A collaborative program Saturday evening in Cambridge’s New School of Music brought together two presenting organizations, the New Gallery Concert Series and Castle of our Skins, to explore the theme of identity both visually and aurally.
NGCS, which presents new music and visual arts in tandem, and examines those intersections, and COOS, a concert and educational series that explores Black heritage and culture, created an evening swirling with ideas.
Taryn Wells showed about two dozen arresting graphite works on paper, mostly self-portraits in stylized, sometimes ironic, historic and cultural settings. COOS’s artistic director and violist Ashleigh Gordon created a program with five composers—Anthony R. Green, Gary Powell Nash, Alvin Singleton, Tania León and Jonathan Bailey Holland. Nash and Green offered world premieres.
Two works by Holland bookended the evening. NGCS artistic director Sarah Bob began with his simple but beautiful “Intimacy of Harmony” for solo piano. Its title says everything: basic chords mixed with runs on the keyboard, sweet and tuneful, but with moments of edgy pitches that added some corners.
Green’s premiere of “Collide-oscope III” followed, set for wind trio: oboe (Benjamin Fox), clarinet (Hunter Bennett), and bassoon (Adrian Morejon). Easily the most challenging work on the program, it seemed to surround the edges of melody and harmony, rather than state them distinctly—sharp opposition to Holland’s “Intimacy.”
Pitches were arrived at through multiple means, traditional and extended. Fox articulated standard notes from the oboe, but also blew barely audible air sounds, and created vibrato in every way imaginable—shaking the instrument, trilling the keys, moving the reeds as he blew.
Tempos were elusive: most phrases came as short episodes, articulated then halted. No development ever came, in any traditional sense, but the language, while abstract, was sturdy and recognizable from the first notes.
Harmony can come from any combination of notes, and can also be alluded to, from the anticipation of notes. The presence of air sounds from each of the instruments—the piece ends with all three players blowing “nothing”—gave a strong sense of listener involvement in the work. “Collide-oscope III” (Green writes that it is part of a series exploring color and pitch) is a work where open-minded listeners clearly find fascination.
Singleton’s “Jasper Drag” was a powerhouse. Set for trio—violinist Gabriela Diaz joining Bennett and Bob—the title evokes the memory of the brutal dragging death at the back of a pick-up truck of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas. It was one of several works on the program written to ensure that the recall—in some fashion, here, in musical fashion—of ghastly, racially motivated tragedies remains in the collective consciousness.
Singleton does this with intriguing compositional depth. Simple piano chords at the outset signal an elegy, as does the tempo. But several sections—a rapid staccato violin part, which eases into long legato high notes at the mid-point—add multiple moods to the mix. Throughout, the violin leads, the piano remains mostly chordal, the clarinet largely offering accents. The playing was insightful and alive.
Nash’s “Sui Generis Bastion” was written for Gordon. One movement—and one long line as well—the solo violist played amplified. Not (apparently) through a speaker, but simply with amplification to the body of the instrument.
It made for a powerful sound. The work is not virtuosic, nor did it require extended techniques. But it had some beautiful figures, and gentle overtones as well. A sameness of tempo kept some textures from standing apart, and could have enhanced the appeal.
León’s work is varied, unpredictable and wild. “A Tres Voces”—her string trio, with cellist Rhonda Rider joining Diaz and Gordon—was alternately spiky and active, introspective and heavily accented.
Holland’s “Synchrony” for quintet and tape closed the performance. Also written to extend the memory of racial violence, diminishing by time and distance, Holland intersperses taped clips including harrowing documentary audio from the arrests of Eric Garner and Sandra Bland.
The music explores the combinations possible in the instrumentation—not duets among the players so much as responses, doublings and echoes. One recurring minor interval haunts the work.
“Synchrony” feels partly elegiac, and partly like a tribute. The audio clips, and some prepared piano, notwithstanding, it has a tonal, centered quality that expands the work’s possibilities past its modest ten-or-so minutes duration.
This program repeats today as part of a residency at Clark University in Worcester, with Wells, the musicians, Holland and others exploring the theme of identity. newgalleryconcertseries.org or 617-254-4133.