Fort Worth — The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth is staging an exhibit of photographer Laurie Simmons’ work, Big Camera/Little Camera through Jan. 27. On Saturday afternoon, chamber ensemble Sounds Modern performed a concert of contemporary works by women composers to complement the Simmons exhibit.
Laurie Simmons’ work primarily features dolls, mannequins, and ventriloquists’ dummies in sometimes mundane, often disturbing settings and poses. Her work comments on traditional gender roles and society’s expectations for women.
To that end, Sounds Modern Artistic Director Elizabeth McNutt designed a program that included a premiere of Sungji Hong’s Agonia for flute and prepared piano, as well as a dance choreographed to Hong’s music, by choreographer Ilana Morgan, with dancers Sharon Barnhill and Linda Wallace. According to the choreographer, the dancers represented the concept of resistance. As older women, too, they represented a demographic rarely seen on dance stages. Musicians Elizabeth McNutt, flute, and Anatolia Ioannides, piano, made much of Hong’s requests for extended techniques. This was listenable, accessible contemporary music.
Sounds Modern is known for its whimsical approach to music and musicianship, and this concert was no exception. Both Elizabeth Brown’s Brown, Party of Two for flute (McNutt) and viola (Mike Capone) and The Pie Is Done, written and performed by the Texas Feminist Improvising Group, used unconventional “instruments” such as kitchen bowls, a coffee grinder, hair dryers, and assorted other implements of traditional femininity. Both the written piece and the improvisatory one raise questions about gender roles and expectations. (Can a person play the cello and vacuum at the same time? Yes, apparently, cellist Kourtney Newman can. But can she do them simultaneously and well? Not really, unless all you want to hear are open strings—perhaps reinforcing that we can do it all, sure, but maybe not all at once.)
The most novel use of household devices award for this concert, though, goes to Elizabeth Baker’s Command Voices 1919TX-MA for piano, here performed by Éva Polgár. This piece uses several vibrators (yes, the sexy kind) placed on the strings of the piano to produce an astonishing array of overtones. While I found this piece both conceptually and musically fascinating, that was clearly not a universal experience. A helpful romance tip to the gentleman behind me, who was snoring gently throughout Baker’s piece: when a lady produces not one but three vibrators in your presence, going immediately to sleep is unlikely to make anything good happen for anyone.
The best-known composer on the program was probably Missy Mazzoli, who composed music for Mozart in the Jungle and won the 2017 Music Critics Association of North America Award for Best New Opera for Breaking the Waves. Her Lies You Can Believe In, for string trio (violin, viola, and cello), sounds minimalist, although Mazzoli says that it owes debts to eastern European folk music, punk, and electronica. Similarly, Eve Belgarian’s Did He Promise You Tomorrow? for string quartet, piccolo, and bassoon, is minimalistic and hypnotically rhythmic, and rather better played than the Mazzoli.
The most interesting work on the program, though, was Alex Temple’s “Willingly,” for flute (McNutt), piano (Polgár) and recording. The recording is created from the voices of Temple’s friends and family. Mostly, they make statements beginning “If you’d told me ten years ago that I would willingly [listen to country music, visit an abortion clinic, sign up for a dating service called Senior People Meet…SENIOR??]” with flute and piano overlaying the recording. The only issue here is that the live instruments overbalanced the tape—if we were expected always to hear the words on the tape. But overall, it was an interesting, bold, and thoughtful use of electronics.
Sounds Modern concerts, which are free, are a wonderful accompaniment to the Modern’s exhibits. Do what I did and make a day of it—see the special exhibit, have lunch in the Modern’s café, with its glorious view, and take in the matinee concert. It was a fantastic way to spend a cold, windy Saturday.