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Featured artist Sean Devlin captivated the Arts Now concert audience, not only with his virtuoso trombone playing but also with his psychic powers to channel the famous circus performer Topsy, the elephant. But before he took the stage of the Tally Student Center ballroom at NC State University, Arts Now Series Director Rodney Waschka II announced the opening piece on recorded media, Tom Hamilton’s 2002 electronic work "London Fix." Fashioned out of data from the "spot gold market" and Michael J. Schumacher’s computer programming, Hamilton created beautiful electronic counterpoint. And suggesting that it be played softly may have soothed some of the Wall Street hysteria-induced-jitters. But more importantly, the music transported me. The Zen of art music is like that.
For some, love for trombone music is an acquired taste. Thanks to my significant other and thirty some years of immersion, I have grown to appreciate the work of jazz greats J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding. And Bill Watrous — man, he makes virtuosity sound so smooth! What really grabs my attention, however, is the ability of trombonists to create expressionistic artwork — colors that fellow big band players envy. Schoenberg realized this when he incorporated glissandos in his symphonic poem "Pelleas und Melisande" (1903). And Robert Erickson, whose world broke through sound barriers with pieces like "Ricercar à 5" for trombone and tape (1966), for Stuart Dempster, opened widely the doors for introverted brass players with those huge slides. (Dempster went on to create an instrument with a mouthpiece and garden hose.)
"Sean Devlin," says Waschka, "has devotion, dedication, experience and love of art music ...," and "he does it with great verve...." Devlin thanked the audience and launched a recital of trombone solos by (mostly) living composers. He opened with Waschka’s "Topsy Speaks" (2001), a commissioned work for James Miller of the NC School of the Arts and the Los Angeles Philharmonic (and a composer and former member of the NC Symphony). In this, the second performance at NCSU (he played it for the 2008 NC Computer Music Festival in February), Devlin dazzled the audience as he interacted with his electronically produced alter-ego. Fluent in the jazz idiom, he next performed Bernstein’s stylized New Orleans funeral piece, "Elegy for Mippy II" (1948), each note with gloriously rich tone. And swinging with the energy and grace of a seasoned artist, he made Enrique Crespo’s Improvisation Nr. 1, with no bar-lines to be found, sound easy.
During the moments Devlin caught his breath, Waschka spun a few electronic media works. beginning with a sample of Laurie Spiegel’s "mousemusic" called "Finding Voice" (c.1989). This delightful etude, created from her novel computer software, is easy to digest, but the results are not much different than strains produced by young guitarists exploring their reverb pedals. Allen Strange’s 2004 "Quinault Cathedral" and "a 'serenade' to these real and/or imagined creatures" (Bigfoot) is, on the other hand, an electronic tour de force. Like Berio, Strange deliberately created sounds that were identifiably "out of this world, yet memorable," stuff that lies deep in the amygdala. And Stan Link’s "Terra Alto" (c.2002-6) includes mundane-sounding narration that might come right out of The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959-1964). Coupled with strangely remote electronic music, it is somehow, so personal.
Devlin closed the program with excerpts from David Fetter’s collection of musical vignettes, 6 Etudes and Two Mad Scenes. Subtitles reveal a proclivity for humor — " I'm Not Angry" and "Mad Scene," for example. At the same time, the composer has no fear of stretching the performer to his limits (he describes "Mad Scenes No. 1 & 2" as "unhinged tests of endurance"). Devlin knocked these off like candy. An impressive performance indeed — it was an evening of comic relief.
Together, Waschka and Devlin spun an artistic program and, without a single word, poked fun at the yahoos performing just north of the [southern loop of the D.C.] beltway.
*Note: Last paragraph clarified 10/5/08 in response to a reader's inquiry.