“Fits and Starts: New Music Concert Jolts and Dazzles,” by Eva Meckna

Jul 27th, 2022 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

If you weren’t in Dinkmeyer Hall last night you missed a provocative musical experience. Contemporaneus Extraneus Musicus presented, as usual, a memorable mélange of pieces that have expanded the musical universe. The program was entitled “Beyond Nowness,” and it lived up to that extravagant promise as this reviewer found himself several times wishing for the future to arrive.

The evening began with “And Now Plan B…” (2021) by Gilbert T. Ditherson (a recent graduate of Poughkeepsie School of Music where he was a student of the renowned R.Q. Schlitternhauser) which displayed his finely honed wit and his vice-like grip on new sonorities. An ensemble consisting of three kazoo players, two oboists, two flautists, and a glockenspiel pinger (each in a different hat) played the 1954 hit “Papa Loves Mambo” (Hoffman) tutti, though with each instrument in a different key. Then a disconcerting contrapuntal texture was woven by the playing of the tune backwards, each performer beginning fifteen seconds after the previous one. Other variations followed, some requiring the instrumentalists to mambo while playing or leave the stage to change hats. The clash of timbres, rhythms, and harmonies, along with the reversal and then complete turning-inside-out of the melody, created a devastating aural experience akin to a slow-motion collision between a calliope and an ice cream purveyor’s truck. The stunned audience took more than a moment to respond at the end of the 31-minute work, but eventually shouted and stood for the performers.

The next piece was electronic and therefore required an unscheduled eighteen minute intermission for set-up. After a false start or two for minor rewiring, coaxing a large screen (for a “visual excursion into the human psyche”) which in the end could only be brought half way down, and helping a tech off stage after a nasty fall over equipment, “Hysteric Vehicles VI” (2017) was compelling if disappointing. A devotee of the twang-buzz-whoomwhoom! school of e-music, self-styled “Aural Designist” R. Plymouth Moulder has juxtaposed sounds extrapolated from a 24-hour recording made at the busiest intersection of Kalamazoo, Michigan, with icons of American automotive life, e.g., traffic signs, street markings, reflective bumps, stanchions, traffic cones, etc. Although the images were projected in unusual ways (upside down, in DayGlo colors, etc.), this visual portion of the work was engaging at first but cloyed horribly rather quickly. How many ways can you look at “Ped Xing” before you fail to care? Maybe, however, that is the lesson here: one sound is worth a thousand pictures.

As for the “music” itself, although the “voice of traffic” offered a few seconds of the almost-interesting, tires squealing, brakes howling, and electronically-altered honks fail here to coalesce to form the meaningful. The listener begins to plead for a final and fatal crash.

In the program notes Moulder warns the listeners to “suspend the notion of locomotion and transcend the physicality of progress to sense fully the cosmic level of experiential mobility through ungovernable movement in the space-time continuum.” In other words, the Tondichter paints here the journey of a hapless backseat passenger on a mind-altering drug.

Fortunately the piece is only 9’10” in length, and one was blessed with another 18-minute intermission while the equipment was removed, and the recalcitrant screen rolled up after much audience-amusing cajoling.

What happened next was a total black-out of house and stage lighting. Sensory deprivation is “a cleansing, an erasing of the psychic blackboard” suggests composer Howard Michele Pingle in his note for “Nonet for the Remnants of the Future.” (2022) When dim stage lighting returned, drama was built as, at one-minute intervals, eight performers arrive on stage, each holding a different small battery-operated gizmo. Recognizable to this reviewer were such items as an ice crusher, a pencil sharpener, a handheld shoe buffer, and a citrus juicer. At random (explains the composer) the eight “turn their ‘instruments’ on and off with utter abandon and without competition, melodic or rhythmic forethought, or any sense of harmonious discourse.” The composer hopes that “what is left between the various voices of the future, that silence of self amidst the chaos of others, will resonate in the listener as he or she, as the ninth performer, participates in the past and is driven inexorably forward.” By turns amusing and vaguely musical, the work does compel the audience to sit up straighter as if watching a race and to begin rooting for a favorite small appliance.

The final work of this generous program, “Canto for the 21st Century” (2000) by New Zealand composer Cynthia K.L. Jeevers, is an ambitious piece for eight-track tape deck, barbershop chorus, contralto, baritone, seven nine-year old girls, and an indigenous throat singer of the Asian steppes. Because of the complexity of this ensemble the piece is rarely heard, and this reviewer felt lucky indeed to be present at its North American debut.

The first movement, “Destiny’s Endless Surge,” begins peacefully enough with the Asian throat singer’s (famed Tuvan native Tsanavornk Iskutsk) haunting portrayal of an approaching horse at full gallop. This auditory travelogue across the Steppes was blasted with the incongruous arrival on stage of the girls’ chorus singing “Happy Birthday To You” ceaselessly, backed up by the barbershop group humming in the sticky-sweet harmonies which define the genre. The performance of this anthem of aging is nothing short of a searing memento mori which continues over the throat singer’s resonant and oft jarring performance of Asian modal melodies. The baritone (rising star of the Dubuque City Opera, Brenton LeMouff) then steps in to join the competition and slow the “Surge” with a maudlin rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” (trad. Irish, 1711 words by R Burns) that soars far above all the other performers. LeMouff’s vibrato almost frightened this reviewer with its fragility.

The second movement, “The Eclipse of Time,” is (per the program note by Jeevers) meant “to move the listener into a shadowy timeless stretch caused by overpowering human emotional life and ego-driven blindness.” An eight-track tape loop of Marvin Gaye’s 1968 rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Whitfield, 1967) is strangely complemented by a scat duet on the “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” (Discant, 1960) by the contralto (the inestimable Cincinnati-based Deidre Fong) and LeMouff. The two are directed in the score “to bob and weave,” and “to play with the sonorities, bending and breaking the pitches unmercifully ad libitum.” The duo did an admirable job competing with Gaye and succeeded in moving into the composer’s destination: aural confusion, especially when Iskutsk returned near the movement’s end to produce a circular-breathed continuo of a fricative monotone for a remarkable six minutes! This reviewer was truly overpowered by Jeevers’ uncanny layering of tunes and textures in this movement atop the homely “Grapevine” dirge.

The final movement, “Nascent Momentum,” features LeMouff and Iskutsk in an atonal sonic duel with a long decrescendo ending with the arrival of the barbershop chorus singing the classic “Good-bye, My Coney Island Baby,” (Applegate, 1924), as well as the children, jumping ropes around the stage at random, chanting whatever jumping rhymes occur individually to them. As their performance becomes faster the children fall silent, and the baritone and throat singer exit the stage on all fours as Fong re-enters with the eight-track tape deck spewing “The Horse With No Name,” (Bunnell, 1972) with which she harmonizes again in scat. Eleven minutes later, Fong briskly exits, leaving the tape deck and its loop of the song’s maddening chorus. The girls proceed singly now to jump-trot offstage in no particular order. The audience is left with only the unnamed equine and then the resounding click at the end of the tape. Peace reigns at last, and this reviewer must admit to feeling a crushing sense of time’s passage, the inexorable forward thrust of human existence, and a profound gratitude for silence, which the composer in her notes calls “that most vital and difficult ingredient of our art.”

Incredibly, after this emotionally draining evening, Craig Falken’s utterly “sound-free” classic “Palindrome” of 1991 was offered as an encore. As we all undoubtedly know, the score calls for any and all participants available: animal, vegetable, or mineral. Thus, all the evenings’ performers (eight holding their small appliances aloft) returned, faced the back of the stage, and stood immobile, apparent prisoners of inertia. After exactly 2’12” the stage lights are dimmed, and half the ensemble turns to its right and half to its left to walk offstage. The effect is always shattering.

It was indeed an unforgettable evening for the audience of eleven who rewarded the artists with a robust standing ovation. With hopes for a larger audience, the CEM will return later this year to the Dinkmeyer for its annual all-electronic concert to feature works by Zoltan Teschi, Stefphonney Clowder, and resident artists of Underwriters Laboratories.


Eva Meckna is, as her husband always said, an English major gone horribly wrong. She worked at Black Sparrow Press back in the day and still lives and surfs in California. Her work has appeared on Points in Case, Funny-ish, Little Old Lady Comedy, the Daily Drunk, 251, and in The American Bystander.


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