Wednesday February 28, 2007

Subtropics: Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams, and Joan LaBarbara

Subtropics: Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams

I didn’t quite know what to make of these two during the group pieces the other night. Their contribution was wispy and ethereal, and most difficult to register of the group. But when Helena Bugallo and Amy Williams took the stage, it was obvious from the first notes that they are a powerhouse. They opened with a set of pieces by Conlon Nancarrow written for the player piano. That’s right — they performed music written to be played by a machine. These pieces often involve simultaneous lines at different speeds, notes played together very close to each other on the keyboard, and a general cacophony of piano. Imagine the trip from Keith Jarrett to Cecil Taylor, and then go again as far in the same direction, or imagine ten schoolchildren hitting keys at random on a single keyboard, but then imagine that notated note for note . . . well, it sounds unplayable because it is unplayable, and if I hadn’t seen Bugallo and Williams do it I’d not believe that it was possible.

They actually somehow made it look effortless, too. Working almost as a single being at one piano (the picture above was taken during a later piece by a different composer), their hands frequently crossing and overlapped in bizarre configurations (sometimes all four hands in the space of one keyboard octave), taking turns turning the pages of the score, and hitting each jarring note exactly dead on. It was simply breathtaking.

Bugallo and Williams took a break from Nancarrow to perform three longer compositions by other composers, most notably the Sonata for Two Pianos by Salvatore Sciarrino. From the Subtropics site:

The two performers must simultaneously operate in two mindsets: one characterized by a great deal of indeterminacy (no precise rhythms, pitches, dynamics, or tempi are specified) and the other dominated by extremely precise ornamentation (black and/or white note glissandi of varying lengths, no less than fourteen different types of trills, and a wide range of clusters). The gesture of ornamentation is brought to the forefront.

They’re not kidding. The performance was a romp through ultra-fast repeating patterns on the upper range of the pianos, full of the aforementioned glissandi and trills, and it was positively dazzling. I think iSAW has been recording the whole festival, and this piece belongs on any collection of highlights.

Subtropics: Joan LaBarbara

What’s surprising about the work of Joan LaBarbara is actually how unique it is. Voice is such a primal component of the human experience, yet we spend so little time considering its possibilities beyond utilitarian speech and a still relatively conservative approach to “singing.” LaBarbara has been exploring the other possibilities of vocal performance in the 1970s, and remains one of the very few artists working in this mode. Trained as a classical singer, LaBarbara began toward the end of her training to gravitate towards the extended vocal techniques and an experimental approach out of a desire to work with living (read: avant-garde) composers, and hasn’t looked back since. I cherish my copy of Voice is the Original Instrument, and I was blown away by seeing her live.

She performed an all-Cage concert, suitable to the theme of the festival but highlighting her (considerable) talents as a traditional singer more so then her “extended technique.” But the material was impeccably chosen, and we did get a taste — a piece where LaBarbara dueted with a pre-recorded version of herself (synchronized with a stopwatch — see the photo!), hissing, yelping, and . . . actually nevermind, verbal descriptions will never do this music justice. Suffice it to say that it’s transportative in a way that nothing else is. She also performed a piece with short phrases interspersed with long silences (Cage trademark), which was the height of drama (at least until someone’s cell phone went off).

I could go on and on about Joan LaBarbara, but suffice it to say that she’s a legend, and it was a privilege to see her perform.

Tonight: The Subtropics Marathon! (7 pm, $10)

Tags: ,

comments powered by Disqus