way to address properly the music that Ensemble InterContemporain (EIC) made Tuesday and Wednesday night at Memorial Hall in Chapel Hill. Director Matthias Pintscher constructed the concerts to showcase music that doesn’t get performed often in the United States, and the seven featured composers covered a wide range of styles. But all of them dealt primarily with questions of sound and its materiality.

Both nights were packed with incredible moments, flights of jaw-dropping virtuosity, thrilling builds and stunning sonic experiments. As a friend told me after Wednesday’s show, “Once I got over expecting the instruments to sound like they normally sound, it helped really improve my experience.” I could try to encapsulate it all, but we’d be here all day. So instead, I want to focus in on four particular moments that stuck with me.

1. After Marco Stroppa’s playful horn duo gla-dya started Tuesday night’s now, EIC bassoonist Paul Riveaux strode on stage to perform Olga Neuwirth’s torsion. Solo bassoon pieces are fairly rare, and this one starts with a long held note near the bottom of the bassoon’s range. He held it, pure and rich, for what felt like an eternity. He was clearly circular breathing, but you’d never know it from looking at him. His tone never wavered, and he barely looked like he was exerting any effort at all. As the piece progressed, Neuwirth’s tunes and flashy effects would be periodically interrupted by field recordings, starting with street noise that gradually opens up to reveal a Klezmer dance band. And each time the recording started, Riveaux would return to that pedal tone. Each time, it sounded just as strong, just as pure, just as meditative—a kind of fundamental upon which the rest of the music elaborated.

2. Cluster.X., the massive multimedia collaboration between Kurt Henschläger and Edmund Campion that ended Tuesday’s show, featured an overwhelming array of sensory events. The video consisted of clusters of humanoid figures who emerged from what appeared to be a blank screen to form schools of fish, anemone, and other abstract shapes. In front of it, a 16-piece configuration of the EIC sat in two competing bands at opposite sides of the stage, supplemented by a massive wall of subwoofers and a bunch of live processing. After about 15 minutes of intense counterpoint between the two ensembles and flurries of activity on the screen, everything gradually returned to white.

Campion’s score resolved from murky dissonance and tactile sounds into a pure harmonic series, with arpeggios in the strings and rumbling harmonies in the winds and brass. Periodically, Pintshcer would pump his fists, and the two percussionists would hit two sets of chimes with all their might. I don’t know quite what the harmony was, but it recast the sounds of the ensemble and the electronics, turning them into an astounding sonic representation of blinding white light. It was maybe the closest I’ll ever get to proper synesthesia, and I never wanted it to stop. This continued for what felt like an eternity (but was probably only a few minutes), with each chime hit more brilliant than the last. During the curtain call, Pintscher repeated that fist pumping gesture, and I expected to hear the same mighty clang. I was strangely disappointed when all that came was more applause.

3. The first half of Wednesday night’s show ended with a relatively new work by Pintscher called bereshit (bear-uh-sheet). Pintscher introduced the work, which featured close to the entire EIC, as an exploration of the moment of creation. The title is the first word of the Torah, meaning “in a beginning,” with a focus on the openness of the indefinite article. It’s nearly impossible to select just one moment from this 35-minute work, so I’m going to talk about it as a whole. Pintshcer’s sound world is breathtaking, a masterclass of impossible orchestral sounds. My INDY colleague Allison Hussey described it as “a super-spooky primordial/prehistoric swamp full of all sorts of sinister critters lurking around.” I perceived it more as an exploration of air and breath. Some times, the air is free flowing and whimsical, blowing every which way with a light playfulness; at others, it is dank and fetid, full of soot, ash and water vapor.

Despite being for a large ensemble, much of the piece is spent in a transparent whisper built out of piles of extended techniques, creating a sound that is simultaneously open and charged. The work emerged from a single high note in the double bass, passing through a massive battery of percussion that rarely surpassed a whisper, briefly interrupted by a muted trumpet solo, a demonic contrabass clarinet solo and an extended violin solo so insanely difficult (and effortlessly performed) that it left me stunned. It is a masterful work, the logical next step from spectralist composers like Tristan Murail and Kaija Saariaho. It truly is the sound of a beginning.

4. Finally, we come to Pierre Boulez’s Sur Incises. The piece is written for three pianos, three harps and percussion, a collection of instruments that cannot sustain pitches. Everything starts to decay after the string or bar is struck. Pintscher introduced the work by talking about the idea of resonance, and the numerous ways that Boulez plays with our perception of resonance. There are so many captivating moments I could talk about—the perfectly placed steel drum notes that dapple wonderfully alien timbres at key moments or the point where all three pianos arrive at the same low note at the same time, creating this wild chorused reverberation. But I want to go to the work’s final sonority.

After almost 40 minutes of furious activity, everyone arrives at a monolithic, dissonant chord that spans six octaves, capped with the piercing ring in the glockenspiel and crotales. There are lots of pieces that end with chords like this, and often that’s it. But in this case, Boulez has the pianos play six more chords while the big one decays, reinforcing particular pitches and overtones, giving those closing moments an extra zap of life. It gives the overall resonance an extra charge, making you hear extra sounds within the sound. It’s like some kind of black magic, reanimating the sound’s corpse into something previously unimaginable.

These were singular performances, to the point that there really aren’t enough superlatives to properly do them justice. I realize that I was predisposed to like whatever they played, but I wasn’t prepared to be so completely blown away. I’m grateful to have been exposed to composers like Neuwirth, Pintscher and Beat Furrer, whose music I may not have found otherwise. And to hear Boulez and Varèse performed so well was a treat. I’ve been to many concerts of contemporary music over the years, but these were among the best I’ve ever seen.

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