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[whitespace] In the Mix

New Music Works broke some stylistic barriers over the weekend

By Scott MacClelland

COMPOSER/PRODUCER/conductor Phil Collins doesn't feel comfortable until he makes his listeners feel uncomfortable. Such is the contrarian's imperative. Opening his New Music Works season last Sunday at UCSC's Music Recital Hall, Collins confirmed it yet again.

With a resident ensemble and colorful variety of guest artists, the NMW music director built an eclectic program around several points. Prominently featured was Robben Ford, the blues guitarist/vocalist/songwriter. Another was saxophonist William Trimble, a much-sought-after soloist (and member of the NMW ensemble). Vocalist Anne Kerry Ford personalized a set of Kurt Weill songs in tasty arrangements by keyboardist Michael McGushin. Composer Allen Strange interpreted poet James S. Dorr's space-age vampire with a "cabaret" of electronic sounds and computer animation.

Music by Bo Diddley, John Cage, John Coltrane, Jon Scoville and Collins himself added to this bubbling bouillabaisse. Indeed, Collins saved the newest for last, his own Through, which introduces all manner of sprites, like a nocturnal garden full of creepy creatures.

But Through has its problems, a clue being the arcane program note and the evidence being an instrumentation so dense with colors and effects as to obscure its merits as a piece of music, at least from an audience perspective.

For the musicians, Collins has served up a great flattery, since everyone in the large ensemble is busy with his or her own licks and as many instruments as they can double. This garden of earthy delights is a bit like fruitcake, surprising with every nibble, packed tightly into itself, its acoustic richness gratuitously topped off with a synthesized glaze. As original as the work is, and as economically as it recycles its material, Through would benefit by opening a window to fresh air and sunlight.

COLLINS STARTED things off with his own piquant arrangement of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love." Cage's Variations II made for a fine sampler of chance effects, sparked by narrator Sven Davis and a runner who danced around the stage, and ending with the faux ceiling descending to flatten things out. (It never sounded like that before, and it never will again.)

Ford's reading of John Coltrane's Equinox, with its lush strings, found the popular artist sounding like the soft-rock of Kenny Rankin and Michael Franks. His Don't Lose Your Faith in Me resembled Sting. Ford and Trimble carried Scoville's Ice 5.

Collins titled this program Breaking Sound Barriers. It turned out to be a sampler of various music currents, from soft-rock to defiant new classical. It hoped for jazz, celebrated chance, visited Kurt Weill's Broadway and hinted at dance. But it also indulged some musical novelties that have already drifted out of contemporary currency, like Strange's Elemental Vamp.

But although the program was stylistically scattered and self-indulgently organized, it enjoyed the intensity and enthusiasm of its musicians. If Collins has at times been a little defensive, that can be explained by his bold commitment to create and present new music in a world that is quick to judge such efforts negatively and/or dismissively. But if you're new to the business of new music, the New Music Works guarantees you the best of two worlds: adventure and a contrarian view.

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From the January 19-26, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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