Classical Funk With A Few Rough Edges
Monday, July 14, 2008
The underground scene is squeaky clean at the Capital Fringe Festival. Certainly, the concert "Carnal Node," by the Great Noise Ensemble, was held underground. But the basement in question was the spanking-new Forum at the Harman Center for the Arts, and all the folding chairs in the world were not enough to confer a patina of smoke and rebellion on this fresh-painted white room.
Similarly, the title "Carnal Node" seemed to breathe deviance, but the piece in question, by D. J. Sparr, proved to be an attractive but rather slight cantata about looking for love on the Internet, told in the narrative voice of someone who is anxious to affirm, "I am not a nerd."
The gentleman doth protest too much. Still, the program as a whole represented an appealing college try at delivering contemporary classical funk. Surrounding Sparr's wisps of music, fleeting as text messages, was a work called "Thick Skin," a brassy, bopping piece of not-jazz by Ryan Brown, and Marc Mellits's "Five Machines," a sequence of intense rhythmic miniatures originally written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a performing sextet that includes cello, clarinet, percussion and electric guitar.
The Great Noise Ensemble, formed in response to a Craigslist ad by the conductor andcomposer Armando Bayolo in 2005, is a flexible group of young performers, not named in the single sheet of the program, who are more or less up to the demands of the music. "Thick Skin," with its slow-movement bassoon solo (well played by Alan Michaels) and its brace of brass supported by electric guitar, culminated in an endearing big-band-meets-gospel finale in which the instruments gradually began talking in tongues and ended up in a pleasantly chaotic pile, like a bunch of puppies.
The players were a little less at ease in "Five Machines," which opens with a Steve-Reich-like rhythmic percussion pattern that immediately tries to ingratiate itself with its listeners in a most un-Reich-like way, spreading itself out into a pretty chord like a cat offering up its belly to be stroked. The second movement presents a tune made up of interlocking parts from different instruments, requiring the hair-trigger precision of the machine of the work's title, which wasn't always quite in evidence; and in the fourth movement the bass player, in particular, soured on his rapid notes. But as the new edges wear off both ensemble and hall, this "underground" might acquire a patina all its own.