Music review: High-class experimentalism from League of the Unsound Sound

March 21, 2011

It sounds like the title of a Sherlock Holmes story, but in fact the League of the Unsound Sound (stop giggling — they’re good) is a newly hatched ensemble made up of some of the most interesting and high-powered musicians on the East Coast. Organized by the Peabody Conservatory’s David Smooke, the seven-member collective is dedicated to experimental music in all its glories, and on Saturday night at Catholic University’s Ward Recital Hall they put on a recital that showcased established composers, provocative newcomers and an improvisation by the entire ensemble that was absolutely riveting.

Smooke is one of the more engaging and unpretentious composers around, and his “21 Miles to Coolville” was a playful work built around a car trip to the actual town of Coolville, Ohio. Accompanied by a kaleidoscopic video of scenes from the trip (clouds, trees, other cars), bassoonist Michael Harley provided jaunty “road trip” music, which turned darker as they reached the disturbingly uncool Coolville itself.

Augusta Read Thomas’s “Toft Serenade” from 2006 has so much presence it seems sculpted; perhaps that was due to the extraordinary performance by violinist Courtney Orlando, who has a grim stage manner but plays with jaw-dropping purpose and intelligence. She was equally impressive in the group improvisation that followed. Much improvised music falls in the “noodle; build to a feverish pitch, repeat until audience succumbs” school. But the focus and disciplined imagination of the League players made this a nuanced and fascinating musical conversation.

Baltimore composer Ruby Fulton’s “Half the Way Down” explored the tragic mental breakdown of Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett and convincingly conveyed the sense of a mind becoming increasingly unmoored.“Selfish Houses on Blood Strange Roads” was a lyrical work from Catholic University’s Stephen Gorbos, warm and richly drawn. But it was a spectacular performance of Sofia Gubaidulina’s “Quasihoquetus” from violist Wendy Richman, Shirley Yoo on piano and bassoonist Harley that really stole the show — a gripping work steeped in cosmic mysteries, from one of the world’s greatest and too rarely heard composers.

— Stephen Brookes

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