wildUp, the musical collective/contemporary chamber orchestra under artistic director/conductor/composer Christopher Rountree, returned to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena Saturday night with The Armory: Music About Art, War and Peace.
Typically for wildUp, the program featured a mix of new pieces, new pieces based upon older pieces, and older pieces spun in new ways. Also typically, some pieces proved more successful than others, but the cumulative impact of the evening was thought provoking and invigorating.
The evening hit the beach explosively with Andrew Tholl's still not a place to build monuments or cathedrals. Tholl is a regular composer for wildUp and typically plays violin in the ensemble, but here he picked up the electric guitar. Scored for ensemble, guitar and electric bass, still not a place... is above all loud, an escalating series of raucous, confrontational crescendos. It is a difficult piece to judge on first hearing, because the thick layer of surface noise is so impenetrable.
Loudness and aggression were the hallmark of all three pieces on the first half of the program, but each offered its own variant. Andrew McIntosh's Inch and Mile, worked off of the conceit that myriad small things can lead, when combined, to much larger things: inches to miles, small subgroups of instruments to full ensemble, seemingly rational choices to conflict and war. Written largely in just intonation, McIntosh's piece was as loud as Tholl's, but also featured passages of real beauty with sonorities reminiscent of the more tranquil bits of LIgeti's Atmospheres (cf. 2001).
And then all hell broke loose, with Nicholas Deyoe's aptly titles A New Anxiety. Deyoe derived his inspiration from the churning rhythmic and tonal pile-ons of the most unapologetically committed Death Metal bands. The result is uncompromising in its aggression but ultimately fascinating in its combination of seemingly impossible shifts of speed and direction, in its array of textural effects, and in its unrelenting insistence that it will not be ignored. At the center of the maelstrom, bassoonist Archie Carey roared away, his amplified instrument run back upon itself through looping and effects pedals in a reasonable approximation of the orc hordes of the Apocalypse. Carey was also called upon, whilst wailing bassonically, to assault a pan full of broken crockery repeatedly with a power drill. These descriptions may make the piece sound unlistenable, but my own reaction was the opposite: the rigorously disciplined, cleansing abandon of the piece broke through all resistance, leaving me wide eyed, nodding and grinning in stark amaze.
Post-intermission, peace and contemplation returned, at least on the surface. The bright lights of the first segment were dimmed for Christopher Rountree's For Allen Ginsburg, in which wildUp's eight string players first established a rich harmonic drone reminiscent of the pump harmonium with which the poet often accompanied himself. Rountree and others emerged from the darkness, placing small bouquets on the empty conductor's podium, before joining in a blossoming Sanskrit chant derived from the Heart Sutra (om gate gate pāragate pārasaṃgate bodhi svāhā).
The peaceful surfaces of Chris Kallmyer's Here We All Are, Moving Forward masked a guilty war-torn secret. Again the strings were the center of the piece, now joined by a quintet of percussionists tapping quietly on wooden boxes. As the strings perfomed an arrangement of a William Byrd Sanctus, the hushed patterns played by the percussionists mirrored the number of deaths, month by month, sustained by coalition forces in the Iraq war. In performance, this potentially gimmicky arrangement was surprisingly affecting, the wooden taptaptap beneath Byrd's hymn of praise reminding that in the midst of life we are in the midst of death, and that our own lives are bought sometimes with the unacknowledged death of others.
To conclude the program, wildUp turned to Stravinsky's popular L'Histoire du Soldat ['The Soldier's Tale'], but with a typically wildUp-ian variation: rather than utilize the traditional text written by C.F. Ramuz, this performance turned to the alternative "American Soldier's Tale" written by Kurt Vonnegut in 1993. As Vonnegut told it, he was invited to narrate a performance of L'Histoire, but became incensed when he read the text: a whimsical tale of the devil, a violin, and a "soldier" who had nothing to do with the actuality of soldiering. Later, at the suggestion of George Plimpton, Vonnegut wrote his own version, drawing on the awful reality he knew well from his own World War II experiences. Vonnegut's version is acrid and foul mouthed, its rhymes a sarcastic counterpoint to the casual dreadfulness of the story he chooses to tell: the execution by firing squad in 1945 of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the first and only US soldier to be executed for cowardice and desertion since the Civil War.
For this performance, Vonnegut's four characters—Soldier, General, MP Sergeant and "Red Cross Girl"—were perched on the upper level of the Armory space, the small mixed ensemble of musicians below. In Vonnegut's telling, Slovik is just the unluckiest mug in the world, tossed aside and crushed by way of "example," with strict precision and adherence to the Manual. The seeming jollity of Stravinsky's score, always deceptive, contrasted pungently with the sordid business of bureaucratized death.
So ended what Christopher Rountree declared the second full season for wildUp. Having now attended three wildUp events, I would not select this one as my favorite—January's "Ornithology" and April's "Brooklyn/LA" programs are running a dead heat for that title—but it displayed what are now the expected hallmarks of a wildUp show: intriguing new music and unexpected angles on older music, all of it played with skill, vigor, and a commitment to the ideal that even ostensibly "difficult" music can give pleasure and that The New is where you find it.
Top Photo, by the blogger: the Pasadena Civil War Memorial, Memorial Park, Pasadena, CA, across the street from the Armory. Middle Photo, by the blogger: Earplugs, thoughtfully supplied by wildUp. Lower Photo, by the blogger: Timeline of Iraq war casualties, with woodblock.