Roger Reynolds: Classical music outside the box

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Friday, March 4, 2011; 5:36 PM

The composer Roger Reynolds - complete with electro-shocked gray hair and a mischievous, "let's-smash-a-few-conventions" glint in his eye - was in town on Thursday night reinventing the classical music concert. Reynolds has little use for traditional "directed" performances, with their active musicians and passive listeners, so he searches out unconventional spaces, fills them with sound from every direction and lets listeners explore the music as they will.

In years past, he's brought huge, epic works to the atrium of the National Gallery of Art, but on Thursday he scaled things back to a more intimate level, with three new works for guitar and computer at the Phillips Collection.

The event took place in a gallery dominated by two monumental prints (titled, rather musically, "As Time Goes By") by British artist Howard Hodgkin: twenty-foot-long explosions of color on opposite walls, with room between them for about 60 people, four speakers and guitarist Pablo Gomez and computer musician Jaime Oliver, who sat in a tangled nest of wires and electronics.

Gomez opened with two Reynolds works for solo guitar that both contrasted with and complemented each other: the assertive "imAge/guitar" (full of bold, eruptive gestures) and the more delicate "imagE/guitar" (a ravishing piece awash in shadows and evanescent mysteries). Both pushed the guitar to a demanding virtuosic edge, but Gomez kept the effect lyrical, the thinking coherent and the poetry intact.

Then things got really interesting. Oliver switched on his MacBook and joined Gomez for "Dream Mirror," which took material from the previous two guitar works, transformed it and sent it out through speakers around the gallery. The effect was electrifying, as if the computer had become a sort of meta-guitar, revealing a hidden universe of ideas, dreams, possibilities and memories behind the original works.

Gomez's intimate, human-scale playing took on new depth and beauty against the otherworldly sounds Oliver was producing, and the result was a work of extraordinary lyricism: the lucid dreaming of a 21st-century poet.

- Stephen Brookes

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