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Conventions Untied

April 8, 2013

The idea of presenting modern and contemporary art music in more informal spaces is not a new one, neither nationally or locally. However, it seems that the forward-thinking organizers always manage to import one or two stuffy holdovers from academia.

Not so on Saturday night, April 6 at the Coward Shoe for the premier of the Untied series. There were no programs, no explaining the piece before playing it, nor was there any bowing. Performers dressed in street clothes, the show started an hour late, and to mark my admittance an anarchist symbol was drawn on my hand. And the show was held in an underheated DIY venue, not a bar cum art gallery.

Granted, Coward Shoe is the classiest DIY space I’ve ever been to. The venue located on Howard Street features big, open spaces with tall ceilings and clean wood floors. The first part of the concert was held on the second floor, not the usual space for shows. The space offered seating for about two dozen between chairs and couches, but many more were in attendance, first sitting on the floor in between the seats and the performers, then standing in any available space. Looped recordings of tabla and sitar played as the crowd gathered.

The first piece was a Baltimore original, written by Horse Lord Andrew Bernstein and performed by his fellow Lords plus electronics. The result was in some ways similar to a typical Horse Lords song: dissonant and winding guitar and saxophone were laid over intricate rhythms from the drums and bass. The composition, however, was a much darker affair than anything I’ve heard from Horse Lords. The guitar and saxophone stayed largely in the background and the piece never broke into a satisfying groove. Instead, electronic drones came at the audience from behind in quadraphonic fashion, pushing louder than the sounds in front. This gave a strong sense of anxiety, like the feeling of being watched or followed. A water stained sheet was hung up in service of projected images: glitched out mirrored shapes in shades of blue and green. It looked like a computer trying to make sense of an acid damaged VHS tape.

By the time the piece ended the space was quite full, and in the down time between sets one could enjoy a game of spot the local celebrity. Jenn Wasner, Matmos, Marc Miller of Oxes, Jeffrey McGrath from Thank You with his iconic, floppy hair. Next up after a complete teardown of the first set that took nearly an hour was a composition by Robert Ashley, a contemporary composer known for his operas and work with electronics. The piece performed, The Park, is the first movement of a ‘television opera’ about a bank robbery among other things. The ever dapper MC Schmidt, of Matmos, sat at a table and read from a script. A chorus of two women, also at the table, repeated one or two word phrases during Schmidt’s pauses. “A fact. Agreed. No Doubt. True enough.” The text had elements of narrative, but it was obtuse and with all the stimuli, hard to follow. “This is a record,” Schmidt read only to say seconds later, “this is not a record, this is a story.” Four cellos and an upright bass sang and swelled over the same looped tabla and sitar from earlier. As the piece faded out you could hear the chit chat, stronger than ever, from the lobby.

Finally the performance migrated upstairs for the final piece, Six Pianos by the minimalist composer Steve Reich. The six (MIDI) pianos were in a circle in the middle of the room surrounded by the audience. (In the sake of disclosure, one of the pianists, Ruby Fulton, is bandmate of the reporter). The piece, from 1973, is classic Reich. A weaving of short riffs form a stew of sound that bubbles along until a new riff is introduced in a couple of the pianos, one note at a time. Patiently the riff is built, rising above the rest as if summoned from a witches cauldron. The riff, completed, then sinks back into the anonymity of the mass of pianos. At first the synthetic pianos distracted, however the entrancing musical figures quickly took over.

The Reich composition was in some ways very similar to the two previous pieces. Each explored one group of sounds without changing the color palette too much. However, Six Pianos had the advantage of being about half as long as the first two works. While all the pieces were interesting, occasionally the stasis of the first two could take you out of the work, at which point it was easy to pay more attention to the environment than the music. That being said, it was a very enjoyable evening, and one can only look forward to the next event in the series.