Wet Ink

Wet Ink Ensemble “Book of Returns” at St. Peter’s Church

The Wet Ink Ensemble is something of a new music perpetual motion machine, counting among its seven talented musicians some strong composers as well – one of whom, Sam Pluta, adds to the ensemble’s distinctive sound with sublime sound processing and electronic effects (as well as managing Carrier Records, where most of their recordings can be found). Their season opener at St. Peter’s Church on December 15 featured compositions by three of the ensemble members interspersed with works by Peter Ablinger and Klaus Lang.

The night opened with the premiere performance of Eric Wubbels doxa for prepared piano and prepared vibraphone. Unison chords and extended silences dominated the first half of the piece, with hard, abrupt clusters slowly fragmenting into softer lines and repetitions. The lines blurred until, for the second half, the piece became about sustain. Ringing pulsations and quick upper register lines gave way to more fast repetitions punctuated by a the pounding of a pipe propped in front of the vibes. The advertised preparation of the vibes seemed to have been electronic and indeed Pluta was stationed at a laptop in front of them.

Wubbels’s duet was an exciting opener and he remained at the piano for Klaus Lang’s 2003 zwillingsgipfel, joined by flautist Erin Lesser. A lighter, comparatively more conventional serenade of sorts, the duet was built around a slow piano pulse with occasional flute interjections. There was easily enough room for a third instrument, which made it all the nicer that it wasn’t there. The piece came and left again, filling its time nicely but given the complexity of the rest of the pieces might have fit better later in the program. As it was, it seemed a breath of fresh air before the lungs had quite emptied.

Kate Soper

Kate Soper

Kate Soper’s The Understanding of All Things was perhaps the most highly anticipated piece on the program. The Wet Ink soprano had a strong 2014 with the staging of her remarkable opera Here Be Sirens and the release of Voices from the Killing Jar, the first full album of her compositions. The largely spoken piece was in two sections without a break. The first half “Parable #2” (receiving its premiere but coupled with her 2012 “The Top,” which used texts from Franz Kafka.) The character drama concerned a woman with no sense of perspective who walked into walls, flinched at the horizon line and swatted at shooting stars. While the text was largely spoken, the music felt unstable, wavering behind the story, separated by brief melody lines from both Soper and ensemble. The second half was louder, denser, often burying (assumedly intentionally) the narration as if, like the protagonist, we were unable to see (or hear) her story – we, too, had lost perspective. The sense of disorientation grew as an electronic bed swelled behind the players. Rattles and tones at first but then the music being produced began doubling: Soper had two voices, the vibes warped in mid air. Ultimately it seemed to be a story about a woman who was distant and lost and, in the process, the story itself (or the telling) grew distant and lost. Soper’s sung recitation ended with a line from Kafka – “The understanding of any small thing, such as a spinning top, leads to the understanding of all things” – giving more doubt than reassurance about our understanding of the piece or, for that matter, the physical world.

Ablinger’s Book of Returns, like the Soper piece, employed the full ensemble with even more prominent use of electronics. A soundtrack of white noise and footsteps provided a paranoid setting for prolonged saxophone tones, then grew, sounds of rain, a car engine overtaking the acoustic instruments. The piece was structured in small vignettes and during episodes for voice alone or piano and vibraphone especially the acoustics of the chapel were warm and present.

Alex Mincek’s Of Concentric Circles for full ensemble with bass flute (and another premiere) closed the program with a pounding energy, that nicely recalled Wubbels’ opener but felt even bigger, alternating with nice cacophonies. Soper held long single tones, facing away from the audience and unamplified, lost again in the thicket. Occasional dissonant flourishes built to a beautiful tone poem. It may have started as if it were a thought continued from Wubbels or Albinger (which is just a mark of good programming) but it became something grand and of its own. Mincek’s recorded work with Wet Ink has been strong but this was stunning and the program overall a strong (if late) season opener for one of New York’s most adventurous new ensembles.