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Mobtown Modern's Night Of "Hard As F#@!" Composition


| Image by City Paper Digi-Cam

The theme of Monday night's

concert series installment was "Hard as F#@!"--works of modern classical music that are finger-breakingly tough to play, fraught with the kind of quick technical passages, unsteady rhythms, and unfamiliar harmonies that make it near impossible for the audience to identify mistakes. Still, it's important to know that mistakes can be made in a performance like this one. That even though the music may have some of the spazz-out inflections and grating discordance of what goes on at the High Zero festival, what you're seeing is prescribed/composed, and the stakes are accordingly higher. And over the course of the 80-or-so-minute show, it was clear that the musicians were aware of those stakes. Most of them, performing solo works, played with a nervous energy that suited the sounds and made for just a really cool evening of music.

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Mobtown Modern is a New Music series curated by saxophonist Brian Sacawa and composer/DJ Erik Spangler. (The latter spun an intriguing mash-up of IDM rhythms and ethnic music between sets, which was pleasant.) The series began in January 2008, and Monday night's concert was the third so far. An ensemble made up largely of wind players who have day jobs with the U.S. Army's concert band performed seven pieces, all but two of them composed from the late 1980s to early 1990s, accompanied by a pastiche of video art by Guy Werner, projected onto a screen behind the stage on the second floor of the Contemporary Museum. It's tough to imagine a better way to spend a Monday night than eating free hard pretzels and blow pops (in keeping with the "hard" theme), drinking $1 Natty Bohs, and watching deftly performed modern music.

Katayoon Hodjati started the program with a performance of Brian Ferneyhough's 1986 composition "Mnemosyne"--named for the titaness from Greek mythology who personifies memory--for bass flute and pre-recorded bass flutes. Hodjati, a petite woman who appeared almost dwarfed by the massive instrument (one almost never played), demonstrated some seriously impressive lung capacity for the piece, which consisted of a number of percussive tongue-fluttering and spasmodic breathing patterns. This was paired with rhythmic finger tapping on the unused keys of the flute during long, open tones, and all was set against dissonant, three-part drones piped in over a sound system. On the screen behind her were images of bushmen hunting and cooking game and painting cave art, interspersed with shots of more modern activities: car-flooded roads, skyscrapers, some sort of parliamentary meeting, all with beefed-up contrast and the pulsating luminescent of unidentifiable digital effects. Hodjati's playing had no readily discernible melody, but it didn't particularly affront melodic sensibilities. It was as if the transitions between the long, sustained wind-howling-on-the-moor harmonies of the pre-recorded flutes were geometrical, even if the harmonies themselves were not.

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Marimbaist Wojciech Herzyk followed with probably the most visually striking and impassioned performance of the night. His solo work, "Dances of Earth and Fire" by Peter Klatzow, bore a distinctly Russian modernist influence--you could hear snatches of "Petroushka" in its playful high-treble passages, and there were definitely strong dance rhythms veiled by the jagged harmony. Herzyk appeared in a flamboyant red satin tunic, and the physicality of the piece--and of the instrument in general--with its pounding, low-range bell tones and quick technical runs up high, had him sweating by the end. A woman sitting behind me exclaimed, "That was so sexy," when it was over.

The pace slowed for curator Sacawa's performance of Jason Eckardt's 2007 piece "Still"--a long series of carefully constructed polytones, groaned out on a baritone sax--that evoked throat-singing, or perhaps the flailing sound of an fax machine signal. The piece had a clownish, mournful feel to it, which Sacawa conveyed with precision and feeling. Werner's video images alternated between a Baltimore street scene--a policeman poking through a plastic bag that appears to contain beer or drugs while a drunk lies unconscious nearby--and a morose Little Tramp trying to commit suicide by throwing himself in a lake from the Charlie Chaplin movie

In The Park

, a very cool effect.

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Three pieces by 100-year-old composer Elliott Carter followed, and from where I sat, they probably could have been left off the program. "Gra," performed on clarinet by Jennifer Everhart, and "Scrivo in Vento," played by flautist Sarah Eckman McIver, came across flat--simple serialist pieces full of the dryness and emotional distance that is typical of much 12-tone music. The third, a duet between the two called "Esprit Rude/Esprit Duox," was much more interesting and evocative. I heard an excited argument between a male voice (clarinet) and a female (flute), each perpetually interrupting the other, with bickering, objection, fingers-in-the-ears droning, brief accord and agreement, and finally, a sour, irreconcilable note.

And to close, the ensemble tempered atonal structures to a form that really suits it--bebop. A truncated big band--alto sax, tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, vibes, piano, bass, drums--performed "All Set," a 1957 piece by Milton Babbitt, a composer known mainly for his highly mathematical serialist compositions and his devotion to the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Mobtown Modern's version had the brass band sounding like a demented, meandering herd, hopelessly lost but resolute in finding its way to the same place in the end. Big new ideas kept springing up in honks and percussive whomps from all corners of the group, and though there were no feats of virtuosity to speak of, it was a collectively impressive performance.

Mobtown Modern next performs Jan. 28, 2009, with works by Jacob ter Veldhuis, Missy Mazzoli, Ken Ueno, Georges Aperghis, and Arnold Schoenberg.

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