This Year’s MATA Festival of New Music: As Challenging and Inspiring As Ever

by delarue

It’s been nineteen years since Philip Glass and his circle decided to begin programming the scores that people around the world were sending him. Since then, the annual MATA Festival has grown into an annual celebration of cutting-edge, and these days, increasingly relevant new music from around the world. In recent years, they’ve found a comfortable home at the Kitchen in Chelsea, where the festival continues nightly at 8 PM through Saturday, April 29; tix are $20; To keep the momentum going, the organizers are also staging a series of shows this summer featuring new chamber music from the Islamic world, as well as intimate house concerts (take THAT, Groupmuse!).

Night one of this year’s festival began with humor and ended, ok, humorously, if your sense of humor extends to unlikely sonic snafus onstage. Festival honcho Todd Tarantino proudly announced that the pieces selected for five nights worth of music were chosen from among works by 1159 composers from 72 countries. In their North American debut, Danish indie classical ensemble Scenatet tackled a dauntingly eclectic program from seven composers and acquitted themselves with equal parts spectacular extended technique and meticulous, minimalist resonance.

Their countryman Kaj Duncan David’s Computer Music was first on the bill, performed by the octet on matching laptops, each reading from a graphic score calling for the musicians to punch in on random heartbeats, more or less. The results created a pulse of light in addition to sound, an aspect that drew inadvertent winces from the performers until they’d become accustomed to a little blast of light from the screen. As it grew from spare to more complex, it got a lot funnier: a bad cop role (or a boss role) was involved. As an electronic music parable of The Office, maybe, it made a point and got the crowd chuckling.

German composer Martin Grütter’s Messer Engel Atem Kling called for some squalling, bow-shredding extended technique from violinist Kirsten Riis-Jensen and violist Mina Luka Fred as they worked an uneasy push-pull against the stygian anchor of My Hellgren’s cello. Yet as much as the high strings pulled away from the center, the harmonies stayed firmly nailed in. Part cello metal, part Zorn string piece, it was a clever study in contradictions – a depiction of a composer struggling to break free of convention, maybe?

Murat Çolak’s electroacoustic Orchid, an astigmatic mashup of eras, idioms and atmospheres, blended grey-sky horizontality, hazily uneasy percussion and shards of brooding, acerbically chromatic Turkish classical music. What would have been even more fun is if there’d been a second ensemble for the group onstage to duel it out with instead of doing haphazardly (and cruelly difficult) polyrhythms with the laptop, clarinetist Vicky Wright front and center. In a similar vein, Japanese/Dutch composer Yu Oda’s Everybody Is Brainwashed blended a simple, cliched EDM thump with live cajon and a simple, rather cloying violin theme that more than hinted at parody.

Like the opening piece, Eric Wubbels’ mini-suite Life-Still – one of several world premieres on the bill – had an aleatoric (improvisational) element, its simple, carefully considered, resonant accents gradually building into a distantly starlit lullaby. For the final movement, string and reed players switched to bells and brought it down to a comfortable landing.

Daniel Tacke’s Musica Ricercata/Musica Poetica for viola, clarinet and vibraphone. followed a similarly starry, nocturnal trajectory, a fragmentary canon at quarterspeed or slower, inspired by the motion of voices in Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Putting two such rapturously calm pieces back to back made for a quietly powerful anti-coda. A final number was derailed by technical difficulties, a rare event at this festival: watching it was like being in an iso booth in a recording session with bad headphones and wondering what everybody else was doing. 

Tonight’s show at the Kitchen continues the festival’s vast global sweep with music for piano, viola and percussion. Thursday’s lineup promises to be more lush and expansive; according to Tarantino, Friday’s looks inward, deeply. The final night, Saturday, features all sorts of unusual instruments in addition to those typically employed by chamber orchestra Novus NY. If you happen to miss these, the summer programming is something to look forward to.

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