Cutting Edge Sounds at This Year’s MATA Festival

by delarue

Early in the second part of this evening’s portion of this year’s MATA Festival at the Kitchen, the audience looked on expectantly as a steadily oscillating timbre echoed through the auditorium. It was the motor rewinding the video screen above the stage. Was this part of the program, or just incidental noise? Moments like these are why the festival is worth checking out, year after year. They take more chances than pretty much anybody in the avant garde music world and cast a wider net than most, both in terms of finding global programming, and simply sonics. Could an electric motor be music? The answer, more often than not here, seems to be, “why not?”

The night got off to a hilarious start with a US premiere, Mirela Ivecevic‘s Orgy of References. Mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer made the most of its over-the-top satire of music-academy pretentiousness, delivering it with operatic high camp against a similarly sardonic mashup of florid dramatic themes, flurries of crowd noise and oration. The text was Ivecevic’s own resume, Fischer having a great time with every gushing, adulatory adjective – and then relished the chance to pronounce the word “oeuvre.” On one level, Ivecevic can personally relate to how misleading and utterly useless a composer or musician’s CV can be, since she books an ongoing series in her native Croatia. On the other hand, she got Abigail Fischer not only to namecheck her but to sing her resume. If that’s not “making it” in the avant world, you figure out what is.

Another highlight and US premiere was Jasna Velickovic‘s solo performance on an instrument of her own invention, the velikon, an amplified board on which she manipulates a series of magnets and coils producing oscillations which grow lower in timbre as they become more magnetized. What began as blips and beats slowly took on jawharp-like warp and then grew lower and lower until she was approaching stygian ocean liner diesel depths. Was she going to take it all the way to where there would be no sound, only subsonics? Not quite. Watching this unfold – with Velickovic’s perfect, practically metronomic timing, as she played a furious chess game of sorts with the objects on the board – was as thrilling as it was to hear. It was like a more smallscale take on Eli Keszler‘s similarly murky sonic explorations.

Even more intense to witness was dancer Melanie Aceto, her wrists and ankles attached to fishing line that manipulated strings inside a piano via a series of pulleys assembled overhead. Performing the New York premiere of Megan Grace Beugger‘s Liaison, Aceto began carefully and fluidly before evoking the relentless angst of a prisoner straining against her bonds. And the choreography actually produced genuine melodies, albeit simple ones, typically low drones and hammering motives (the low A and B flat were conjoined and attacked to one of the pulleys) against keening high overtones. Which would rise, raising the angst factor every time Aceto retreated back toward the piano after another seeming attempt to break free of her shackles. As the frame holding the pulleys over the piano trembled and swayed, the spectre of real horror – Aceto cutting a carpal vein or even her jugular, as she pulled and twisted – appeared within the realm of possibility. As far as sheer fireworks were concerned, it was impossible to top – and happily, there was no bloodshed.

There were also a couple of other works on the program, one a brief, mechanistically blippy audio-video montage  – ostensibly taken during the first Gulf War – sped up long past the point of unrecognizability. Maybe that was the point – although that point would have been lost if there hadn’t been program notes for it. There was also a droning piece by the Montreal trio of Adam Basanta, Julian Stein and Max Stein that paired long sustained electronic tones, simple chords and sudden electronic cadenzas with amplified lamps of assorted sizes and sounds. Given the three guys onstage with their laptops, there were umpteen opportunities for interplay and drollery that went by the board. Rather than any kind of conversation, amusing or otherwise, it evoked the experience of living in a building with bad wiring. Somebody comes home, turns on the AC…everybody on the hall loses power. Then somebody hits the breaker box and it’s back.

The MATA Festival continues through April 18; the remaining schedule is here.