Soundlines: Engaging Performances from ICE, Lewis, & Schick

Over the past decade, numerous projects have drawn composer George Lewis, percussionist Steven Schick, and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) into collaboration: the premiere of Lewis’ first opera, Afterword (2015), a portrait album, George Lewis: The Will to Adorn (2017), and a summer program, Ensemble Evolution, at BANFF Centre for the Arts and Creativity.  On October 18-10, 2019 at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, the trio assembled to give the New York premiere of Lewis’ recent works that invite critical reflections on movement, place, and collective organization.

Opening the concert, Soundlines: A Dreaming Track (2019) deeply immersed the audience in Schick’s physical experiences and meditative reflections of his 700-mile walk from the US-Mexico border to San Francisco to propose to his wife, Brenda. Alluding to a “radio-style monodrama,” Lewis utilizes Schick as percussionist-orator in a technologically mediated operetta, reciting and musically elaborating upon Schick’s own writings from this journey. The often circuitous narrative is divided into short scenes that are elegantly elided by overlapping interactions between musical, sonic, and visual elements.

George Lewis

George Lewis–Photo by Emily Peragine

The expository scenes begin with recordings of breathy vocalizations, echoes of a choir, and harmonium-like synth sounds played through a multi-channel speaker system that surrounded the audience. This gives way to a series of harmonically rich, dramatic crescendos from an amplified mixed chamber ensemble that become sonic landmarks throughout Soundlines, marking the passage of time and distance. Field recordings and music from amplified ensemble swirl throughout the array of speakers, creating a physically immersive, often surreal soundscapes that echo the landscapes and mental spaces the spoken text suggests. Jim Findlay’s staging effectively created a complementary, visually rich choreography within the abstract sonic spaces through both dynamic, polychromatic lighting and the placement of the amplified chamber ensemble on a ten-foot platform, under which half of Schick’s extensive percussion set up was arranged.

After this overture, Schick emerged from under the platform and began to play an impressive array of instruments including tambourine, guiro, calabash gourd shakers, frame drums, and mallet percussion. Moving to and from each instrument, Schick mimicked the improvisatory yet directed nature of his actual walk. His measured, patient, and dynamic oration functioned as a counterpoint to his own playing, which magically resounded and cascaded through the surround sound speakers.

Steven Schick performs George Lewis' Soundlines: A Dreaming Track--Photo by Ian Douglas

Steven Schick performs George Lewis’ Soundlines: A Dreaming Track–Photo by Ian Douglas

Lewis’ libretto highlights Schick’s inward reflections walking “the long straight line” while representing his critical attention to the land and landmarks, its occupants, and their history in equal measure. Schick acknowledges the lands and peoples of the Chumash, the Kuupangaxwichem, the Kumeyaay, the MuttTipi, the Ohlone, the Kitanemuk, and the Payómkawichum as several among many indigenous peoples who have historically inhabited the land now called California. Tension emerges as a psychiatrist unhelpfully tells Schick to ‘stop walking’ while a homeless man generously offers practical survival advice. Early in the journey, Schick’s ability to pass through a camp without producing documentation is ironically, yet poignantly echoed by the realization that “the true language of California is Spanish.” After choosing wedding rings, the piece ends with Schick beginning his trek south, musing about waiting for rains that always come.

Schick’s sincere interpretation and virtuosic memorization of the complex score grounded and engaged listeners through these scenes, creating a necessary perspective from which to reflect. Lewis’ sensitivity as an electronic musician was evident throughout, deftly balancing the levels to support and heighten the drama. The members of the amplified chamber ensemble demonstrated a similar sensitivity, achieving unique timbres in unified group textures that anchored the narrative, as well as deep expressivity in the numerous solo passages that entered into dialogue with Schick’s text and playing. All the while, Vimbayi Kaziboni effectively and expressively lead the collective through the work.

Alumni from the Ensemble Evolution program perform George Lewis' P. Multitudinis--Photo by Ian Douglas

Alumni from the Ensemble Evolution program perform George Lewis’ P. Multitudinis–Photo by Ian Douglas

Without pause, members from ICE and alumni from the Ensemble Evolution program intentionally traversed the stage and auditorium to set up the five chamber ensembles that comprise P. Multitudinis (2018). While each ensemble is provided with strictly notated musical material, Lewis explains in an interview and the program notes that, “the performance is achieved through negotiation and consensus, and its success will be less a question of individual freedom than of the assumption of personal responsibility for the sonic environment.” Musically, this negotiation resulted in a wide variety of compelling interactions ranging from respectful dialogues and harmonious consensus between groups to consented direction by Kaziboni and collaboration with a trio that circulated throughout the space. The distribution of the ensembles required a visually heightened, almost theatrical, performance. At times, watching the performances of listening, quiet dialogue, and communication through hand signs and gestures that mediated negotiations was as captivating as the musical results.

While deeply engaging, the concert was arguably most successful in posing conceptual questions that animated Skirball’s mission to “present work that inspires yet frustrates, confirms yet confounds, entertains yet upends.” Performances of Lewis’ work often implore reflection about music and improvisation in their own right. and suggest open ended questions about their broader social, ethical, and political implications. How might we listen to and engage with people raising their voices in protest and in song along the US Mexican border? How do we interact with others in a world increasingly polarized by mobility and immobility as a result of border conflicts and state sanctioned geographic dispossession? And how do we ethically and responsibly organize ourselves in precarious political and natural environments?