Seattle Modern Orchestra Welcomes Darius Jones for Residency

Since 2010, the Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO) has been bringing contemporary repertoire to the Pacific Northwest and beyond via livestream. Their focus on music of the 20th and 21st centuries often allows for close collaboration with the composers themselves, and most recently, SMO welcomed critically acclaimed composer and alto saxophonist Darius Jones for his second residency with the group. Their April 14 concert was a reflection of this collaborative spirit, along with a refreshingly egalitarian atmosphere — free of all the primness more traditional ensembles have only recently sought to avoid. Taking place at the downtown Seattle cultural center Town Hall, guests enjoyed both standard audience seating and candlelit tables, and this fluid ambience went well beyond the venue and into the performance itself. Nearly every piece on the program featured electronics, which were operated from a table behind the audience. No longer mere onlookers, the crowd was situated directly in the midst of the line of communication between the performers.

Seattle Modern Orchestra Co-Artistic Director Julia Tai played a significant role in the music making, including conducting Darius Jones’ WAR — one of two world premieres on the program. The piece is an interrogation of how our identities intersect with our likelihood of encountering aspects of war — conflict, violence, intensity, death. Perhaps an unintended side effect of a quaint venue, the score was visible from where the audience sat. Although it’s not uncommon to come across a graphic score in contemporary music, the role of the conductor was also modified. Tai held up notecards with select graphics to the 12-piece ensemble, and although one can’t be exactly sure what the cards communicated, it seemed as though they did not mean the same thing to every musician (just as impending war won’t mean the same thing to all people). Described in the program notes as a “minimalist” composition, this may be in notation only. The near constant wall of sound, only interrupted by the occasional military-like snare drum solo, is maximalist in impact.

Julia Tai leads the Seattle Modern Orchestra--Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon

Julia Tai leads the Seattle Modern Orchestra–Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon

Immediately preceding WAR was Eva-Maria Houben’s echo fantasia V, an open instrumentation work that used the same 12-piece chamber orchestra as Jones’ work. A stark contrast from the rest of the program, echo fantasia V is quiet and precarious, drawing the listener inward, but also making one painfully aware of the sound their slightest shuffle could make, like say, a critic’s pen scribbling away. Maintaining this reticence required impressive balance and nuance from the ensemble, which never wavered.

Also on the program were a number of small chamber works for various solo instruments and electronics. Chris DeLaurenti’s grey angel blended live and pre-recorded sounds through an ethereal yet organic collaboration between electric guitar (Michael Nicolella) and electronics. Angelique Poteat filled the roles of both composer and bass clarinetist on her Cyclic Complement, a piece that combines her passion for music with her love for bicycles by incorporating the sounds of bike chains and wheels turning, bells, and motors. Initially, the two components existed opposite each other — like a clarinetist performing in a bike shop. However, through the use of slap-tonguing and flutter-tonguing techniques, Poteat removed the bass clarinet from its lyrical context and placed it in a rhythmic, percussive one. Simultaneously, the mechanical sounds of the bicycles were sped up to evolve from rhythmic to pitched. In the midst of this juxtaposition, the two components briefly eclipse each other, highlighting a previously unexplained sameness. find by Leilehua Lanzilotti also utilized the idea of sameness through an at times indistinguishable amalgamation of solo viola (Erin Wright) and electronics.

A standout on the program was the world premiere of Turkish composer Yiğit Kolat’s Inference Engines written for guest artist Darius Jones. According to Kolat, an “inference engine” is a “component of a neural network that infers new information based on what it has learned.” In this work, the inference engines are the musician’s mind improvising from the score, an artificial neural network that outputs evolving notation (a gif was shared in a pre-concert interview), and a racially biased facial recognition network. The latter’s output is routed into a secondary network that processes audio and distorts the soloist’s sound.

Seattle Modern Orchestra with Darius Jones--Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon

Seattle Modern Orchestra with Darius Jones–Photo by Shaya Bendix Lyon

Joined by electric guitar, viola, percussion, and electronics, Jones’ saxophone playing was powerful and punchy — his lyrical passages broad and lush, yet biting when one least expected it. Another unmistakable presence was percussionist Bonnie Whiting, who was foundational to some of the most thrilling moments of the piece. An undoubtedly cerebral work, Inference Engines is accompanied by meticulous program notes that uncover the nuance and elaborate meanings. The piece is relatively reliant on its accompanying written context, but even so, this level of intentionality is a compelling approach.

Seattle Modern Orchestra’s concert was a synthesis of thought provocation and approachability. The audience could enjoy stimulating depth by engaging with more intellectually laborious works, but the programming was not so esoteric that it was inaccessible. The communal nature found in museums — artistic institutions for the public good — is not always mirrored in orchestras – but that’s certainly not the case here. Presenting art to the public requires a breadth of approach, and Seattle Modern Orchestra is where they’ll find it.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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