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Musical Ignition

Photo by Timothy Diovanni

Hypercube: Brain on Fire

(le) poisson rouge 10/15/17

 

If you want to learn about philosophy in action, talk to Hypercube, a NYC-based contemporary music ensemble comprised of saxophone, percussion, guitar, and piano:

“A hypercube can be described as an analogous shape, a 3-dimenseional cube, in four or more dimensions. The cube formation is essentially a 3-dimensional equalizer. We like to think that it enters another dimension when the music is added,” Erin Rogers, saxophonist, explained over e-mail.

Does the music transport to another dimension? Or is this just lofty language – is the actual experience more conservative?

To answer these questions, I will describe the musical experience. Mikel Kuehn’s Color Fields (2006/8) sounds like painted landscapes. Barren, desolate tundra morphed into desert glow. In the most colorful moments, it is hard to determine which instrument is playing which line. Disembodied sound eliminates the individual, presenting a blurred image.

These mixing timbres – a fancy term to say how an instrument sounds because of its physicality (i.e. what makes a clarinet sound like a clarinet and not a flute) – are explored in Andriessen’s Hout (1991). I appreciate Rogers’s commentary before the piece; she describes how the instruments interact through a displaced motive. Tree branches shoot out, overlapping, rustling into each other. Rare unisons sound like the manifestation of unshakeable wood.

Behind me, as I listen, ice cubes rumble. Spaghetti and meatballs float in waiters’ hands. This is a new concert experience for me – I am used to the absence of most extraneous sounds – and I am not very happy about it (boohoo for me, I guess).

Rogers leans back with her instrument, like a rocker with their guitar or mic stand. Jay Sorce, spectacled, navigates his instrument’s fingerboard, stoically, with an occasional head wiggle. A grey-haired man in the front row moves his head in time with the music, outwardly satisfied. Unflinching precision masks Chris Graham’s face; he is a Secret Service agent on the marimba. Between pieces, he appears relaxed, friendly, smiley. Pianist Andrea Lodge’s head bounces in a groove. Yellow, blue, pink light shroud the performers, their instruments, sheet music, and iPads. One forlorn disco ball dangles, misplaced, from the ceiling.

Photo by Timothy Diovanni.

Most composers treat Sorce’s guitars – he plays both acoustic and electric – with extra care, making sure to not have them overpower the ensemble. Schuessler’s Liminal Bridges (2016) and Hurel’s Localized Corrosion (2009) stand in contrast: Sorce shreds, riffs, wails, screams eruptions of living sound. Flutter-tonguing in the saxophone complements these outbursts. Who knew these instruments could mix so convincingly?

Considering these sound worlds, does the program achieve its goal of setting the audience’s “Brain on Fire”? This program is as a challenge to concertgoers: the music should, in theory, cause vigilant attention, surprise, visceral responses. Hurrel’s Localized Corrosion best accomplishes this task for me.

Intense, overwhelming sound catapults the piece. Thunderclaps in the bass drum, a growling saxophone, trembling guitar. Quick switch in texture. Sad vibrations stream from the solo guitar. Ensemble jumps at him, vigorous, interruptive. Disconsolate saxophone sighs: hell-plunging, uneasy piano pulsations: metallic acceleration on a small gong: vigorous, bold guitar. A bass drum orgasm terminates in profound stillness. Tense energy radiates from the stage. 10, 15, 20 seconds. Nothing. The performers hold their positions. Lodge rustles; her head moves slightly downward. Then, they release their stance, breaking the spell.

Because of its multifarious, competing textures, Hurel’s work causes continual engagement.  This is not mind-numbingly music: it cannot be turned into Muzak, lightly pacified in shopping malls and convention centers. It demands the precision and daring of this ensemble to strike the deep chasms between passages, to become alive. Provocative music ignites an experiential fire.

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