The two big music revolutions in our century--atonal modernism and the early-music movement--came together Sunday at the Phillips Collection when the Dorian Consort, eight musicians based in Switzerland, dipped into each world.
Actually, these two revolutions stem from the same impulse: to break with traditions in an effort to de-romanticize music. One camp looked forward, the other back.
It was amazing to hear the Dorian play two "Brandenburg" Concertos by J.S. Bach (Nos. 4 and 5, with nimble harpsichordist Shalev Ad-El) in a spirited reading that emphasized angular, pungent harmonies, lean textures and clipped phrasing. There was nothing soothing or wallpapery about this Bach. And the group played Klaus Huber's "The Breath of Non-Time" (1972), a rigorously serialist work, as the score demands: with angular, pungent harmonies, lean textures and clipped phrasing.
This single performance aesthetic can work wonders when judiciously applied. We know what Huber, now 74, expects his music to sound like. But the shortcoming of the Dorian's Bach style--a performance practice that is nowadays pretty much standard--revealed itself in the Cantata No. 209, which sank on the unlyrical phrasing of the instrumentalists and on the brittle voice of soprano Barbara Schlick. Amid these matters of heavy philosophical importance was Frank Martin's bittersweet, gorgeously played "Pavane Couleur du Temps" (1920).
Isotope 217; the Eternals
The Metro Cafe is a wonderful little club with a terrible ventilation problem--firefighters could train there. Sunday night the Metro was smoky for another reason: Isotope 217 and the Eternals were burning down the house.
There isn't a connect-the-dots formula to describe the Eternals. The trio's nine songs (performed with bass, drums and keyboards) were funky, off-kilter dub blended with elements of jazz and featured a singer whose vocals recalled a singsongy poet mixed with a lounge singer and a ska toaster.
Isotope 217 is easier to categorize; the electric jazz-rock of Miles Davis is a key inspiration. But the band is hardly derivative, especially when it counts Tortoise and Chicago Underground Orchestra guitarist Jeff Parker among its members. On "Looking After Life on Mars" and "LUH," Parker locked into the percussion of Dan Bitney and John Herndon and the hopped-up bass lines of Matthew Lux while ripping out wah-wah-infested guitar lines. Cornetist-keyboardist Rob Mazurek added a smoky ambiance over the beats that was a welcome addition to the Metro's haze.
The Rosslyn Spectrum doesn't look much like the ornate listening rooms where rajahs once presented intimate concerts for their peers, but there was one similarity Sunday. After an unsuccessful attempt to fix the sound system, Indian singer-composer Shubha Mudgal agreed to perform her Washington area debut without amplification.
This solution was entirely satisfactory. Mudgal's strong, supple voice and accompanying tanpura were clearly audible, as was the drone of Sudhir Nayak's harmonium and the rhythms of Anish Pradhan's tabla.
Mudgal began with an hour-long piece in the classical style, which was serene and austere even during the more vigorous vocal passages and tabla outbursts. She then filled another hour with four pieces in a more emotional, less formal style rooted in folk music. These expressed the yearnings of a lover, welcomed the coming of spring and celebrated the power of the Ganges, India's holy river, in terms that could also be heard as devotional. When Mudgal vamped exuberantly on a two-syllable phrase in a moment that jazz fans might have interpreted as pure vocalise, she was actually chanting one of the many names of Krishna.