Saturday, May 16, 2009

ERGODOS Day 8: Trio Scordatura

Again in the Unitarian Church. Trio Scordatura formed itself to explore the world of unconventional tunings. It comprises Bob Gilmore on keyboards together with Elisabeth Smalt on viola and Alfrun Schmid on voice. Gilmore was giving a talk earlier in the day on microtonality in music. I skipped that on the basis that it would probably just go over my silly non-PhD-in-music head, but I kind of regretted my decision when I heard Gilmore's introductions to the various places his trio played. I am still not sure I would have understood fully what he was saying, but he has such a pleasant speaking voice that it would all have been delightful. He also looked the part.

From the first piece (Conturador, by Flor Hartigan) you could tell this was going to be a bit special. As well as singing in a most unusual manner, Schmid was slowly twirling a pair of shaker devices that looked oddly like an opium poppy. The sound was as odd as the visual effect.

My limited musical vocabulary and lack of any real understanding of what alternate tunings and microtonality amount to in practice mean that I can only say so much about the Trio Scordatura concert. What I can say is that they were for me the find of the festival, playing the kind of music you get when the avant-garde gets it right. What they played sounded like nothing else I have ever heard, but it still sounded like music, albeit of a most unusual kind. One fascinating piece (composed by Horatiu Radulescu, a man sometimes lumped in with composers of "spectral music") featured Smalt playing an oddly tuned viola over a recording of others playing two grand pianos – grand pianos that had been tipped on their side and were being played by having threads rubbed against their inner strings. I would love to go to a concert where someone could do this for real.

I Remember was another piece, by some Alvin Lucifer fellow, saw Trio Scordatura joined by Garret Sholdice and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, with the whole lot of them intoning wordlessly into jugs and then individually breaking off to say something they remembered. Sadly, no one remembered dancing in stilettos in the snow.

The other pieces were Enclosures by Peter Adriaansz (the trio playing to a programmed accompaniment of computer generated musical tones; spooky), Harmonium #1 by James Tenney (the trio playing over recordings of themselves playing, with the long sustained vocal notes and the ebb and flow of the viola being the most striking features), some Chinese poems set to music by Harry Partch (apparently very hard to sing; they certainly sounded strange enough, and interestingly this was the only vocal piece that featured lyrics) with accompaniment on prepared viola (a strange instrument of Mr Partch's devising), and …hush by Judith Ring (more prepared viola, playing over samples of prepared viola). The last piece was by Al Margolis, who also records and performs as If, Bwana. From Gilmore's description, this Margolis fellow seems to be a bit of a roffler, and this piece was here to present the fun side of progressive approaches to tuning and tonality. The trio played over a really bizarre musical backing.

My one big regret with this concert was that the trio did not have their debut album with them for sale. Apparently it was meant to be ready but certain unfortunate events prevented its appearance.

Panda Scordatura

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