A neo-gamelan orchestra teamed up with an avant-garde string quartet, to play music of cosmic scope and ear-bending sonics? Not for every taste, maybe, but for adventurous music lovers, Thursday night’s concert at the Freer Gallery was an all-too-short wonder.
Spread across the stage was a collection of handmade metalaphones, gongs, marimbas and other gamelan-inspired instruments — all unique and tuned like no other instruments on earth — manned by the San Francisco-based composers collective Lightbulb. And at their heart sat the illustrious JACK Quartet, whose godlike stature in the contemporary music scene is beyond all serious dispute.
In other words, it was about as cutting edge as cutting edge gets. But when Lightbulb launched into the first work of the evening, “Mikrokosma,” by the group’s Brian Baumbusch and Wayne Vitale, it felt as if the Freer had suddenly dropped into some ancient world — absolutely strange and absolutely familiar. The work is rooted in Indonesian gamelan music and Hindu cosmology (it’s inspired, Baumbusch says, by “the turning of the universe”), and it came across as ritualistic and almost incantatory, a vast, shape-shifting universe of rhythmic patterns and pungent intonations.
Cosmic revolution also was the subject of John Cage’s “String Quartet in Four Parts” from 1950, whose movements correlate with the seasons. The word “enigmatic” barely begins to describe the work — quiet, spare, utterly tranquil and detached. There’s no fist-shaking or thundering, no grappling with the cruel Fates, no tragic despair or inspired soaring. Shorn of the usual emoting, the music takes on a sense of immense and transcendent grandeur. The JACK players turned in a superb performance of a piece that, so simple on the surface, seems to float over infinite depths.
If the Cage was simplicity distilled, the next work — Baumbusch’s “Hydrogen(2)Oxygen,” in its world premiere — was exuberantly complex. Bringing together Lightbulb and the JACK Quartet, the piece built from an ethereal opening into a raging torrent of asymmetrical rhythms, phase-shifting patterns and beautifully strange harmonies, all driven by “an aesthetic of molecular crystallizations,” as the composer puts it. And, in fact, it sounded elemental at every level, as if Baumbusch were trying to track the motion of each drop of water in a massive tsunami. Bewildering at first, even overpowering, it turned maddeningly beautiful and — to these ears, at least — magnificent, and as intoxicating as a drug.
Brookes is a freelance writer.