The vast, vaulting atrium of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art — so immense it can feel like a world of its own — is a spectacular place to see art. But it’s an equally spectacular setting for contemporary music, as composer Steve Antosca proved Sunday evening with the world premiere of “Habitat,” a work for computer and percussion that filled the atrium with a surging, often breathtaking ocean of sound — and turned the huge space into an instrument in its own right.
Antosca revels in pushing traditional instruments (and instrumentalists) beyond their limits, and “Habitat” is written around a single percussionist who embarks on a 40-minute “transformational journey” upward through the atrium. Opening amid a battery of bells and marimbas in the center of the audience, the young virtuoso Ross Karre moved across the gallery to a “prepared” piano, then on to strum Harry Bertoia’s 17-foot-high “Tonal Sculpture,” then up the stairs to the mezzanine and higher still to the bridge that crosses the atrium at its highest level. As he rose from floor to floor, Karre used different instruments to describe a detailed emotional journey — from gentle to stormy to ethereal — before returning to earth to rekindle the original musical ideas, now darker and more profound.
But what made this individual “journey” particularly involving — in a physical, even visceral way — was the way Karre’s playing was transformed by computer musician William Brent, then amplified and broadcast through speakers around the atrium. The result was a complex and wildly colorful palette of sound — the stuff that gongs and wood blocks dream of — that seemed to sweep in huge waves from every direction, as if Karre were playing the atrium itself as a gigantic meta-instrument — and we, the audience, were inside. A fascinating and often compelling new work from Antosca, played with exceptional skill by Karre — who also turned in a fine account of John Cage’s magnificent “Cartridge Music” from 1960, which opened the program.
Brookes is a freelance writer.