MuSE Sounds of Arts Festival a Multimedia Extravaganza

The new music scene in New York offers plenty of premieres, ensembles, and concerts, yet there are still many voids left to fill. One deficit is performances outside of hip neighborhoods and well-established venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Another is organic collaborations between musicians and choreographers, dancers, playwrights, actors, and filmmakers (you know, real multimedia, not just the obligatory laptop piece). Another is fostering young talent that isn’t yet established in the scene. And yet another is how infrequently you can walk away from a concert and say “that piece was really beautiful.” The Multicultural Sonic Evolution (MuSE) Sounds of Arts Festival, held November 28 through December 2, 2012, at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City, Queens, succeeded in filling all these voids with five vastly different programs.

MuSE Sounds of Arts Festival: “Welcome to New Yawk” finale with Rony Stav, Christopher Tefft, Josephine Patane, Mallory Keith, Eva Marie Mastrangelo, and Jonathan A. Perez (photo courtesy of MuSE)

Perhaps the greatest strength of this festival was its use of multimedia performances. Its Welcome to New Yawk! depicted each of the city’s five boroughs in musical theatre and sold out both nights.

Several dance performances were part of the festival, and while I am no expert in modern dance by any stretch of the imagination, I was impressed with how well the performances I saw connected with me. The horror movie enthusiast in me was particularly moved by botlek redux, with choreography by Shannon Gillen and music by Toshuba. Violently disturbing is the best way I can describe it, with the stiff arm movements locking into different positions setting the tone for a world outside of the performer’s control. Dancer Troy Ogilvie displayed a palpable fear in her performance and interacted hauntingly with the audience and her imagined surroundings with her intense facial expressions and hand gestures. The music composed by Toshuba created a soundscape that was sparse and creepy, contributing to the violent effect.

A Dancing Koi – Love, was the polar opposite. Kana Takahashi’s florid and joyful dancing lived up to the piece’s goal of depicting the koi (a colorful breed of carp fish commonly seen in Japanese water gardens). Yui Kitamura, who conceptualized and composed the music, drew beautiful colors and flowing movements from the strings, flute, and mallets of Cadillac Moon Ensemble. I was also fortunate to catch a performance of Boring the Tall Blond to Death, choreographed by Clare Cook. The fidgety nervousness to the body movements and the (purposely) awkward interactions between dancers Cook and Alexander M. Schwartz seemed to me like commentary on the hyperactivity and social fragmentation of contemporary life. Donny Codden’s electronic music for the performance could perhaps be described as an ambient version of the Night Rider theme-song style, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Cadillac Moon Ensemble, who are becoming one of my favorite new music groups in NYC, brought their unique geometry of flute, violin, cello, and percussion into the Secret Theatre’s excellent-for-chamber-music acoustics. Osnat Netzer’s Pang Spindle  evoked rap in an indirect way. Particularly captivating was the way Meaghan Burke scratched away at her cello strings. The numerous rhythmic cells with in-your-face punctuations at times came together in a layering effect and at other times in ensemble conversation. The falling effect in the strings and flute with pitch bends and microtonal inflection was well conceived and executed. I couldn’t help but think how fitting it was to be hearing these new sounds influenced by record-scratching and MCing performed by this unique instrumental combination only a few blocks away from where MC Shan and DJ Marley Marley claim rap was born.1

Cadillac Moon Ensemble (courtesy:

Cadillac Moon’s performance of Conrad Winslow’s Abiding Shapes likewise drew out ever more possibilities from the ensemble’s geometry. The rhythmic conversation between percussion and the rest of the ensemble felt vibrant and spontaneous. I was captivated by a passage of excellent instrumental blend between flute and cello that was testament to the molding of timbres that few performers have the ears and sense of nuance for. While premieres abound from new music ensembles, I sometimes detect a lack of investment or emotional connection to the music on the part of the performers. Not so with Cadillac Moon: it is clear that they have devoted detailed attention to each musical gesture and truly put their heart and energy into each new piece (as is evidenced on their debut album which I reviewed last month).

The MuSE Young Composers Competition gave five teenagers the opportunity to have their pieces performed by the MuSE String Quartet. I was impressed with how each young composer – Allison Yuen, Scott Feiner, Jae Lee, Alexis Lerner, and Quentin Tschofen – had already begun to develop their own musical voice. Every piece had a unique character and explored different possibilities, making for an impressive program. I commend MuSE and its string quartet for taking the time and energy to put together this contest and valuing originality in their choice of winners.

Other highlights from the festival performed by the MuSE String Quartet on opening night (which I previously reviewed) best exemplified the “that sounded beautiful” element. Yui Kitamura’s Camellia – Longing For You was rich in string color, gorgeous harmonies, and a simple phrase spun out to a flowing melody. Cristina Spinei’s Bootleg Sugar Lips was minimalism at its finest, pulling me into its subtle changes, keeping my interest with its well-designed form, and leaving me at the edge of my seat.

All in all the Sounds of Arts Festival was an ambitious endeavor and impressive accomplishment from a young organization with limited resources. It’s great to see people taking new music out of its well-worn routines and bringing it to new venues, new neighborhoods, and engendering new collaborations.

1This dubious claim was of course contested by KRS-One.


David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC and a doctoral candidate in musicology at CUNY Graduate Center.