I may be the person least qualified to write this review in a five-mile radius. Me reviewing contemporary classical music by Yale graduate students is like George Bush having a fine art exhibition. But that happened. So, let’s call it a Davenport tradition.
My ears are really happy. I don’t think that’s how The New York Times critic would have phrased it, but it’s probably how he would have felt. “New Music New Haven,” held at Sprague Hall on Thursday night, featured four strange, beautiful and wildly divergent compositions — three by current School of Music students and a finale by guest composer Paul Dresher.
One string-quartet piece, by 23-year-old Jesse Limbacher MUS ’15, was billed this way in the program: “Inwardly expressive, elusive, and mystical; its inevitable paradox is its human nature.” Just as unhelpfully, Limbacher introduced it as being akin to walking around an abstract sculpture. But he sold himself short. The music was muted, as though heard through a fog, with flashes of clarity. It summoned up its own cinematic world, dark and in flux, starting with barely-audible scratching. Its moments of lush beauty were brief and powerful.
The first two pieces were only slightly more conventional: The one by Michael Laurello MUS’15 sounded like a deconstructed rock or jazz band, with indecipherable rhythm but undeniable verve. The trio by William Gardiner MUS ’15 also had bounce and a compelling arc. The piano was used for percussion at times and like a synthesizer at others. Gardiner’s past as a studio engineer informs his work, which sometimes involves actual electronic media and amplified instruments, according to the program.
The star of the evening might not have dwarfed the Yale students who performed before him, but he certainly made the most bewildering and awe-inspiring impression. Sometimes described as “post-minimalist” but witty enough to prefer the term “pre-maximalist,” Dresher is a composer, academic, performer and instrument inventor whose mind clearly works at a frenetic pace. He prefaced his segment with a whirlwind explanation of the instrument he would use (his own invention), how it works (don’t ask me), what his collaborator would be doing (hitting a black panel with mallets) and how the black panel works (don’t ask me).
The instrument was a sort of oversized electric guitar but with only four strings. Called the Quadrachord, it was 10 or 15 feet long and hooked up to a laptop. As Dresher began to pick at strings, his collaborator manipulated and intensified the sound with his four electronic mallets, each of which produced its own set of notes.
It was loud, and it was awesome. Vaguely Indian melodic progressions yielded to a wild percussive performance by the duo. The electronic manipulation was complex: There were loops and delays, and at some moments the lag between the men’s movement and the music created a sort of hallucinatory, disorienting experience. The two were wizard-like, to say the least.
Afterwards, the audience members were free to examine the equipment onstage, which, though it had a futuristic shape, was all actually quite simple.
Before the whole thing started, a fellow attendee warned me that I was in for a “weird kind of music that gets boring after 10 minutes.” Presumably he was trying to relate to someone my age, but he underestimated the appeal of the avant-garde music. Though I retired my Stradivarius in fourth grade, the concert held my interest for well over 10 minutes. There are more concerts in the “New Music New Haven” concert series in November, February, March, and April, each following the same format. Until then, you can find me building the Pentachord — watch out, Paul Dresher!