Review: Fulcrum Point

From new music to a rap about the N-word, Fulcrum Point's concert tied together various world cultures through their myths and legends.  In looking around at the audience Tuesday night, I recognized only a few familiar faces from the new music "scene" in Chicago, and pondering this, I realized that Fulcrum Point attracts a different crowd because it is more than just a new music ensemble and more than just a catchy name: their concerts are about music being at the fulcrum of some sort of cultural lever with which to move big concepts around.  Using the lever, playing the part of Archimedes, is artistic director and conductor Stephen Burns, whose introductions to each piece show that he is equally gifted speaking about music as he is making it.

For me, the success of the concert was a result of the way in which each piece fit together and related to the theme.  Though each individual piece had its merits, none stood out as being particularly inspired.  The whole, then, was greater than the sum of the parts.  
The concert began with "Wintu Dream Song" by David Dzubay, a sort of incantation for flugelhorn, played by Burns, accompanied by a string quartet.  A good way to start a concert, the piece started sparsely, built to a subdued frenzy, and ended with a saccharine resolution on a major add 2 chord.  To my ears, the quintet never achieved a satisfactory blend, the flugelhorn always seeming to sound as if coming from a different plane, somehow both above and in front of the strings, leaving all sorts of questions unanswered.
Dzubay's next piece, "Kukulkan II", was inspired by his visit to the Mayan ruins of Chichén Itzá.  I was worried that this would sound like exoticism revisited, but the ruins were used more for their image than a particular sound world.  That is, the music didn't sound exotic but instead painted a picture using Dzubay's own amalgamation of styles through crafty instrumentation.  My favorite new music trick, though getting to be cliché, is orchestrating a single note: having the violin pizz the attack and the clarinet play the sustain.  Dzubay, the Chair of the composition department at Indiana University, knows this trick well.  He also had as tendency to double the piano with one or two of the other instruments, a technique that helped fill up the space without muddying the sound.  
Rounding out the first half was Evan Ziporyn's "Sulvasutra" for string quartet, pipa, and tabla--a conglomeration of instruments from 3 fairly diverse musical traditions.  The first movement crept in on false harmonics that wafted through the air like aleatoric insects, interrupted by the tabla coming in and laying down a groove.  Unfortunately, tabla players don't play with their eyes, and classical musicians don't play with their ears, so the group had trouble finding the "pocket".  Not that Ziporyn made it easy: he based the rhythms on ancient Vedic architectural principles, meaning 3s, 4s, and 5s becoming 7s and 9s.
The second half was less a display of compositional craft but was far more interesting.  Hilda Paredes' Óox p'eel ikil t'aan was an electroacoustic work, mixing prerecorded sounds, live instruments, and live computer manipulations thereof.  The highly abstract piece was accompanied by  dance by Luna Negra Dance Theater that helped tether the music to reality.  Visually, moments of the dance were stunning, which could have overpowered the music, but the music was coming from all around, spatialized through speakers on all sides.
The concert ended with Randall Woolf's "Urban Legends" which set spoken word performances to minimalist music.  I was skeptical at first but relieved that the result was neither an awkward blend nor a cultural appropriation.  The prerecorded spoken performances were by four rappers from New York, commissioned for the piece by Woolf.     Ultimately, the raps were interesting but Woolf's music neither added nor detracted--merely creating and stagnating a mood in a minimalist way instead of dictating any sort of emotional or dramatic curve to the words.  In some pieces the words clarify the music, but here, it's the opposite: the music needs to articulate the affect of the words.
Woolf's piece opened up a whole discussion about race in the post-concert wine-enhanced discussion.  One of the spoken pieces took issue with the prevalence of the n-word among young people, which holds a peculiar place in contemporary America: in some circles it's not even appropriate to say it out loud, thereby imbuing it with even more power, while in others it is so ubiquitous that it is almost banal, powerless.  It was a frank, open discussion, but for me, however, it didn't quite top that one South Park episode in which they say it like 100 times.
After the concert, I understood why the crowd is not a typical new music crowd.  Fulcrum Point's concerts are an examination of culture through music, tying in other arts like dance through broad themes like myths and movies.  May's concert's them is computers, which seem to be all over the news these days.

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  • Evan, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this concert. I wish I could've stuck around to talk about it in person and to have listened in on the official post-concert discussion.

    Overall, I was extremely lukewarm on the concert. First things first: I found the balance among musicians to be frustrating throughout, which I suspect was mostly due to the large, nearly empty hall. The strings in particular got washed out. This was less of a problem in the Dzubay works (a problem you noted re: "Wintu") than in the Ziporyn, where all I could here was the pipa.

    I'm still sorting out my thoughts about Woolf's hip-hop piece. There's something very contradictory about a chamber music group - classical music representing the mainstream, the music of the rich/powerful - playing rap music, which is traditionally protest music of marginalized populations, to say nothing of the fact that the rappers weren't even present. Since the rappers each had their own message, though, I don't think it was Woolf's mission to draw attention to this juxtaposition (although maybe this was addressed in the post-concert conversation). What we were left with was a piece that I didn't feel was interesting: I didn't like the beats, I didn't like the instrumental parts, and I didn't like most of the rappers (I made a sarcastic comment in my Chicagoist preview alluding to the beaten-into-the-ground nature of the N-word discussion, an issue you raised in your review). Of course, all that being said, I couldn't really hear the full piece because of the acoustics, so I probably owe it at least one more shot.

    Incorporating different genres is a tricky task. I think Woolf's piece, and Ziporyn's, actually, came up short in this regard. Combining styles in an effective, sincere, and entertaining way requires more than just using different instruments (would Woolf's piece have ever been played if it wasn't written by an established composer?). To me, any sort of formulaic treatment smacks of gimmickry. My current standard counterexample is jazz saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa (check out "Ganesha" on his MySpace page His music is jazz, his music is Indian. I did a better job describing his success in a preview from last summer:

    I would be remiss, as well as a big ol' crabbypants, if I didn't mention two things: First, I enjoyed the Hilda Paredes piece. I like the music (although, again, I wish I could've heard more definition, especially in the beginning), and I enjoyed the dancers and the lighting (that appears to be a Harris Theater strength). That piece was a case where separate parts came together to make a better whole.

    Second, even if I didn't like much of the music, I love love love that Fulcrum Point puts together these shows and new music gets played. It's nice to be able to experience art music in the present rather than retrospectively.

    Are you going to eighth blackbird tonight? Unfortunately I'll be attending the less thought-provoking (but also entertaining) Yo-Yo Ma recital. Hopefully you're heading back to the Harris and will write about it so I can read about what I missed.

  • I actually agree with much of what you said. The sound was a bit off, but I think that's just the nature of the Harris; 8bb usually uses "sound reinforcement" to get the sound of a smaller hall. That might be a good idea to generalize for chamber ensembles who play in the space.
    I actually was pleasantly surprised by the spoken word, but that's perhaps because I had low expectations based on past experiences--especially the first one. And I liked the spirit of the final one, discussing the n-word.
    I think composers can incorporate any other genres or world music if they have absorbed it enough to make it their own. I guess I felt disappointed by the Woolf piece because it seemed like he was trying to write hip-hop--but "elevating" it so as to fit in the concert hall. But he can't do hip-hop like contemporary producers can, so it failed in comparison. I would have liked to see more of a composed piece: the drum loops and instrumental tracks could have evolved over time instead of just wallpapering.
    [I think though, that if there's a "marginalized stereotype" the modern-day composer has a better claim than the urban street poet.]
    Just as Woolf has deeply absorbed the sound world of hip hop, Ziporyn seems to have done this with gamelan music, but while his cross-pollinated fusion seems to follow the dramatic arcs of Indian classical music, it fails due to a lack of interesting musical ideas. As for the performance, I felt like the problem was more that the string players were underplaying, but maybe they were just following the score. Still, they looked and sounded hesitant--especially in that piece.
    I liked the Paredes piece, and in talking to friends afterwards, it seemed to be the clear favorite. But I think that was mostly because of the dance, which saved the piece from being just more spatialized static with a phaser.
    I will, indeed, be at 8bb tonight; have fun at Yo-Yo Ma.

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