Ensemble Dal Niente Closes (Un)Familiar Music with 7 World-Premieres

empty-bottle-logoChicago, May 22, 2013 — The (Un)Familiar Music Series closed its season by presenting seven world premieres. The new compositions included a piece from Louisiana and one from California, with five pieces straight from the Chicago scene. All seven composers were present for the performance at The Empty Bottle, a bar in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, prompting the soprano for Ensemble Dal Niente, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, to tell the audience, “If you hate the music or love it, go tell them.”

Ensemble Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

Ensemble Dal Niente guitarist Jesse Langen (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

The Empty Bottle is usually associated with indie music, and the set-up for this ensemble could compete with that of any indie band. To create her music, Bartlett used two microphones, two cowbells, and a triangle. At first, guitarist Jesse Langen couldn’t tell me how many effects pedals he had on the ground, but together we counted twelve. There was a Songworks Little Lanilei amp situated on a chair between the two musicians, as well as the ubiquitous silver laptop, emanating an apple-shaped glow.

A high-tech set-up doesn’t make the music any easier, however. Referring to their first piece, a trio for piccolo, guitar, and soprano by Ray Evanoff, Bartlett admitted that this was the highest she had ever sung before. Langen’s part was no less of a challenge, asking him to change quickly between tender blues riffs and high-velocity tremolo.

Ensemble Dal Niente soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

Ensemble Dal Niente soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

Chicago composer Eliza Brown had the second piece, a short two-person opera about Joanna of Castille, a Spanish monarch who was known to hire court musicians to sing songs to her deceased husband. Bartlett called this piece “wonderfully creepy,” and it was. Some of the best moments were actually in the pauses between Bartlett’s singing when she would look over her shoulder at Langen as if the ghost of Philip the Handsome had reappeared playing guitar.

Sometimes Bartlett’s vocal training appears in a way that jars, as if someone taught her to value enunciating her consonants over feeling the music’s emotion. It’s a joy to hear her take pleasure in pieces without a text, such as Ravi Kittappa’s Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst…, inspired by Nietzsche’s Aphorism 146. Bartlett seemed to relish the long stretches of spooky vowel sounds that Kittappa wrote for her, as if providing the soundtrack to a ’50s Sci-Fi parody. Unfortunately for Kittappa’s composition, there was a miscommunication with the sound team, and important elements were lost in the abyss.

Guitarist Jesse Langen's array of effects pedals (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

Guitarist Jesse Langen’s array of effects pedals (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

But nothing gets lost when Langen is allowed to simply play his guitar. Even when only playing single notes, as in Marcos Balter’s new composition, the guitarist gives energy to each individual vibration of the string. You could see him breathing hard while Bartlett sang the words to a Fernando Pessoa poem, her first time singing in Portugese. The effect was sexy and devastating.

The second half began with a piece Langen described as “eccentric and a little bit ridiculous.” For One, Everyone, composer Fredrick Gifford used a text by Randy Newman to create a world of characters and colors that exploded from the stage. When Bartlett screamed for insanity and placed her pointer fingers on her chin, the audience laughed at the absurdist joke.

Morgan Krauss’s Pallid Tongues was the noisiest piece of the evening, fully utilizing the Empty Bottle’s acoustic powers and providing a satisfying mélange of sounds and ideas. Combining dialogue from a film by Alain Resnais and a poem by Turkish poet Mehmet Yasin, Krauss created a sung monologue partially washed out by a guitar sound, possibly in imitation of industrial motion. In point of fact, the pedal Langen used to adjust the dynamics on his instrument looked like the gas pedal on a Chevy pickup, stopping only long enough to hear Bartlett speak “Sometimes we have to avoid thinking about the problems life presents.”

Remembering where we were, the audience regrouped to hear the final piece by Chris Fisher-Lochhead, a Robert Johnson-influenced tribute to 70s music. Fisher-Lochhead also cites Joni Mitchell as an influence, a rare musician who made contributions in both singing and songwriting. With the voice of Joni in my head, it felt disappointing to hear Bartlett shy away from the low notes. To be sure, a tribute to an iconic 70s singer-songwriter is hard to approach as a team of classically trained musicians. While the final piece of the concert was enjoyable, the musicians failed to raise the soul of Joni.

(Un)familiar Music Series: ritual drinking of shots - Jesse Langen, Doyle Armburst, and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

(Un)familiar Music Series: ritual drinking of shots — Jesse Langen, Doyle Armbrust, and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (photo credit: Marc Perlish Photography)

But, bear in mind, they had both just taken a shot of Buffalo Trace Rye, provided by (Un)familiar Music Series organizer Doyle Armbrust. A shot of hard liquor before the final piece has become a tradition at the (Un)Familiar Music Series. “This concert takes place in a bar,” Doyle said, smirking. “Down the hatch!” Armbrust’s hospitality was returned in kind. Once he left the stage, and before the night bottomed out, Bartlett warmly addressed the audience once last time, saying, “It’s rare to be part of a concert series where things just go right, so I think this concert series has a very long life.”


(Un)familiar Music Series: Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano) and Jesse Langen (guitar) at The Empty Bottle in Chicago, May 22, 2013. 


Ray Evanoff (1984): For the Sake of Opacity (A Catalysst for Honesty) (2013) for piccolo, guitar, and soprano

Eliza Brown (b. 1985): Oh Feet (2013) for guitar and soprano

Ravi Kittappa (b. 1976): Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst… (2013) for guitar and soprano

Marcos Balter (b. 1974): Pois que nada que dure, ou que durando (2013) for guitar and soprano

Fred Gifford (b. 1972): One, Everyone (2013) for guitar and soprano

Morgan Krauss (b. 1985): Overcast in the Purest of Hues (2013) for guitar and soprano

Chris Fisher-Lochhead (b. 1984): 4 Until L8 (2013) for guitar and soprano