Friday, February 28th marked yet another date on the concert calendar of the New Music Circle– forefront figure in the production of experimental music events in St Louis. The proposition for this evening came in the shape of two avant garde solo performers: Spanish New York based experimental electronic composer Merche Blasco, and Kentucky native percussionist Sarah Hennies, currently based in Ithaca, NY. They each brought a single composition of their own to perform: Blasco’s “Fauna”, a quadraphonic sound piece for a variety of electronic instruments built by the artist, and Hennies’ “Fleas” for vibraphone and a local ensemble of six bell players in which I had the pleasure to participate. The “surround sound” quality of both of the pieces promised to fit perfectly within the resonant concrete architecture of the Contemporary Art Museum, and the reputation and calibre of both artists precedes them grandly, which provided plenty of reasons to be excited about the evening
Merche Blasco’s Quadraphonic “Fauna”
The concert started after a short introduction from New Music Circle, and the bright lights of the museum quickly turned off to highlight the ominous red and blue lamps surrounding Blasco’s performance table– a foreshadowing of light’s protagonist role in the piece. In participating in the sound check early in the day I couldn’t help but scratch my head at the array of devices scattered around her station. A prominent wooden box with peeping hole-like windows topped by discs adorned with beautifully abstract ceramics confused me when I saw it juxtaposed with dental equipment scattered around the floor underneath. My curiosity turned into fascination when the sounds started in a slow, yet overwhelming creep.
“Fauna” seems to be split into three apparent sections; loose movements seamlessly flowing into each other while maintaining individual idiosyncrasy. The ceramics resting atop discs attached to the aforementioned box became the initial instrument performed. Blasco swayed calmly with slight exaggeration of movements as every spin of the devices revealed uncomfortable resonating frequencies that droned with palpable presence thanks to the quadraphonic setup. Using small lights and photosensitive sound devices Blasco gradually transformed her overwhelming sonic wave, effectively disarming my ears into submission with new and stimulating sensations. I had my earplugs handy, but the quality of the drone was such that I couldn’t tell whether it was actually loud and I should put them on, or if some possessor had inserted itself within to tinker and rearrange my perception of sound.
The second section saw Blasco leave the table and put her dental arsenal to use. The droning quality shifted into an appropriately fitting sound blade. The frequencies turned harsh and jarring, effectively cutting through the sound swamp we had been drenched in before. It was an interesting sort of release and although more reminiscent of traditional power electronics, it complemented the first movement nicely. The red and blue lights continued to shine on Blasco as she jolted on the floor in a logical energy jump out of the bog and into the sharp wind.
Her return to the table was marked by her removal of the ceramic pieces from the discs, effectively transforming her aesthetics into what I imagine an alien disc-jockey might look like. What seemed to be a small malfunction with the sound delayed the start of the new section, but after she calmly resolved the issue her figure started to float like a dominant pendulum controlling the discs and their spin. Conventional rhythm had logically not made its way into the abstract performance until the layers of granular synthesis triggered by the three spinning devices started communicating in loose polyrhythms to further elevate the energy climb implied by the piece with what felt like an almost clear beat. The dance and industrial qualities of this section resulted in a definite climax that was as futuristic and far off as it was human and close to home. The dense texture of implied rhythm slowly decayed into what seemed like small vocal samples in communication. An ill-pronounced back and forth like a cybernetic hocket closed the piece and seemed to allude lazy conversations at the end of a confusing and exhilarating party.
Sarah Hennies’ “Fleas” and the performing audience member
I mentioned before that I arrived at the venue earlier because I had been invited to participate in Hennies’ performance as part of an accompanying six person bell ensemble. We were instructed to scatter around the room in a semicircle behind the audience and to alter our strikes and rings to fit the piece’s three sections, effectively creating an acoustic parallel to Blasco’s surrounding electronic four speaker setup.
Hennies began the performance with a short piece for woodblock– a simple yet efficient call to attention through a constant and resonating pulse that both cleansed the palette and perked the ears of the audience. As soon as the block stopped, small bell hits of different pitches populated the room in an irregular bounce to create what the artist had previously described to us as a “popcorn effect”. As soon as I started hitting my bell, my mind couldn’t avoid symbolic instinct and entered a meditative state where my perception began to consider the effects of being an audience member while performing. Our job was simple, which allowed me to enjoy the first section as if I wasn’t playing while my musical senses became tinted by my role in the room. Hennies played slow harmonic rolls with calm and decisive mallet technique while each of the six pitches throughout the room rang and lingered, and I found it inevitable to perceive every frequency played by the others as relative to mine. I imagine the other five bell players and the soloist herself could have experienced a similar effect, giving way to the possibility of seven different pieces being simultaneously performed. When considering the size of the audience, the amount of versions of the first section of the piece could be infinite, considering the relative proximity of every person to each of the notes being played.
My understanding of “Fleas” became biased to this reflection from this very moment on. This first part was disorienting and thought provoking– the subtle chords emanating from the vibraphone paired with the minute rings scattering resulted in an ambiguous harmonic wall that defied the standards of conventional music perception.
The second section started as soon as the bells intensified into busy ringing and Hennies’ rolls turned to higher frequencies in response. Suddenly the easily perceivable individual versions of the piece started to get clouded. The vibraphone shifted to subtly assuming the role of protagonist through sonic content that was slightly more melodic, and the bells’ pitches became less apparent due to the busy rise in energy. My meditation became more chaotic, but my understanding of the harmonic content gained focus. Hennies was gradually taking control of the helm of the ship in a decisively drawn back manner.
The cacophony intensified with the third section when all bell players picked up a second, higher pitched bell which evolved the texture into a tormenting wave of sound. Now the fleas fought desperately for control while Hennies remained patient in a gradual crescendo of dizzying flurries of pitch. After some minutes of chaos, Hennies calmly switched mallets and prepared for the climax: A slew of decisive tonic chord strikes marched rhythmically and scaled up in volume as the fleas struggled to keep up. Small chordal departures from the vibraphone complemented the central chord, but they always returned to this commanding harmonic home that magnetically assumed control and lined up the dense bell texture as cacophonous accompaniment. The contrasting effect worked wonderfully as a conclusion to the progression of events, and the finalizing drop of the bells from each of the six players read to me as a fatal surrender to the vibraphone’s strength over the room and our collective perception. My role as a bell player allowed me to experience the piece in a fashion unprecedented in my music appreciation– the different perceptive possibilities implied by the first section outlined a narrative in my consciousness throughout the performance that was equal parts epic, grand, subtle and patient.
After the job was done, Hennies faded the tonic chord out with masterful mallet skill into complete silence, and eventually inevitable applause.
Watch Merche Blasco perform a short version of “Fauna” below:
Listen to the official live recording of “Fleas” below: