Included in the slew of excellent UMS programs this year was last week’s concert featuring string orchestra A Far Cry and experimental vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. The concert primarily represented the music of two groundbreaking contemporary composers, Caroline Shaw and Ted Hearne, as well as 20th century composer Prokofiev and Renaissance composer Josquin. The concert alternated from the ensembles playing separately and together.
The music of Hearne and Shaw, while being quite stylistically different, both boast the mastery of drawing bold, chaotic, and somehow cohesive pictures from multiple stylistic and thematic threads. In their pieces, they both kneaded into the dissonance of two or more disconnected things happening at once. The various techniques that the composers used to handle these dissonances — intensifying them and then abruptly letting them evaporate, drawing them out over a long period time until gradually relaxing them, and more–were a source of thrilling suspense for both of the composers’ pieces.
Hearne’s pieces were “Coloring Book,” performed by a Roomful of Teeth, and “Law of Mosaics,” performed by A Far Cry. In “Coloring Book,” he juxtaposed austere polyphony with more rhythmically driven, unruly, and playful styles. “Law of Mosaics” was packed to the brim with conversational, interlocking parts, such as convoluted rhythmic pulses with sprawled out melodic lines overtop. The melodies and riffs in “Law of Mosiacs” were improvisational and bursting with personality, and A Far Cry carried this energy successfully.
Caroline Shaw’s pieces, while also possessing this similar ‘mosaic’ quality as Ted Hearne’s pieces, stood out in their patience; in both of her pieces, “Music in Common Time” and “La déploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem” (her arrangement of a piece by Renaissance composer Josquin des Prez), she gave gravity to drawn-out drones and slowly moving polyphony, eventually splattering more rhythmic and angular sections overtop. She has a way of inviting the listeners into huge, thick, open spaces/baselines and then working within those spaces in creative and shocking ways.
As an ensemble, A Far Cry radiated a rock-like energy. Not only are they remarkably virtuosic, but they are conversational players; their communication, sensitivity, and clarity of vision as a group packed their performances with electricity, whether it be in a slow, twisted movement of the Prokofiev or a high-octane and rhythmically aggressive segment of the Hearne.
Vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth represented a library of various vocal timbres styles, and tendencies, but the group was able to sound unified while still providing space for the unique colors of each vocalist to shine. Common threads among the singers such as bright vowels and rich but piercing timbres helped to make the ensemble seem like one body. It was exciting to see each performer lose themselves in their own way, especially during the solo sections; it’s not something that you usually get to observe in traditional Western vocal ensembles.
The night was lined with disorienting, chaotic beauty interspersed with more focused and calm moments. This intricate rhythm of tension made the a concert suspenseful and captivating one.