A small, select audience at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater took a trip Wednesday evening without even leaving their seats. The panglobal music of composer La Monte Young transported them around the world in roughly 70 minutes (an unofficial record), without once breaking the sound barrier.
As Young admitted in the discussion afterward, it was an austere experience. And in principle he was right, considering that the music was made by four muted trumpets playing long, sustained tones. Yet even a no-frills trip can have its magic. That was exactly the case at the world premiere of "The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer (melodic version)," from "The Four Dreams of China," which entranced the receptive listeners with its wispy partial tones suspended in midair.
In theory, the trumpeters, two situated at each side of the stage, two others stationed seven rows up in the audience and facing the stage, had very little to do. They would play only four tones, G, C, D and C-sharp, for this performance. And the dynamics rarely rose above mezzo-forte. However, perfect intonation by all, and their ability to set up varying harmonic combinations, improvising within the context of Young's explicit directions, were what transformed a well-gauged theory into a piece whose purity of sound made one oblivious to temporal concerns.
Ben Neill, Patricia Fleming, James O'Connor and Susan Radcliff communicated with only the most subtle nods to achieve delicate, mantra-like textures. Repetition, often the bane of pieces lumped as "minimalist," was kept to a reasonably healthy minimum, thanks to the intuitive players, who ganged up on the tones, creating dissonances of the cerebral, nonjarring variety, amid consonant harmonies.
Muted trumpets, in varying combinations of two, three and four, accounted for a collage of what often amounted to disorienting sounds. Depending upon which tone was held, and for what duration, the horns assumed nasal, resonant tones reminiscent of a shawm.
Silences, substantial and connective, were powerful both as bold parentheses between sections, and as pauses for reflection to let the ear savor the overtones drifting skyward. "Dream" opened and closed in silence; only when the trumpeters in the audience walked down onto the stage did one know that the end had arrived.