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Like a glimpse from the height of American industrialization, the sounds of sheet metal, hydraulic presses, and blast furnaces roared out of The Crown at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro. Performed by the Catchfire Collective, their December concert "City of Industry" showcased a full program by American composer Annie Gosfield (b. 1960). In the words of Catchfire's percussionist, Isaac Pyatt, Gosfield's music uses "classical instruments to mimic the sounds of our world" and the BBC went as far as describing her as a "one woman Hadron collider." This being my first concert with Catchfire, I was thrilled to see how the ensemble would tackle works from such a powerhouse composer of new music.
After a brief word from executive director and clarinetist, Kyle Kostneko, the slow but intensely burning program began, starting with the deteriorating sounds of 78 RPM records. In "Cranks and Cactus Needles," Gosfield imitates the sounds of decrepit victrolas fallen victim to the wear and tear of time. Quarter tones between the strings, warbling vibrato, and hollow-sounding harmonics from the Catchfire Collective instantly brought Gosfield's imagery to life. After hearing players enter the sound, the Collective's concrete commitment to the music was evident. At one point during the opening work I had to confirm for myself that there were only five musicians onstage; their ability to blend into total transparency, reemerge, and then create a vivid array of colors was almost unbelievable for only five musicians. Curious and amusing, the opening set was just a peek into what Catchfire is capable of with Gosfield's music.
Cellist Peter Swanson deserved every moment of center stage for the group's second selection, Almost Truths and Open Deceptions. A play on words, the title refers to the clashing sound of nearly unison lines within the ensemble that follow a glissando towards the open D strings found on the violin, viola, cello, and bass. Accompanied by a sensitive and responsive ensemble, Swanson's fiery playing completely captured the audience's attention.
Again revisiting the theme of industry, Catchfire's third selection contrasts the inorganic sounds of the factory against the voices of its laborers. The ghostly echo of the never-ending workplace rings in the opening moments of the piece. Drones in the piccolo and violin reminiscent of factory whistles soar over the low, exhausted hum of vibrating mechanisms. Gaining steam, machines roar to life with reactivated purpose. With the lively machinery comes their operators, personified by the newly introduced melodic material. I interpreted the ensuing juxtaposition of the melodic and mechanic in a couple ways. Perhaps it's a symbiotic relationship between machines and people. However, given the ferocity Catchfire put into their playing, it felt more like a conflict, an inescapable tension between laborers and their work. Pyatt's unyielding percussion that barrels past the ending of the winds and strings really sold this idea for me.
In the final and best work on the program, the ensemble invited machines to play with them onstage in the form of sampled sounds. With rhythmic control of the sampled clashing, banging, and clanking on an electronic keyboard, guest pianist Annie Jeng was the master of machines. Pyatt brought the audience even closer to the work's setting with an eclectic array of found percussion instruments created from sheet metal and empty cans. From the words of the composer, Detroit Industry puts to sound the enormous murals of Diego Rivera in Detroit. The murals depict the deified form of industry, the Aztec goddess Coatlicue. Almost ritualistically, the Catchfire Collective summoned the otherworldly power of this anthropomorphic machinery into the venue. Clamorous, loud, and at times groovy, this piece showcased the creative power of the Catchfire Collective.
It is my opinion that new music such as this is of critical importance in the current musical landscape. In an interview with Kostenko after the performance, I was shocked to learn that the group had put together their monumental program in less than a week! Their attention to detail and their skill as chamber musicians is demonstrative of their paramount professionalism and artistic prowess. It is exciting to see the Catchfire Collective as one of many strong, emerging voices gaining momentum as they embrace and elevate new music.