The problem with liking new music in Atlanta is that concerts are often held in spaces with no climate control. Yesterday’s YInMn Project new music festival organized by Cassidy Chey Goldblatt was held in one of the galleries at Whitespace Gallery. While it’s a lovely space and its location in Inman Park likely provided the inspiration for the festival’s name (the blue chemical compound YInMn is a homophone of Inman), the gallery provided no cooling on a humid, sticky day that reached 90˚F. For ventilation, the gallery was left open to the property’s lovely courtyard, which is wonderfully well protected from any errant breezes that might try to invade it. So, sweaty, salty, and sticky, I sat for 6 ½ hours or so listening to six ensembles do an excellent job playing a wonderfully varied array of music. With the exception of one of the ensembles, there were no printed set lists and the heat slowed my poor brain down too much to note what the musicians said, so below are my general impressions of each set with only a few pieces mentioned by name.
The program began with Safety Second, a flute and percussion duo from Athens, GA. If I had to describe their program, I’d say that it was a bunch of different kinds of dreamy. Each piece seemed to create its own little dream world in quite different ways from each of the others. Some were fast or energetic and some were slow and pensive but each seemed to be coming out of, or lost inside, a dream to me. I think that Jason Treuting’s Thank You (___) for solo snare, played sitting on the floor with mallets, brushes, and coins, probably did the most to solidify this sense of dreaminess for me.
The first of two solo performers was next. Cellist Joshua DeVries played a pretty wide variety of music, including a number that might not quite be in the classical vein. All of the pieces were decent, though not all of them appealed to me. There were a couple of laments that I really liked, including a good performance of Giovanni Sollima’s Lamentatio. I think that he was the only one to do a piece accompanied by recorded sounds, which is rather odd considering that this was a new music festival.
Terminus Ensemble was next, playing works by co-directors Sarah Hersh and Brent Milam. These were decent pieces, though one by Milam for percussion was a bit loud for the small venue. Part of this set, a piece by Hersh for saxophone and cello, was played in the courtyard. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that disruptive to shift the seats back and forth for that.
Percussionist Caleb Herron’s set explored the nature of sound in music. It began with a clever variation on Cage’s 4’33” that had the non-silence occur between readings of quotes about music by Cage. He then played a couple of noise pieces on triangle and tam-tam and finished with a dramatic performance of Vinko Globokar’s ?Corporel for human body and voice. Aside from Safety Second’s performance of the Treuting piece, this was really the only set to feature much in the way of noise music.
Next up was a voice and cello duo called Juxtatonal. Their set was made up of a lot of short pieces that were generally fun and novel. They were also the only ones to print out a program for the audience, which was nice because of the number of pieces they played. They tended to flow quickly and directly from one piece into the next, often with comedic effect. Aside from Herron’s body, they were the only ones to have much in the way of novel instrumentation, making use of a variety of toys, including two squeaking toucan stuffed animals, during Jux2can, a piece that they composed for themselves.
The final ensemble was Room 1078 from Ann Arbor, MI. They are a string quartet that features Goldblatt as second violin. Their set was fairly upbeat with many of the pieces being driven by strong rhythms. They also performed one French folk tune with Goldblatt and cellist Hanna Rumora singing. They played very well together, with an enthusiasm that was quite infectious. After their set, all of the remaining musicians performed a serenade for glass bottle. Each musician who wasn’t part of the quartet sat in different places among the audience and all at once began blowing over a bottle. It was a beautiful effect and an excellent way to end the festival.
Overall, I enjoyed the festival a great deal. That said, although I have no complaints about the quality of either the music or the musicians, I did come away with a mild – I want to say dissatisfaction but even that seems too strong a word – about this festival. When I think of a new music festival, I think of works that you will almost never hear a mainstream ensemble playing. I think of the kind of music that often has to be heard live to be understood because they don’t work as well recorded. I think of works that break dramatically from the traditions of that segment of art music that we call “Classical.” I think of works that challenge the listener to reconsider what music is and what it can do for – and even to – them; works that are experimental and looking to determine where art music can go next. Although there were some pieces that fit that schema, the eclectic mix of genres included transcriptions of folk and popular music and much of what remained was less of the avant-garde and more from the arrière-garde: composers who seem to be doing less to create new sounds and more to reintegrate what the experimentalists did into a more mainstream tradition. Does this count as “New Music?” I don’t know. This is one of those problems that I blame on the failure of artists and arts criticism to develop a useful vocabulary for describing different kinds of art since the end of WWII. Terms such as “Modernism,” “Post Modernism,” “Contemporary,” and “New” fail in every regard to say anything meaningful about art; they aren’t just nebulous, they’re useless. These are relative terms for time that don’t even make sense. John Cage lived and died last century but his work is still being referred to as modern and is considered to be new music. Meanwhile, there are living composers younger than me whose latest compositions would not be considered either new nor modern even at their world premier.
Coupling this dearth of useful terms with the common practice among artists to reject labels of any kind, we end up with so many obstacles to discussing any art that isn’t couched in premodern artistic movements that audiences have no way of knowing what they can expect from a concert or a composer. And when an audience member hears something they like, it may require no small effort to find related music since there isn’t some easily accessible term that can be used to link works by different composers. As much as Debussy and Ravel disliked the term “impressionism,” if the category hadn’t been forced upon their works then there are likely many who would never have found their music without it. While we may be able to describe, with some detail, music using terms related to tonality, harmony, orchestration, &c, without some broad categorization it is too easy for the average audience member to become lost. The classical music tradition is extraordinarily broad and there are scant few who will find every category appealing. I would argue that there are even fewer who would find no category in such a broad tradition appealing. So why aren’t they going to concerts? I blame this, at least in part, on this problem with communication. If someone who doesn’t normally attend such things decides that they want to give a concert of new music a go because they heard some Steve Reich on the college radio station late one night but then they find the concert’s program isn’t quite to their liking, there’s a good chance that they’ll never try it again. They may not realize that the George Crumb that grated on their nerves or the György Ligeti that bored them to distraction represent only two of the many kinds of music that they might encounter at such a concert. If all they know is that each of these are new music then there is no way for this person to find other composers they may like aside from spending an inordinate amount of time doing research and listening to composers whom they don’t enjoy at all. There is no way for this person to find their way to Philip Glass if we honor that artists request not to call his work minimalist without doing more work than an average audience member should realistically be expected to do just to hear some music.
So does this mean that I didn’t like the YInMn Project or think that Goldblatt somehow failed in putting this festival together? Not at all. I would have rather it had focused more heavily on programming those pieces that are least likely to find their way into a more mainstream chamber ensemble’s repertoire. Do I think that the festival was mislabeled? I don’t know what would have been more appropriate, so I can’t really say. Calling it an eclectic blend of post-common practice period classical music festival probably wouldn’t have been that much more helpful than calling it a new music festival. Regardless, Goldblatt delivered an enjoyable and memorable day of music that was well played and certainly worth hearing. If she were to make this a regular occurrence then I would definitely recommend making an effort to attend.