Wall Street Journal Review of Liaison


Kids These Days

The MATA Festival gets inside the heads of today’s young composers.

April 20, 2015 5:41 p.m. ET
New York

If you were to judge by several of the scores presented at the 17th MATA Festival, held last week at the Kitchen, you might conclude that for composers in their 20s and 30s, musical building blocks like pitch and structure are just so last year—that rhythm, texture and gesture are the new melody. But just as that seemed a certainty, one composer, and then another and another, would present works packed with strikingly assertive themes, framed in conventional structures, and a few more would offer pieces steeped in a quirky theatricality, or in which combinations of electronic and acoustic sounds, video or spatial effects seem central fascinations.

That’s the thing about MATA, a festival founded in 1996 by Philip Glass, Lisa Bielawa and Eleonor Sandresky as a showcase for composers under 40, of all stylistic stripes and all nationalities. Though the founders stepped down long ago (they remain on the board), MATA still tries to present whatever young composers are up to. These days the festival is overseen by the composers Du Yun, its artistic director, and Todd Tarantino, its executive director. With a jury of composers, they selected this year’s 30 scores from 979 submissions.

A handful of themes connected otherwise disparate works. Some of the most striking scores wove pop-culture influences into complex harmonic textures, as the Israeli composer Ofir Klemperer did in “A Love Song” (2007), which he sang with Talea Ensemble on the final evening. Mr. Klemperer wanted to tap into the energy of 1970s punk rock, and so channeled Iggy Pop in his throat-stripping shouted vocal line. But the ensemble music was light years from the punk aesthetic: Tightly scored for violin, saxophone, flute, trombone and bass, its exacting, high-energy interplay demanded clockwork precision.

The British composer Adam de la Cour’s satiric “Corporate Talent Factor’s Next Top Idol!” (2015) was a video work in which he played three reality-show contestants to a cartoonish live and electronic score, performed by Bearthoven, a piano, bass and percussion ensemble. Bearthoven also accompanied Amanda Schoofs, an American singer-composer, in her “Intimate Addictions” (2014), and Ms. Du, born in China, who sang the terrifying vocal line in “The Man Who Swallows a Snake” (2015), her meditation on the mysteries of bereavement.

Ms. Schoof’s graphic score—black-and-white splotches, dots and squiggles, printed on 14 postcards, to be performed in any order by any instruments—demanded an idiosyncratic vocal performance that ranged from whimpering squeakiness, to full-throttle, vibrato-laden operatic tones, to a hefty blues growl, all abetted by a repertory of physical gestures. If the sum of its musical parts did not add up to much of consequence, “Intimate Addictions” proved a fascinating theater piece.

So did Ms. Du’s work, which began with a riot of drum, bass and electronic sound before the video began, showing mourners grieving in slow motion around a corpse. Ms. Du appeared onstage suddenly, wearing a spiky, black-and-white wig and a dress decorated with a large red uterus and yellow ovaries (the yellow, she said was meant to represent cancer), and delivered a vocal line couched in blood-curdling roaring, screaming and other intimations of naked emotional rawness. Nothing in the festival approached the work’s visceral power.

Nearly as affecting was “Liaison” (2013), by the American composer Megan Grace Beugger, in which a dancer, Melanie Aceto, was tethered to a pulley system from which fishing line was threaded through the strings of a piano. Ms. Aceto’s gestures produced notes—sometimes with a textured, scraping sound, sometimes as full, resonant tones. The music was gripping in its way, but Ms. Beugger’s sound-producing choreography—Ms. Aceto seemed, in turn, a crazed puppet, an insect struggling in a spider’s web, a wizard controlling the keyboard or a slave in thrall to it—remained the real focus.

There was also a Rube Goldberg aspect to “Music for Lamps” (2012-15), a collaboration by the Canadian composers and laptop performers Adam Basanta, Julian Stein and Max Stein. The trio affixed transducers to a large collection of lamps, spread across the stage, using their laptops not only to turn the lamps on and off in a complex visual counterpoint, but to create soft, dark, resonating rumbling in the lamps’ bodies.

Dan VanHassel took the transducer move further. In “Ghost in the Machine” (2013), the American wired up the Talea Ensemble’s instruments so that when they produced the tones in the written score, signals would be sent to his computer, which would trigger electronic elements of the score. At its densest, it was difficult to tell which were amplified acoustic sounds and which were electronic, but the effect was energizing. And Jasna Veličković, from Serbia, created her own board-game-turned-instrument, the velicon, which is played by bringing a pair of electronic coils near a collection of magnetized metal game pieces. In “sUn” (2014), her velicon manipulation yielded rumbling sounds like those from a dangerously unstable furnace.

Earnest experimentalism was plentiful, but a handful of old-fashioned chamber scores brought a measure of warmth to the programming. The Momenta Quartet and the clarinetist Christa Van Alstine gave a lovely account of Alex Weiser’s shapely, melody-rich “study search seek” (2015), and the quartet on its own expanded on traditional string sounds, often creating an evocatively rubber smear, in the Israeli composer Guy Barash’s String Quartet No. 1 “Wrong Ocean” (2012), a rhythmically vital evocation of rough waves and tidal forces.

Exoticism found its way into the proceedings, too, most strikingly in “Mirage” (2012), by Idin Samimi Mofakham, an Iranian composer who appeared via Skype to explain his use of Iranian scales and water imagery, which he said represented heaven in his culture. His score, for the Momenta players and others, was centered on a percussionist, who began and ended the work with a single hit to a triangle, and otherwise dipped his hands in water, splashed gently and let the water drip from his hands into a large bowl, for a while, and struck a gong, several times, dipping it into the water each time to change its pitch and timbre.

Was much of this work for the ages? Perhaps, but the composers seemed more concerned with today than with posterity. More to the point, the series (which eventually will be available for on-demand streaming on WQXR’s Q2 website) tells us a lot about how composers are thinking now.

Mr. Kozinn writes about music.