...came a roar and a thunder men had never heard,
Like the scream and the sound of a big war bird....
— The Royal Guardsmen, "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron"
wild Up, the young self-styled "24-member experimental classical/contemporary ensemble committed to creating visceral, thought-provoking happenings", came to Pasadena on Saturday and settled itself in to a two-story studio space in the Armory Center for the Arts, in the company of a sell-out crowd that filled in all of the available sitting, standing, leaning, lounging surfaces and then some. Visceral, thought-provoking performance happened, the musical equivalent of a precision chainsaw juggling circle. And it was good. So, so good.
"Ornithology" was the theme of the evening, and all of the pieces had some connection to things with feathers, albeit not as ever imagined by Emily Dickinson.
For an appetizer or palate cleanser, the evening opened with "Hen Soup," a revision of Haydn's Symphony No. 83, "The Hen" by conductor/music director Christopher Rountree. As Rountree explained, his rearrangement compressed the symphony in to a single movement, "turning the chicken up to 11 and the classical music down to about 5." Some period-inauthentic electric bassoon was involved. It was a sharp, brainy hoot.
The action shifted swiftly from the ridiculous to the ridiculously difficult in the form of Brian Ferneyhough's "La Chute d'Icare" [The Fall of Icarus]. Ferneyhough is a king of "the new complexity" and his music is rhythmically and structurally fiendish: not literally unplayable, but dancing as close to that edge as possible. ("Our first rehearsal consisted of two hours of note taking," said Rountree.) While every player on the piece is challenged, particular cruelties are visited upon the clarinet soloist, in this case Brian Walsh. The clarinet plays essentially non-stop through the 10 minute piece, culminating in an ear-tweaking acid washed solo. Walsh and his companions handled it all with a focus and fire that was entirely riveting, the likely highlight of the night. (A video here allows you to follow the score alongside a performance by the Nieuw Ensemble.)
The first portion of the evening concluded with a pair of pieces, one new and one an established masterwork, for nearly identical configurations of instruments. The premiere was "Double Tui" by Mark Menzies, the masterwork Messiaen's "Oiseaux Exotiques" [Furrin' Boids]. The Messiaen was a boisterous and intense hommage to winged life in bursts of wind and percussion. Expatriate New Zealander Menzies paid tribute to the tui, a bird of his native land, evoking its woodland world with rain sticks, detached reeds, and even a pair of wandering boom boxes. A splendid and atmospheric piece that one hopes will be heard again somewhere.
After intermission, during which one could observe firsthand the inexplicable popularity of Pabst Blue Ribbon among the Bright Young People of today (optimally whilst quaffing a Fat Tire of one's own), most of the second portion of the evening was devoted to arrangements of or fantasias on themes from music by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker and Andrew Bird. The contrasting Parker pieces were particularly winning. Archie Carey's "Bird of Paradise (in Paradise)" embedded the compact theme from Parker's original in a sea of drones, while Rountree's "Stand Still Like the Hummingbird' neatly cross-faded the speed humans perceive in the hummingbird with the bird's own imagined perception of a slower world. The midpoint of the second segment featured a premiere by Chris Kallmyer, "this nest, swift passerine," in which the ensemble interacted with birdsong emitted by speaker-implanted birdhouses around the room.
This was my first encounter with wild Up, and looking over this post I sense that I am not conveying effectively just what a fine time this performance was. The commitment, energy, skill and, above all, devotion to the cause of Getting This Music Across of these musicians is tremendous, and the resulting audience excitement over a repertoire that is either challenging or entirely new was a thing to behold. wild Up is a great, good thing, and should be supported. It will be a thrill to watch it as it continues to grow into the larger world.
Here, from an awkward vantage in standing room, a video of one of Michael Gordon Shapiro's pair of Morricone-infused Andrew Bird arrangements.
My own location was on the main floor, just out of frame at left. The lamp at the center of the video shot was featured in a tweet I sent out just before show time:
— George Wallace (@foolintheforest) January 15, 2012
Valuable tip: showing up early for wild Up shows is apparently a must.
Top illustration: "Die Zwitscher Maschine" [The Twittering Machine] by Paul Klee, via Wikimedia Commons. Additional photos by the blogger.