Fort Worth — Saturday afternoon’s Sounds Modern concert at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth was a tie-in with the eye-popping Takashi Murakami exhibit “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” which closes on Sept. 15. Featuring contemporary Japanese chamber music, the program included a wide variety of pieces from the whimsical to the serious.
The group is a collaborative effort among several University of North Texas faculty and other area musicians, led by Music Director Elizabeth McNutt. She and her colleagues opened Saturday’s program with Toshi Ichiyanagi’s Pratyahara Event from 1973. Pratyahara is Sanskrit for “withdrawal of the senses” and is one of the Eight Limbs of traditional yoga practice. The piece, rather than being written with usual notated rhythms, or even timed rhythms, is timed by the number of the performer’s breaths, meaning that note durations may be different for various musicians. It was not only music, but also performance art. The nine musicians (strings, percussion, electronic keyboard, accordion, and bassoon) donned masks, walked around their chairs, and played imaginary instruments, among other activities, as well as producing musical sounds. It was certainly absorbing, which is where the title becomes significant: pratyahara is the meditative experience of being so focused that one isn’t easily distracted, similar to what is sometimes called “flow.”
Ken Ueno’s That I May Time Transcend, That a Universe My Heart May Unfold was the only piece on the program with a direct connection to the Murakami exhibit, since its title is borrowed from that of a Murakami work. This work, for amplified string quartet (Mia Detwiler and Andrew May, violins, Mike Capone, viola, and Kourtney Newman, cello), accordion (Elaine DiFalco), and electronic keyboard (Stephen Lucas), uses extended techniques to create otherworldly sounds. The amplification seemed largely superfluous, however.
Koji Nakano’s Spring Breathes VI, for flute and piano, was performed by the Calliope Duo of Elizabeth McNutt, flute, and Éva Polgár, piano. Nakano’s short piece, expressive of his discovery of a little flower in an otherwise dry landscape, contrasts minimalist rhythmic patterns in the piano with more lyrical lines in the flute, elegantly played by McNutt.
The most overtly technical piece on the program, and the only one by a woman composer, was Karen Tanaka’s brief Techno Etude No. 2 for solo piano. Éva Polgár is an adept musician not only as a collaborator, as elsewhere on the program, but also here, as a soloist mastering the considerable difficulties of the piece.
Joji Yuasa’s Inter-posi-play-tion, like Ichiyanagi’s Pratyahara Event, asks musicians to make decisions about note duration and other activities during the performance. The piece, for flute doubling alto (McNutt), piano (Polgár), and two percussionists (Nick Bolchoz and Colton Lytle), is conceptually and musically interesting. It features lunging entrances and chaotic ensemble, as well as various extended techniques in piano including striking the strings with a mallet and a tuning fork, and in flute with flutter tonguing, overblowing, and some impressive note bending from McNutt. It’s 21 minutes long, though, and doesn’t have enough ideas to sustain the audience’s interest for that time.
The program concluded with another piece by Ken Ueno, Remembering Animal Sendai, which is an homage to the devastation of the 2011 Japanese tsunami. This work, beginning with solo flute (McNutt), adds an unexpected element of electronic tape, which eventually takes over with distortion and other electronic sounds, while McNutt’s playing falls silent even as she mimes continuing to play.
In many respects, the most compelling piece on the program was the final one. Dai Fujikura’s Scion Stems, for string trio of violin, viola, and cello, offers a theme and set of variations—a traditional form, to be sure, except that here, the variations are textural rather than melodic. Legato, glissando, pizzicato, producing sound only with fingers on the fingerboard, and other techniques created a novel and fascinating close to a largely engaging afternoon of music.