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Have you ever seen a powerful microscope zoom in on an everyday object? Zooming in on something as ordinary as the tip of a person's finger or a strand of hair, as the microscope reveals the tiniest details, the object becomes a completely different world. Suddenly, keratin layers look like planetary landscapes and fingerprints look like swirling nebulae. Now imagine, instead of watching the microscope zoom in with your eyes, you're listening to it with your ears. The Latitude 49 sextet set this sensation to music, blurring and blending the ordinary and extraordinary. Reunited in earnest after Covid limitations, Latitude 49 brought together a catalyzing program of world premieres, original works, and Pulitzer Prize-winning voices at Elon University's intimate Whitely Auditorium. As part of their world-bending tour of the cosmos within and around, I felt L49's performance of each piece on the program drew connections between the complexity of our senses and the complexity of our universe, ultimately revealing that the two aren't too distantly related.
Leading us to the summit, L49's first exploration took the audience on an Andean ascent with Gabriella Smith's Huascarán. Chris Sies' pulsing and driving set playing bound the group together as the piece ventured into dancing, perilous, and wild territory. Against the perpetual rhythm of the drum set, col legno in cello and violin and whooping shouts from reeds coalesced into a composite feel. At times, it felt like the ensemble split into completely different temporal centers until a motive would pull the group back onto the trail. Named after a peak in the Andes, Huascarán felt like a keystone of the program, an example of the proximity and likeness between humanity and the physical world.
The journey continued with Shulamit Ran's Birkat Haderekh – Blessing for the Road II. Saxophonist Andy Hall shared Ran's own program notes where she explains that during composition, she felt this piece served as a parable for the spectrum of feelings associated with a long journey. Anxiety, mourning, hope, and adventure all color the music language of Birkat Haderekh. Contrasting the rest of the program, sensitive, melodic playing in alto sax, clarinet, violin, and cello gave the work a narrative quality. Serving the multiplicity of the piece, each soloist's interpretation offered yet another insight. And after exploring the emotional topography of the journey, Jani Parsons on piano led the ensemble toward an attitude of acceptance, finalized by Andy Hudson's final pianissimo lift on clarinet.
Leaving no stone unturned, L49's final performance revealed even the ugliness of music. Largely antithetical, These (were) used to harm, by percussionist Chris Sies, depicts the violent potential of music. Sies shared that the piece is a reference and expansion on a New Yorker article by writer Alex Ross, titled "When Music is Violence." To summarize, Ross' article accounts for moments in history when music has been used by governments and militants for psychological torture. Combining the antagonism of Ross' writing with Sies' own musical background, the piece incorporates a wide variety of percussion and embraces the sound of a metal band. The piece engaged all sides of the hall as Hudson, Hall, Geissler, and Steeves walked through the aisles toward the stage in a procession of rattling, suspended rebar. And deep in the throes of the piece, this sensation of nausea crept up on me as bass clarinet, cello, and bari sax churned against each other. The Sies stuck out as the darkest piece thematically but within the larger performance, its shadow added yet another dimension to the program and spoke to the depth of L49's thorough vision.
While most would consider their programming extremely contemporary, for L49, this concert was an opportunity to finally share some older works. After a two-year postponement, L49 was able to finally premier the work Four Tableaux by Gity Razaz. Each of the work's four movements renders out a starkly different effect. The first movement, "I. As Within" is somewhat simple, with a vocal violin solo from Timothy Steeves. From that simple, confessional melody, "II. Liquid Distance" flooded the hall with amorphous undercurrents, "III. Astral Violet" radiated with frenetic activity, and "IV. Fire Above" set off an explosive chemical reaction that dwindled toward exhaustion. Thoughtfully written for each instrument by Razaz and wonderfully presented by L49, the music seemed to originate from a world beyond. Tethering it to the present, the group dedicated its performance to the current struggle in Iran for justice and liberty.
Even with such a demanding performance (for the performers and for the audience), the commitment from every member of L49 to passionate expression let each piece sing the unique story of its composer. Whether mimicking a looped spatial plane in Pascal le Bouef's Pac-Man Effect or epileptic brainwaves in Andrew McManus' auras (neurosonics 3a), their program was innovative and exciting. As an ensemble devoted to contemporary music as a means of engaging diverse audiences with diverse sounds, this concert was an exceptional showcasing of that mission.