Five works for varying sized groups, performed in Watson Hall by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts‘ contemporary music ensemble, “nu,” emphasized the huge diversity of styles and techniques encompassed by the term “contemporary music.” Three of the pieces were composed in the 21st  Century, but situating them vis-à-vis their antecedents proved interesting in that the most recent work was the most tonal and probably the least difficult to appreciate for the uninitiated listener, and the earliest work was a rhythmic tour de force for percussion ensemble alone.

The concert started with a bang with Will Sound (2006) by German composer Wolfgang Rihm (b. 1952), a prolific composer who has been influenced by the 12-tone system as used by Anton Webern and Luigi Nono, as well as by one of his teachers, Karlheinz Stockhausen. He explains the title, “Something will sound because it wishes to sound.” 

Written for 16 musicians (including five  woodwinds, three brass, four strings, two percussion, accordion and piano) and conducted by “nu” ensemble director, Saxton Rose, the piece is loaded with sustained clusters with agitated substrates. Saxophones are featured at the beginning, with swooping and scooping groups of notes, chosen for their timbre (Klangfarben). The piece is almost constantly loud but interesting because of the changes of color and texture.

This was followed by “a sort of Zen meditation on the note C-sharp” as guest conductor Oskar Espina-Ruiz explained in his introduction to Prânam II (1973) by the eccentric Italian aristocrat, Giacinto Scelsi. Scelsi would spend hours playing the same note repeatedly, occasionally adding another note as a harmonic allusion. He would record the long sessions, then give instructions as to their transcription. Written for 2 flutes, bass clarinet, horn, synthesizer and four strings, color is again the salient feature of this seven-minute piece – the slow quiet blending and bending of instrumental sounds, adding an E or perhaps another note to the C-sharp that had inspired the composer at the time.

This year we celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the U.S.’s most creative composers, John Cage. Six percussion players set their own stage and performed (conductor-less) Cage’s Dance Music for Elfrid Ide (1940), which uses three hand-clappers, six pitched drums, cowbells, claves, washboard, maraca, rattle, and woodblock. After the density (maybe even turgidity) of the previous pieces, this fast-paced rhythmic piece brought a smile to many faces in Watson Hall.

Indeed, intermission had a bit of party spirit – the audience was composed mostly of faculty and students of UNCSA with occasional extraneous lovers of modernism, all eager to discuss the high level of the performances on stage. There was an eagerness to experience “what next?”

Benjamin Broening’s like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment (2005) is written for an octet of two woodwinds, two strings, two percussion players on an assortment of instruments, a piano and an Apple-controlled electro-acoustical source. The group was guest conducted by Tadeu Coelho. A happy accident allowed us to hear the first three minutes twice, first without the electro-acoustical source, and again, when a back-stage problem was remedied, enhanced by the computerized “tape.” The difference was astounding – clusters now scintillated; it was analogous to seeing in color what we previously had seen in black and white. The work is somewhat static, but pleasant. Toward the end there was a fascinating passage of low-pitch instruments (bass clarinet and cello) accompanied by a large gong, swept (with brushes), not struck!

The closing work in this delightful concert was entitled, oh ye of little faith… (do you know where your children are?) (2008). Although the most recently composed work on this concert, it is perhaps most closely in touch with pre-Contemporary Music in its use of two elements of traditional classical music: tonality and dynamics (loud and soft). Returning to conduct the large ensemble of 16 musicians, Saxton Rose coaxed the musicians, from the tentative soft opening… a note on the xylophone… another on the marimba… eventually a descending scale…  “A” minor… and again… ever slowly repeating – a sort of minimalism (without the exuberant tempos and arpeggios). Eventually growing out of the A minor scale came its natural off-spring, E major, the “dominant.” As the dominant persevered and eventually overwhelmed… the work crescendo-ed to a satisfying climactic ending.

A word about the modern use of the double bass bow, like a violin bow but shorter, wider and sturdier; percussion players use this bow to extract a pure sound (sine wave) from certain pitched instruments (bells) which are otherwise struck with hard mallets – crotales (pitched “antique” cymbals), xylophone and marimba – producing a sound not unlike a string harmonic or a note from an electronic organ. Bowed “bells” were heard in three of the five pieces played this evening.