Ensemble Dal Niente’s “confined. speak.” Contemplates Pandemic Paradoxes

Ensemble Dal Niente, a staunch Chicago-based purveyor of new music, is not like other groups. Since its inception in 2004, Dal Niente — “from nothing,” in Italian — has gravitated to largely atonal scores that fall within the orbit of the very challenging and even the cacophonous and bizarre. Their latest album, confined. speak. (New Focus Recordings), highlights the ensemble’s activities during the pandemic while documenting a period of uncertainty in the performing arts.

Led by conductor Michael Lewanski, Dal Niente consists of a flexible core of instrumentalists who are attuned to the multiculturalism of our time. confined. speak. features composers from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, South Africa, and the U.S., some of whom live or have lived in Europe. The six selections are culled from the group’s live-streamed concerts between October 2020 and June 2021, for which a worldwide audience tuned in, even if the halls were empty.

Igor Santos--Photo by Evan Jenkins

Igor Santos–Photo by Evan Jenkins

The title cut, a duet for violin and piano by Igor Santos, speaks to that dichotomy. Santos juxtaposes episodes of arrested communication — represented by nontraditional and mostly dissonant techniques — with flurries of throbbing release, in which the duet synchronizes into rhythmically tangible statements. Violinist MingHuan Xu attaches a mute to the bridge, which gives her bowing a mosquito-like buzz, while pianist Winston Choi is tasked with exploiting the instrument’s inherent resonance by making echoey sounds directly on the strings and tapping around and under the keyboard.

The violin crescendos into a funky groove with the piano; Xu plays loud, muted pizzicatos — note the contradiction — as Choi creates a deep thumping by loudly depressing the piano’s damper pedal while striking the lowest strings directly inside. Choi slams the fallboard and scrapes plastic cards against the tuning pegs. But this violence against the piano is warranted: Santos has a knack for creating techno-like beats with acoustic instruments — sometimes you’d swear more than two people are playing — while casting them into an architectural mold. By the end of the piece, you can make sense of the apparent discordance on the surface.

Scored for 13 players, Demente Cuerda by Hilda Paredes is a crusty harp concerto featuring Ben Melsky, who is also Dal Niente’s Executive Director. The title is a play on words in Spanish: depending on your spacing in writing, or on your emphasis in speech, “demente cuerda” can mean “of a sound mind” or “mad string.”

Hilda Paredes--Photo by Graciela Iturbide

Hilda Paredes–Photo by Graciela Iturbide

The concerto emerges from the lowest and murkiest of registers, as if from a thick mist, with bass clarinet and a corrosive buzz from wildly plucked harp strings. A glissando introduces the full ensemble; what were disparate textural fragments begin to coalesce, with piccolo and mallet percussion piercing through the former fogginess. Melsky’s bold strokes and abrupt plucking are often followed by a shimmer from the ensemble, like an afterglow. Blowing into the flute and into the mouthpiece of the horn, string glissandos and tremolos, and undulating overtones from the vibraphone all add a surreal effect.

A rumbling also opens Andile Khumalo’s Beyond Her Mask, which gives way to skittish strings and wordless ethereal vocals by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw. But the vocals immediately turn into a rasping grunt — Khumalo is interested in the spectral analysis of sound — and then into recitation. The menacing atmosphere starts to churn with a restless clarinet and assorted percussion; airy, whispery woodwinds afford a temporary hush, later offset by an otherworldly buzzing from the horn. A heartbeat pattern waxes and wanes, perhaps suggesting the struggle and resilience of the women represented in the recitation; the text, uncredited, faces violence against women in South Africa, where Khumalo is from. The harrowing piece ends with the words “everything about me worth seeing cannot be seen,” over soft, faraway piano triads.

Shorter, but equally intriguing works by Tomás Gueglio, Melissa Vargas, and George Lewis round out the album. The latter’s Merce and Baby, from 2012, is a showpiece for jazz percussion; Kyle Flens channels the spirit of the titular jazz drummer Baby Dodds.

Ensemble Dal Niente--Photo by Aleks Karjaka

Ensemble Dal Niente–Photo by Aleks Karjaka

Gueglio’s Triste y madrigal consists of a soft incantation by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett that becomes a little numbing combined with a static backdrop of whistling flutes and wisps from a distant violin. A similarly sparse soundscape of sorrowful clarinet, soft cymbal splashes, and an acoustic guitar with affected vibrato makes the bulk of Vargas’ Es casi como el inicio… y comienza, but the piece evolves when Bartlett jabbers in a rapid-fire glossolalia, then takes off into a wordless full-throated belting.

Balanced and thoroughly captivating, confined. speak. ponders last year’s downturn and stands for the countless groups that took to social media during the temporary suspension of live music to remain active and purposeful. The solitary experience of listening to the album at home replicates, in a more intimate manner, the somewhat paradoxical position Dal Niente found themselves in. This “live album,” performed for a vacant theater, has been transformed into something different, as the previous simultaneity in space and time between performers and audiences shifts to a looser, perhaps less poignant interchange.


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