Phyllis Chen and Carla Kihlstedt put ‘play’ back into playing contemporary classical music


Simultaneously singing and playing the violin, Carla Kihlstedt deployed her considerable stage presence. (Atlas Performing Arts Center)
April 12, 2013

The world of contemporary classical music has not exactly been a barrel of laughs for the past half-century. Awash in academic theorizing and po-faced, who-cares-if-you-listen complexity, composers almost seemed to turn their backs on audiences — and audiences, not surprisingly, returned the favor. But that seems to be changing. A number of younger composers, rigorously trained but wary of the ivory tower’s isolation, are bringing a welcome sense of playfulness into music, embracing an anything-goes range of styles.

That, at any rate, was the impression Thursday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center when the International Contemporary Ensemble showcased the music of Phyllis Chen and Carla Kihlstedt, two very different composer-performers whose music ran from delicate wisps of breath to foot-stomping bedlam.

Of the two, Chen is the more playful, the more quietly charming. A virtuoso of the toy piano, she delights in the delicate sonorities of music boxes and everyday objects, weaving them into strikingly original works of engaging lightness and transparency.

Her soliloquy for the flute, for instance — “Beneath a Trace of Vapor,” played by Eric Lamb — is a complex sound scape built from breath, in which harmonics, overblown notes and a range of feathery sounds from the flute are deployed with precision and wild imagination. Likewise, “Hush” opened with a revolving-in-circles, Eric Satie-like simplicity but built in drive and power to become absolutely riveting.

Perhaps the most entertaining piece of the evening was “Mobius,” in which Chen randomly punched holes into a loop of paper as it was being cranked between a pair of music boxes. The paper “programmed” the music boxes to produce tones, the cranks generated mechanical ratcheting sounds, and the whole was processed through a MacBook nearby — until Chen brought the fun to a close by snipping the Mobius strip in half. Chen’s combination of playfulness, discipline and an unerring ear in mixing strange sonorities made it a captivating work. And her last piece of the evening, “Chimers” — which pits a clarinet and violin against a shimmering chorus of tuning forks — proved that Chen is a master of the art of play — serious, serious play.


During a piece called “Mobius,” Phyllis Chen randomly punched holes into a loop of paper as it was being cranked between a pair of music boxes. The paper “programmed” the music boxes to produce tones, the cranks generated mechanical ratcheting sounds, and the whole was processed through a MacBook nearby. (Kimono Photography)

Kihlstedt took center stage for the second half of the evening, leading the ensemble through her new song cycle, “At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire.” Commissioned by the ICE, it’s a theatrical, freewheeling work that leaps around the stylistic map, dipping fluently into everything from free jazz to Kurt Weil as it explores the mysteries of the unconscious mind. But it’s an easy, natural eclecticism; Kihlstedt is a seasoned musician with roots in both classical and pop, and “Night” was, to some degree, a showcase for her skills not just as a composer but as a performer as well.

Simultaneously singing and playing the violin, often launching onto one foot to get the music airborne, Kihlstedt deployed her considerable stage presence. While her voice isn’t particularly big, it has a natural charm — flavored with a hint of Bjork — and she knows how to use it. Opening with the dreamy, improvised-feeling “Factual Boy,” she led the group through nine interwoven songs built on dreams that friends had told her about. That can be a risky approach — is anything more tedious than listening to other people’s dreams? — and there were moments of spoken text that slowed the momentum to a crawl.

But Kihlstedt has a rich musical imagination, and the music had a life of its own, moving with dreamlike clarity through tender fragments of song, stomping martial tunes, hymnlike reveries and the other strange, mysterious stuff that serves as a soundtrack to our unconscious.

Brookes is a freelance writer.

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