June 16: Day 4, soundOn, a new music festival at the Athenaeum; final concert.

Hooray San Diegans! Still, I ask: Where have you been for the first three days of soundOn, San Diego’s first new music festival. Even the membership of the Athenaeum (2300 subscribers), which was one of the presenters, stayed away in droves. The organization presents terrific chamber music, so what explains these absences? What if no one had shown up for Mozart’s “new music?”

Tonight, however, San Diegans are taking up every seat in the Athenaeum’s music room for the final concert. So, Hooray!

Last Thursday, I was at the rehearsal for tonight’s concert, so you already know about the program if you’ve read my blog, “Why can’t we all go to rehearsals?” At that time, I said that in rehearsals are you find the drama of creation and collaboration, especially when an ensemble is preparing new works.

Tonight’s concert is titled “Emerging Voices,” and with the glitches, hitches and snags ironed out, the pieces rehearsed on Thursday are little artistic hand grenades. All the composers are present and anxious that their babies sound good. So while the rehearsal blog was about the collaboration, this is about the final product.

Matt Burtner’s electroacoustical “Snowprints” is even more moving than at rehearsal. This piece is surprisingly “soundful” rather than quiet. Burtner, who is from Alaska and now lives in Virginia, has said that snow is not quiet if you’re walking in it. He’s right. When I first heard “Snowprints” last week, I was immediately transported back to cross-country skiing in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Even when we stopped on the trail, I could hear the wind whistling, tree branches heavy with snow groaning and creaking, coyotes hooting in a distance. These are a few of the sounds played live and “imprinted” digitally into the piece. More than anything, “Snowprints” is about the force of nature. The work certainly lives up to what one critic has written of Burtner’s compositions: “There is a horror and beauty in this music that is impressive.”


We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

The only world premiere at the festival is Sidney Marquez Boquiren’s “angel music,” an evocative piece for khaen, which is a bamboo free-reed mouth organ from Thailand and Laos. Christopher Adler, NOISE’s resident composer, pianist and khaen specialist, draws out its spiritual sensibility. Interludes of deep chords, which have an accordion quality, alternate with lyrical groups of short notes. Boquiren, who is here from Long Island, gives us a gem to turn over and over in our souls.

Chris Burns’s “Tangle” is so dense that I lose track in several places. Flutist Lisa Cella and cellist Franklin Cox — both from Maryland, although Cox is moving to — are weaving multiple threads of phrases, melodies and spitting staccatos. They wrap around each instrument, weave back and forth between them. The threads become more and more enmeshed until they are playing almost in unison. The flute momentarily asserts its independence. The performance is a tour de force.

At intermission, I wonder how many in the audience will abandon this unfamiliar music. But the room fills up again. They’re back for more!

Edward Top is Dutch and lives in London, where he teaches violin to school children (the Brits have an extensive music education in their schools). I showed up late at rehearsal last week and didn’t hear most of his contribution to the festival, so I’m not quite prepare us for his “Four,” one of the winners of NOISE’s “call for scores” competition. All four members of NOISE perform it, although the flute sounds the simple two-note anchor phrase, around which the other three players take their individual atonal journeys. While it is this evening’s most abstract work, it is compelling.

Orlando Jacinta Garcia is the pater familias of the festival, perhaps 20 years older than all the other composers. Like Burtner’s “Snowprints,” “el silencio después de la lluvia” (“the silence after the rain”) is about another force of nature. Yet the result is very different. “el silencio” is a work of extraordinary delicacy. Cella and guitarist Colin McAllister manage to create a work of silence through sound. McAllister taps lightly on his guitar and we hear the final drops or rain; Cella whispers into her flute for the wind that carries the storm away; while McAllister articulates a melody, Cella plays long notes on first on an alto flute then on a piccolo. A loud strum from the guitar is the storm rumbling in the distance. Finally, with more whispers from the flute and incredibly light plucking on the guitar, the piece ends, and the silence is complete.

The concert closes with the amazing Adler’s composition, “Iris.” Written for flute, guitar, marimba and cello, “Iris” expands and contracts, in small increments, like the iris of the eye widening as the light diminishes then narrowing as light increases. The piece moves steadily outward and forward with dense textures, shifting rhythms, as individual instruments emerge from the ensemble then retreat. “Iris” swells in volume to a powerful moment, when the flute sings a sad melody with support from the cello, then it’s back to short phrases, as Cox shifts his cello from the floor to his knees. The piece picks up speed and races to an abrupt end — eyes wide shut.

Tonight, NOISE has given us technical perfection and the passion that every composer craves.

At the wine party after the final concert of soundOn, members of NOISE are already planning next year’s new music festival. Yep, they’re going to do it again. Tonight’s audience didn’t just bring their bodies but they also maintained a laser-like focus on the music. That intense attention prompted cellist Lisa Cella to comment that the entire ensemble relaxed, because this was an audience they could trust.

For me, the daily blogs from the festival have been my own experiment. While I’ve done plenty of breaking hard news, this was a first for me — writing daily from an event — seven stories over the four days of the festival. During the past week, my ears and my brain have been getting a good cleaning, and I know that listening to the traditional works — Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, etc. — will be even more rewarding.

Indeed, the works at soundOn are firmly part of the continuum, although in a new language. The composers might not want to hear this, but as a listener, I see “Snowprints” and “el silencio después de la lluvia” well within the tradition of nature program music of, say, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” (where we hear the birds of spring, a dog barking, and the icy winds of Venice in winter). Beethoven’s late quartets look straight to the 21st century and the dense textures of Bill Ryan’s “Blurred” and Adler’s “Iris.”

So thanks to the Athenaeum for its courage and to San Diego New Music for its determination. (Partial funding came from Meet the Composer’s Creative Connections program and the city of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture.)

Where do the artists from NOISE get their indefatigable energy? At the party, composer Top and NOISE percussionist Morris Palter traded stories about their favorite rock bands. There’s a clue.

Cathy Robbins is a writer and the author of “All Indians Do Not Live in Teepees (or Casinos)”, to be published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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    Written by Grant Barrett