SONiC Festival – ICE @ The Kitchen

For the unfamiliar, it’s often easier to describe what the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) does, rather than what it is.  They function, in their words, “as  performer, presenter, and educator,” and their 33 member-roster enables them to program anything from a solo or duet to a medium-sized chamber orchestra, even on the same program.  They are, basically, a one-stop new music shop, seemingly omnipresent throughout the creative process, from commissioning and workshopping through performance, production, and recording.

All that would make ICE seem to be a composer’s dream collaborator, but they’ve gone and done themselves one better with ICElab, an en masse composers-in-residence program which pairs six emerging composers with different subsets of ICE’s available instrumentation.  Throughout their year in the program, the ICElab composers work closely with the musicians to create and workshop their new works, which are then featured in ICE’s twenty-plus concerts each season.  Thursday night at The Kitchen,  the legendary experimental arts venue in far-west Chelsea which happens to be celebrating its 40th birthday this year, a full four ICElab 2011 commissions were on the program.

Claire Chase - Photo by Stephanie Berger

First on the program, Marcos Balter’s Edgewater was like a bucket of ice water to the face––and I mean that in the best way possible.  Flutists Claire Chase and Eric Lamb (on alto and bass flutes, respectively) fired rapid, breathy figures back and forth at each other with the kind of combined grace and raw power that you’d find in a world-class tennis match. Moving soulfully back and forth with each hocketed burst, Chase and Lamb appeared to be daring each other to bring even more to the performance, and every time you thought they’d reach some kind of intensity ceiling, they’d go ahead and raise the ceiling another notch.  The music itself had the illusion of static reptition, but it was constantly changing in subtle and not-so-subtle ways: lurching from fluid lyricism to aggressive, punchy rhythmic clarity and back again, and using huge bursts of breath to obscure pitch to the point where only breath, the clicks of the keys, and the churning, throbbing rhythm of the city remained.  It was a short jolt of electricity, economically constructed, and masterfully focused and expressive.

The fever-pitch intensity continued with Du Yun’s viscerally thrilling Vicissitudes Alone, a virtuoso shred-fest for Dan Lippel on guitar and a backing track of guitar and zither improvisations played by Lippel and the composer.  The pre-recorded track lay like a bed of nails underneath the solo part, which sounded somewhere between Chinese zither playing and the blues, the rapid changes and alternations hinted at in the title in the form of short and simple high-register melodies set against powerful low strummed chords and a battery of extended techniques, from string bending and tuning peg-slides to a haunting and song-like ending on an e-bowed electric with a glass slide.

ICE - Photo by Chad Batka

After these first two pieces, the program suffered from the very noticeable commonalities between the remaining works: most were slow or pulseless, geared heavily around extended woodwind techniques (especially for flutes, which received by far the lion’s share of the evening’s music), and used electronics or tape parts in very similar ways (textural manipulations of woodwind sounds, sustained blocks of timbre).  Of course, just as easily noticed were things most everyone avoided––rhythm, most notably.  The limited instrumentation didn’t help, especially in the flutes’ case.  After three or four pieces, what was a fresh technique and a daring color in the first had become overly familiar by the last, and I found myself struggling to hear each piece on its own terms, not in terms of what had come before.

This was no fault of the composers, though, and the performances were consistently spectacular; I did find plenty to love.  Steve Lehman’s Lenwood & Other Saints Who Roam the Earth was a set of four insanely quirky character pieces that played inventively with rhythm (!) and harmony (!), and which were just plain fun.  Nathan Davis’ Dowser, a Journey to the Center of the Earth of the bass clarinet’s overtone series, had one of the best dramatic moments of the night when, towards the end of the piece (and after a good while of super-high notes and multiphonics), Davis let rip the bass clarinet’s extreme low register for the first time.  In Phyllis Chen’s Beneath a Trace of Vapor, the relationship between Eric Lamb’s live flute and the many pre-recorded flutes (which were heavily filtered and distorted) felt downright ghostly, like a haunted forest on some alien world.  And Mario Diaz de León’s Portals Before Dawn had all the vibe and verve of a metal concert (helped by a large percussion setup and bordello-red lighting).

Jeremy Howard Beck is a New York-based composer, as well as an active trombonist. Follow him on Twitter: @jeremyhowardboo