Bwog loves good music. We love good music reviews, too. Last night, we sent Ross Chapman to Miller Theater, to cover a concert with French composer Francesca Verunelli. Listen…or read on…
“In a strange uneven evenness, strange things arise.” Thus Miller Theater’s program explains the modern music of the modern European composer Francesca Verunelli. Last night’s concert in Miller demonstrated the best that a graduate school theater has to offer to Columbia’s campus–new, thought-provoking, and (perhaps most importantly) listenable music. On a program of pieces all composed within the last two years, I was pleased to hear music that, while pushing the boundaries of reality and illusion, presented an understandable, enticing form to the audience.
Verunelli (b. 1979) wrote the music on this program with inspiration from early cinema. “Just as these filmmakers saw an opportunity to surprise and subvert,” writes Executive Director Melissa Smey, “Verunelli explores the possibilities of applying electronics to classical music.” The International Contemporary Ensemble, frequent performers in Morningside Heights, provided the classical side of the evening. The chamber ensemble, presenting never more than ten performers, demonstrated at times cool mastery and at times hectic ______ of the modern music. The combination of abnormal instrumental technique (for instance, playing a guitar with the back of a cello bow) with electronic interjections left the audience unsure of what sound was “real” and what was not. In a modern musical landscape that occasionally causes a listener to space out, Verunelli’s constant innovation keeps listeners on a vigil, attentive to each breath and shocked by each exclamation.
The first piece, Cinemaolio (2014), was debuting in the United States, which Miller Theater hopes will increase Verunelli’s American influence. The sextet playing the piece was reminiscent of the instrumentation Schoenberg called for in the atonal cornerstone Pierrot lunaire, but the instrumental techniques used created a much different landscape. From the very start, repeated pizzicato notes in the strings and unpitched air blown delicately through the clarinet and flute created a fragile but constantly ticking engine for the piece. Cinemaolio alludes to the fairground booths of the late 1800’s, at the end of their organ-driven lives before film projectors took their places.
Whenever I looked away for a moment, I was struck by an unrecognizable or unexpected sound. Were coins just dropped on stage? Was that a voice I heard, or just an illusion caused by the harmonic technique of the flute? But despite how quickly a work of new music with such techniques could evolve into unformed noise, the form of the piece remained intact enough to draw the listener in. A delicate opening portion’s ending was announced clearly by a high blast in the woodwinds, ushering in a troubled developmental section. A running piano motif was presented, fragmented in a Mozartian manner, and then systematically and modernly shredded down to its bare elements and made alien by the clever use of a specially prepared piano.
The two middle pieces of the program were explicitly inspired by the short films of director and stage magician Georges Méliès. More specifically, the septet Déshabillage impossible (2015, a U.S. premier) draws its repetition and comedy from a 1900 film of the same name, in which a man trying to undress is rendered by the film’s editor constantly redressed. The Famous Box Trick (2015), a flute solo written for tonight’s performer, Claire Chase, takes themes of illusion and reality from an 1898 film showing a child duplicated and recombined using magic boxes.
The new techniques of film editing interact with the known but indecipherable illusion of stage magic to leave the audience “suspended between belief in the trick and conscious awareness of it,” writes Verunelli. The Famous Box Trick makes the most use of electronics on the program, piping in sounds and distorting the humming and playing of the flautist. As the piece progressed, the at first mysterious combination of technique and distortion was completely foreign. However, by the piece’s recapitulation, those same methods had been elaborated and demonstrated such that their reoccurrence was understandable, and perhaps a bit less magical. The work as a whole, between its electronic beeps and acoustically altered shimmers, gave me the feeling of inhabiting an underwater hospital, or at least some place similarly unfamiliar. This recapturing of film magic by Verunelli, this confusion and eventual understanding of the listener, perfectly captured the feelings of new cinema.
While Verunelli’s program was exciting, the Miller-specific parts of the concert were underwhelming. The on-stage discussion between Verunelli and conductor David Fulmer asked the usual banal questions that composers so often field. “How do you compose? What music do you listen to?” While Verunelli fielded the questions well, the event added little to the concert that wasn’t already present in the program notes.
The final piece on the program, Five Songs (Kafka’s Sirens) (2015-16) was a world premier commissioned by Miller Theater. The work made heavy use of string preparation with the harp and piano and employed the speakers to produce white noise and microphone interference. The piece’s unique sounds, such as the visibly low rumbling of an extended double bass and a birdlike picked harp, created another lively soundscape, but its broken up five-movement form made it feel a bit less cohesive than the rest of the program.
The final section, though, did provide a satisfactory conclusion to the program, containing a movement-long chromatic ascent, occasionally elided, which provided a backdrop for the return of recognizable themes from the first four movements. The piece ended with an incessant series of high, synthetic stabs, whose repeated echoes after the stage cut to black stayed in my mind past the end of concert. The electronically patterned rhythm seemed repeated in the long applause following the concert, and the pitches of the synth followed me out of the concert hall. Verunelli’s music, from start to end, drew on themes and rhythms that connected the synthetic music to outside reality.
Composer portrait via Miller’s Composer Portraits