Last week, immediately upon walking into MATA Festival, presented this year by The Kitchen, I was greeted by a wavering and warm electric hum slipped underneath the familiar harmonics of a piano. I turned to find a gentleman playing an instrument as curious as it was beautiful - a glass table laden with geometric shapes of gold and silver to form a musical mosaic. As he passed his hands over the surface or lightly pressed a finger to the pattern, a signal sent to a nearby laptop triggered the pleasant tones. Its operator referred to it as the 'Rose Controller' and after this lovely welcome, I knew I was in for an evening of innovation.
The first piece began and I was not disappointed. Members from the Uusinta Ensemble immediately let their artistry and synchronicity be known as they performed Joan Arnau Pàmies’ visceral [lVflbclVln/c], a piece whose title defies pronunciation. Much like Pàmies’ departure from traditional musical notation - his scores like sonic seismographs - the music itself certainly left harmony behind yet seemed to maintain a sense of the old call and response, the flute both lilting and percussive, leading the players into an exciting and quaking landscape.
Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy of MATA
While Pàmies descended into dissonance with a ‘bad boy cool,’ complete lack of recognition of the rules, Sampo Haapamäki’s Connection had more fun finding loop-holes within them, rather than a total disregard. Personally, I believe this to be a more effective form of experimentation and, indeed, one of my favorite musical moments of the night occurred in this piece as the cellist expertly and gingerly spidered his fingers down the strings, coaxing out near synthetic sounds as delicate as a web of silk.
Before the Intermission break, the evening took a more somber tone with Kellojen Kumarrus, which translates to “The Bells Bow Down,” composer Ilari Kaila’s haunting tribute to a pianist friend who had tragically passed away. Kaila remarked that he had the virtuosic talent of his friend in mind when writing the piece and that much was clear as the piano keened and knelled amid the harmonic hum and drone of the rest of the quintet. Woven within reflection, the keys crashed and the instrument rang out, reminiscent of the titular bells.
After intermission ended, a singular clarinetist from the Uusinta Ensemble took the stage to absolutely awe me with Aaron Helgeson’s A Place Toward Other Places. Played with a presence and charisma to mirror the cleverness of the piece, this solo work highlighted the subtitles and true potential of the clarinet. It sometimes sounded like a conversation between two registers, the instrument producing chords underlined by the very breath that fuels the sound. It was colorful but muted, like the sounds of night insects heard from indoors.
Artistic Director Yotam Haber certainly made a good move giving the audience the calm of a clarinet solo before Alexander Khubeev’s audio assault, Sounds of the Dark Time, took center stage. Keep in mind, I mean that as no insult. Khubeev stated that he drew inspiration for the composition of the piece from one of my favorite films, Lars Von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark” and the parallels between the methods of construction are apparent. Rough, confrontational, and purposefully gritty and unattractive, Sounds of the Dark Time is not a pleasant listening experience and that is very much the point. While this sort of music isn’t my aesthetic, and while I do believe at times the work suffered from too much emphasis on technique, losing focus on the over-arching idea, I have to applaud MATA Festival for its fearless support of all New Music, regardless of genre and style.
Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy of MATA
The evening was brought to a close with a World Premiere, MATA Commissioned, piece by Japanese composer Hikari Kiyama.The set up for Jōruri Death Metal involved the careful placement of megaphones, toy xylophones, bicycle horns and various other knick-knacks around the musicians. Pictured above, the conductor joined the stage and there was a quiet buzz of anticipation, like eyeing that stack of birthday presents before you’re given permission to tear them open. But with a flick of the wrist and bounce the Uusinta Ensemble tore into this music with the joyful ferocity of children at play. Driven by an 8-bit pulse this wonderfully chaotic piece celebrated music, noise, and the freeing discovery that those things may not be so separate after all. It was as if the orchestra had set up in an arcade where the players learn through destruction, taking apart the machines, stripping wires from their circuits. Similar to how Charles Ives strove to replicate the link of music and memory in childhood, so too does Kiyama’s music illustrate the absolute overwhelming experience of exploration.
It’s no surprise that Kiyama was commissioned by MATA to write this piece, as I believe the work really reflects the ideas behind the festival. No matter where around the globe the music comes from, what aesthetic it appeals to, or what emotional strings it does or doesn’t pluck at, MATA is here to not only promote, but also celebrate the creation of new music. It was a triumphant opening night of exquisite and innovative art - and the next evening of the festival did not disappoint. Check back here soon for the full run down of the second program!
For more information on MATA please visit www.MATAFestival.org