Fort Worth—On Dec. 13, the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was the place to be for some adventurous music enjoyment. Sounds Modern is a series curated by University of North Texas faculty member Elizabeth McNutt who performed on most of the works presented this afternoon. According to their website, “Sounds Modern explores the sonic dimensions of the ideas represented in the galleries, bringing the artwork to life in the concert hall.” This regular series with free admission is certainly an admirable effort toward an unapologetic link to visual mission of the museum.
The concert’s theme, “How Far to 14th? New York New Music in the 1980s, Uptown and Downtown,” was a showcase of the divergent compositional trends among the New York composers devoted to the abstract, academic writing of extreme intellectual rigor and the more pop-cultured, experimental fringe music of New York City with 14th street marking the boundary line. The pieces chosen are a reflection on the Modern’s exhibit, Urban Theater: New York Art in the 1980s, which runs through Jan. 4, 2015.
The program began with The Memory Palace (1990) by Elizabeth Brown featuring McNutt on the flute with cellist Kourtney Newton and pianist Éva Polgár. The work is influenced by the story of a 16th-century Jesuit missionary in China named Matteo Ricci who devised a mnemonic system of imagining architectural structures with rooms and furniture of particular significance, which he referred to as a memory palace. This piece is not particularly dissonant and seems to return in variation a series of “memories” imagined by the composer.
McNutt’s performance of Milton Babbitt’s aptly named work for solo flute, None But the Lonely Flute (1991), was an impressive display of flexibility, combining the virtuosic and meticulous demands of the score with an almost improvisatory flow. Babbitt’s pieces tend to produce a chaotic temporal experience. Almost impossible register shifts combined with a rhythmic and harmonic plan known perhaps only to the composer himself force the performer to seek out his or her own message in the ordered disarray. In this case, McNutt succeeded in an expressive performance of this work, granting the listener all the careful details of the piece while never becoming too calculated and rehearsed.
Conceptually, the most unusual piece on the program was performed just after the intermission. Josef Klein (percussion), Jolene Masone (bassoon), Andrew May (violin), Kourtney Newton (cello), Kyle Stec (saxophones), and Éva Polgár (piano) were joined by Stephen Lucas at a computer through which he manipulated live electronic sounds using a joystick. The improvisatory nature of the work allowed the imagination free rein. The patterns of repetition and imitation were at times wild, making a person think of some far memory trying to find its way to conscious thought. After the concert, Lucas demonstrated the brilliant feat of programing he had gone through to allow the movements of the gaming controller to manipulate sound.
This concert made a convincing argument for the performance of contemporary music. Listening to the familiar “classics” of art music, an audience can rely on their own previous experiences with a particular work or composer to guide them through the performance. This cognitive process can stifle the direct transference of ideas through the filter of expectation. However, a certain trust in the musician is needed to make through any new or recent composition. Because of the seemingly unpredictable effect of the less familiar, this can heighten the musical senses to a new way of listening. The critical thoughts which determine what is good music or bad music are quieted allowing for a more direct communication between the artist and the audience. This performance contained all of this. Indeed, the Modern’s Sounds Modern deserves a listen.