Warhol Sound Series welcomes Ensemble Linea
What is the point of music? Is it simply meant to be easy on the ears, a refuge from the sonic wasteland we have built for ourselves? Is it supposed to be a purely intellectual pursuit, with composers exploring and experimenting with new sound palettes? Or is there something else, a human element? On the night of Saturday, April 2, the Warhol Sound Series at the Andy Warhol Museum featured a performance by Ensemble Linea, a contemporary music ensemble of international renown. The entire time they were playing, I couldn’t help but ask myself the same question, what is the point of music?
Founded in 1998 in Strasbourg, France, by the conductor and pianist Jean-Philippe Wurtz, Ensemble Linea has performed worldwide in important music festivals and has collaborated with famous composers, such as Ivo Malec and Brian Ferneyhough. The ensemble consists of a violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, trombone, and piano, though not all pieces call for the entire ensemble.
On their program for Saturday night, Ensemble Linea had a lineup of some of the most prominent contemporary composers, almost all graduates of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM), Paris. A general theme seemed to be the extensive use of extended techniques (any method of producing sound from an instrument that isn’t standard) to test the limits of acoustic sound production on traditional instruments. This could mean anything from bowing on the wrong side of the bridge on a violin, to whispering into a flute along with all the possibilities in between: hitting, rubbing, and scraping. The aim is to turn an instrument into an abstract generator of sound, rather than a construction based on certain social norms, such as the western scales or tuning system.
The first piece on the program, a piece by Raphael Cendo titled "Rokh I," was a three-movement exploration of the cyclical process of life, death, and resurrection. Rokh, related to the Greek Phoenix, is the giant avian guardian of the tree of knowledge in the [ITAL]Thousand and One Nights[ITAL]. The movements echo the life cycle of the piece’s namesake through alternating moments of stasis and intensity, with the climax reaching a fever pitch. The piece reflected Cendo’s technique of ‘sound saturation,' in which he explores the limits of instrumental capabilities, especially speed. What resulted was a cornucopia of timbre almost entirely consisting of extended technique.
A particularly useful extended technique is the prepared piano. A prepared piano is just an acoustic piano that has been ‘prepared’ by inserting various objects — bolts, screws, springs, metal rods, and anything else that makes noise — in, on, or between the strings. What results is a completely customizable instrument. This was used to particular effect in most of the pieces on the program, in particular "Rokh I," in which the climax is augmented by the thunderous bass register of the prepared piano.
Unfortunately, "Rokh I" suffered from the some of the common deficiencies observed in most contemporary music. Its excessive focus on sonic experimentation would leave any person not familiar with this style dissatisfied and possibly alienated. However, behind its outer shell lies a musical core that expresses the duality of tension and release, expectation, and fulfillment, something that most people can relate to.
Most of the other pieces on the program were somewhat less effective. "Constructa," by Italian composer Valerio Sannicandro, and "Iconica" by Marco Momi both used similar amounts of extended technique, though neither achieved the same nerve wracking intensity as "Rokh I." Except for the stunning piano postlude in "Iconica," neither were particularly memorable. I wish I could say the same about "Indeed," a work for solo trombone by Pascal Dusapin. What started out as a pleasant enough solo for an underrated instrument quickly devolved into a microtonal mess with an increasingly out of breath trombonist puffing away to the ever increasing vexation of our bombarded eardrums.
By far the best pieces on the program were "Fiocchi di Silenzio" by Aurelien Dumont and "Etudes en Alternance 1, 2, 3" by Frederic Durieux. While both were clearly grounded in the idioms of contemporary classical music, they avoided the excesses the genre is normally associated with by retaining certain familiar stylistic features such as repeated rhythms and motifs, which made them more accessible. The etudes in particular were breathtaking, using the perfect combination of traditional timbres with sonic experimentation to create a truly moving experience.
This brings us back to our question. What is the point of music? Is it just an exploration of sound, a cold, impartial look at the possibilities of the pressure differentials that our brain is able to interpret? If it is, then why did so many of the pieces leave me feeling dissatisfied, as if there was something left to be said? Why were the etudes, ostensibly the least experimental or innovative pieces on the program, the most moving? Maybe there is something more to music, something deeply tied to our social and cultural unconscious: a web of references, implications, memories that surrounds every sound we produce, and rather than attempting to divorce music from this web, sterilizing it of all social context, why not revel in its uncanny ability to speak to people at a more fundamental level than the purely intellectual? Why not restore a point to music?