A couple of years ago, a New York-based ensemble with the loaded name loadbang — and the unlikely combination of baritone vocalist, bass clarinet, trumpet and trombone — gave an intriguing concert in Baltimore as part of the Evolution Contemporary Music Series.
One item on the program had a text made up of words delivered in alphabetical order, from "a" to "breathing," each repeated innumerable times by the singer while intricate rhythmic and harmonic activity percolated among the instruments. It was the first movement of "A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was" by cutting-edge Baltimore composer and Peabody Institute faculty member David Smooke.
loadbang returns to Baltimore this weekend for a couple of events, one devoted to the world premiere of the complete Smooke work at Peabody's newest performance venue, Centre Street Performance Space, thanks to a grant from the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
"I was first commissioned to write a short piece for loadbang," says the California-born Smooke, who has been in Baltimore for seven years. "I gave them the beginning to 'A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was' and told them, 'This is a start. If you want the larger piece, I’ll do it.' They said yes."
The result is an hour-long monodrama — "More emphasis on the mono, less on the drama," Smooke says — that will challenge performers and listeners alike.
The source of the text is an alphabetized story by Baltimore-based Michael Kimball, writing in this instance under the name Andy Devine. There's a story in that, too.
The California-born Kimball and longtime friends who shared an enthusiasm for gambling liked to gather annually in Las Vegas. On one his trips driving to that mecca, Kimball passed through Flagstaff, Ariz., where he spotted references to a hometown celebrity, the indelible character actor Andy Devine.
"I decided that was going to be my Vegas name that year," Kimball says. "We would call each other by fake names at the roulette table."
Kimball and friends went on to launch a literary magazine on the Internet. In the early days, they were short on copy.
"So I started writing under a pseudonym to help get content," says Kimball.
That eventually resulted in a book — "Words," by Andy Devine — and a book tour. But the real author didn't make personal appearances to read from the material.
"Someone else would do it," Kimball says. "It could be man or woman, any ethnicity. David did one of the readings in Baltimore."
Smooke found himself moved when, pretending to be Andy Devine, he read from "A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was," with its alphabetized, seemingly unconnected words and their reiteration. The composer heard musical possibilities in the text.
"A narrative started to appear," Smooke says. "You get a sense of a story through the way individual words are said — up to 443 times. But some words don't get a lot of repetition. 'Dad' is used only once, for example, and comes between 'cut' and 'dark.' 'Mom' appears more than 70 times, and it comes between 'missing' and 'more.' "
Smooke decided not to ask Kimball exactly what the author intended to convey.
"I liked the mystery of not knowing things like that," the composer says.
loadbang is taking a similar approach.
"We haven't spent a lot of time making decisions on what the story means, because one of the interesting things about it is that it's so vague," says the ensemble's trumpeter, Andy Kozar.
"David does a fantastic job inferring certain ideas with his text-painting. Some sections involve just breathing through our instruments. The combination of sound-world and rhythm brings different aspects of the text to life," Kozar says
Founded in 2008 by graduates of the Manhattan School of Music, loadbang is used to unusual sounds. The group — the other members are baritone Jeffrey Gavett, clarinetist Carlos Cordeiro and trombonist William Lang — is responsible for generating a new repertoire expressly composed for what it calls its "lung-powered instrumentation."
The musicians have premiered more than 200 works so far, including such Pulitzer Prize-winners as Charles Wuorinen and David Lang.
"Considering how fantastic the first movement of David's piece was, we feel lucky to have the whole thing now," Kozar says. “David's music is so rhythmically intense and driving. We've spent many hours just trying to get the rhythms right."
Before premiering "A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was" on Tuesday, loadbang will reprise the "A to Breathing" movement on Sunday on a program featuring the works of several other composers, including "Do Your Job and Keep Your Mouth Shut: The Tiger Oil Memos" by Peabody alum Scott Lee.
"Some music written for us, like Scott's piece, is more traditionally notated and deals with our instruments in more traditional ways," Kozar says. "Some may be shocking to listen to. And we're doing one by Evan Johnson that's really on the brink of complete silence."