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[whitespace] Pairing of Opposites

Estradasphere dazzles, New Music Works digresses in collaborative performance

By Scott MacClelland

THINGS WERE SCHIZOPHRENIC at last Saturday's Night of the Living Composers. Staged at the Vets Hall, New Music Works' annual juried showcase sharply divided itself between works trapped by indecision and an in-your-face rock band called Estradasphere.

Pairs of opposites are not unprecedented in music director Phil Collins' programming. Juxtaposing musical cultures has often sparked unexpected synergies, as when NMW hosted a band of Korean folk instrument specialists last winter. In that instance, as in this, each ensemble displayed its own cultural proclivities, then joined forces for new pieces that accommodated musicians from both.

It wasn't so much the capabilities of the players at hand that turned a long evening into a nearly interminable one. Rather it was works by Wendy Reid, Joseph Sekon and Henry Brant that droned on long after their musical points had been exhausted.

At 25 minutes, Brant's Knotholes, Bent Nails and a Rusty Saw lasted fully five times longer than its material justified, notwithstanding its spatial and timbral preoccupations. Reid's Tree Piece #10 called for its musicians to mutter words ("text sound" the composer calls it) to add further interest to its palette of violin, mandolin, harp, percussion and harpsichord.

Sekon's From the Other Side of Silence indulges in aphoristic, disconnected bursts of color. But continuing the pieces after their musical or intellectual or expressive ideas have run out of gas is a detriment to all concerned. Audience members begin looking at their watches, or trying to reread the program notes. The works and their composers risk being added to the list of things concertgoers would choose to avoid in the future. Better for pieces like this to accompany something nonmusical, like a film or a dance, or even a lecture on aesthetics.

No one had to struggle to stay awake when throat singer/saxophonist John Whooley and Estradasphere took the stage. Described in the program notes as "passionate and alive," the five-member, 12-piece band supplied exactly what was missing from the three previously described pieces. All this driving energy soared through a dizzying variety of styles, from jazz to gypsy to metal, funk and "video games." Wherever it digressed, from Morocco to a Hollywood nightclub, it never failed to entertain.

At last, Estradasphere and the NMW players found common sizzle in Julia Wolf's Lick, a work as eclectic, energetic and street-smart as the visiting band itself. In addition to Estradasphere's own "Hôômus," "Dapper Bandits" and spectacular "Gut Bomb" (a world premiere) the program was also leavened by two intentionally mischievous bits by Don Plonsey, "Cow With Ears" and "Two Eyes and a Nose," both told in brief terms of charm and wit.

The program began with Dan Becker's S.T.I.C. (meaning Sensitivity to Initial Conditions, a concept associated with Chaos Theory). But rather than chaos, the nine-minute opus spun with a certain minimalism--starting with a five-bar phrase--into what began to sound like early Copland, a spiky, fragmented but ultimately coherent and stylish whole.

The history of music ebbs and flows, bunches up and spreads out. Right now, new American music is spreading out, experimenting, discovering. Anything goes. That means it is also an opportunity to envision the next bunching up, the next "classical" era when a composer of great vision delivers a music of such gravitational force that other composers are drawn in by its example. Perhaps that should become the mission of Phil Collins and New Music Works.

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From the December 12-19, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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