On Wednesday, Staff Writer Emily Yi attended the second night of the premiere of Hahn Rowe’s Something About the Weather at the Lenfest Center for the Arts. The work is part of Columbia University School of the Arts’ year-long public engagement series, themed “To Transform”.
Earlier this week, Hahn Rowe, a NYC-based composer and performer, premiered a new work commissioned by the Columbia University School of the Arts. As described by Rowe himself, Something About the Weather is “an inquiry into what we do when we are left to make something from nothing” and “a ritual romp through a playground of all things sonorous.” While these descriptions capture the essence of “Something About the Weather”, they aren’t quite sufficient to describe what it was like to experience it.
The performance was unconventional from the start. After a soft “hello” into one of several onstage mics, Rowe began by demonstrating his virtuosity on that most exalted and storied instrument… yes, we’re both thinking it… bubble wrap.
By live-recording and looping an array of sounds with foot pedals, Rowe wove an ever-changing musical fabric. After crinkling the bubble wrap in a way that mimicked simmering soup, Rowe moved to blowing air through a small wooden instrument, bowing sparse notes on a violin, and layering all with ethereal vocalizations.
Through the course of one and a half hours, Rowe made use of a vast collection of objects to build his soundscapes. “Instruments” included aluminum “Exit” and “No Trespassing” signs (commentary on the oft-inaccessible nature of avant-garde music?), plastic sheeting draped over a microphone, tuning forks, a metal washbasin, a gold-colored foil blanket, and a hammered dulcimer. The resulting repertoire of sounds was even more diverse. To try and describe just a few: whale sounds with an electronic twist, a sci-fi spaceship launch sound effect, and a decent imitation of Wall-E. Although Rowe incorporated some conventional instruments, such as a violin, electric guitar, and frame drums, he had no qualms about using them in unconventional ways—by playing the strings of his guitar with a violin bow, for example.
Rowe expertly phased between stylistic contrasts: the night was in turns uncanny and familiar, uncomfortable and peaceful, futuristic and primordial. The conversational tone of the title, Something About The Weather, felt fitting at times when Rowe created moments of quiet, intimate auditory engagement with the audience. At other times, it felt deeply ironic against the backdrop of the music’s grand, deafening scope.
Although the auditory aspects of Something About the Weather predominated, visually, the venue was the star of the show. The Lantern, a space on the top floor of the Lenfest Center for the Arts, showcased the night sky and Harlem skyline through floor-to-ceiling windows behind the performer. The flexibility of the space enabled audience seating to be placed in an arc around Rowe’s multi-instrument and electronic set-up, which was arranged on a raised platform. This closeness between performer and audience helped create a sense that all were participating in the act of musical creation.
However, the best moments of the night were when Rowe isolated a melody from the textured mass: for example, when a variety of ambient noises phased into the ethereal chorus of high strings, or when a gritty guitar groove settled into place on a background of deep, percussive metallics. Even occasional absences of noise were compelling—clamor fading into a soft buzz encouraged audience and performer alike to savor the moment. Unexpectedly poignant, these moments of sudden clarity captured that sense of “making something from nothing”.
These transformative moments ended in a passionate violin solo that was, in itself, a transformation: a familiar instrument with its tone and context reimagined. Rather than avoid the shrill, dissonant potential of the instrument, Rowe leaned into it just enough to give the music a rough edge and emotional depth.
Perhaps we can conclude that the act of reconceptualizing our lives and the world we live in is rough at the edges, yet beautiful, meaningful, and essential. Or maybe we don’t need the music to mean anything at all; Rowe’s performance might just be a way to enjoy a bit of unconventional escapism. Regardless, the chance to enter into the world of Rowe’s sonic dreamscape was undoubtedly memorable for all present.
CU School of the Arts’ series “To Transform” continues throughout the spring 2023 semester, with concerts, film screenings, and more. Find and register for events here.
Hahn Rowe via Emily Yi