Having focused lately on classical and early music, I wanted to take a peek in the opposite direction, at what’s happening in modern concert music. Last night’s Composer Portraits program at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre focused on compositions by Ashley Fure, a perilously inventive prize-winning young composer, was just the ticket.
Fure certainly bears the imprimatur of academic concert music stardom: Interlochen, Oberlin, a Harvard doctorate, a stint at Columbia (where the concert took place) and now an assistant professorship at Dartmouth. But while her non-melodic, mostly non-rhythmic music does make you think, her focus on the physicality of instruments – the wood and strings and glue and metal – gives her work, especially her newest pieces, a visceral appeal too.
“Something to Hunt” (2014) for septet of strings and winds opened the program by creating a whispery, scratchy sound environment, with the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), conducted by David Fulmer, using unorthodox techniques to produce sounds that aren’t conventionally musical. A tiny example: I spotted the violist using a tiny white mug on her strings, slide-guitar style. But such methods aren’t tricks. They’re elements of a vast, expanding, and distinctive vocabulary. Fure creates atmospheric drama without melody or rhythm in this mostly very quiet piece, which she annotates thus: “Think of a tiger first spotting its prey. The silence of it. The sudden singularity of purpose. Hair bristled, stomach to the grass, unbearably still, until: pounce.”
The centerpiece of the concert, “Albatross” (2014) for large ensemble and electronics, brought more dynamics and more manpower to the same mode. Adding brass, percussion, harp and sound samples, it becomes quite visual, with unusual shapes (bass flute, tuba mute) and surprising sounds and motions (feet shuffling and stamping, fingers silently touching, a bow dragged across a bridge). A dry soundscape of growls, squiggles, pops, and animal calls gathers in dyspeptic discomfort, rising to loud terrified moans. At the end I felt aesthetically and emotionally battered. In a good way. As David Allen described a different Fure work in a New York Times profile last week, “Tones made tactile, objects made audible, noise made beautiful.”
“Soma” for sextet (2012) was something of an anticlimax. Scored for winds, cello, percussion, and piano (the last mostly played on the inside), it was the most ruminative of the three pieces but also felt the least imaginative, notwithstanding the plucked and rubbed piano strings and the blowing of toneless air through a bass clarinet. The sharp accents over a persistent rumbling drum bed aroused curiosity but ultimately felt random – I couldn’t make intellectual sense of it or feel an emotional flow.
On the other hand, I gather from the composer’s notes that that may have been the intention. The piece was inspired by the “radical dissociation” of Parkinson’s disease as suffered by her grandmother, “a gap between intention and execution so extreme that the simplest of actions required inordinate effort.” Still, I couldn’t quite make the “association” between the explanation and the music. (Which incidentally begs the question of whether it’s OK to demand from the audience a programmatic understanding along with a listening ear. Should music always have to speak for itself with its sound alone?)
“Wire & Wool” distills Fure’s method down to one cellist, with electronics amplifying and transforming the usually extraneous bits of noise emanating from strings and wood. Cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, who had a lot of interesting work to do over the course of the evening, bowed the howling tones that center and trigger the electronics. It’s a relatively brief and to-the-point piece residing at the fascinating intersection of soulful human musicianship and inert but far from inanimate physics.
“We’re looking in this piece for drama in uncommon and nonhuman sources,” Fure says about the in-progress work The Force of Things: An Opera for Objects, excerpted at the end of the concert as “Etudes from the Anthropocene.” A collaboration with her brother, the architect Adam Fure, the full piece will situate the audience inside an immersive installation space amid live musicians and electronics and under a canopy of hanging objects.
I didn’t feel that it worked well in a proscenium setting; the sounds were sparse and emotionally distant, the staging more confusing than evocative, the atmospherics incomplete. I’m intrigued to see how it matures into its full immersive form this coming summer. Look for specifics soon at Fure’s website. And look for more great things from this adventurous new-music composer.