rvw: MousicNOW 2/1/11

For an hour-and-a-quarter Monday night, the venerable Chicago Symphony presented an entire concert of newly composed music under the auspices of its MusicNOW series.  Curated by CSO composers-in-residence Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, the program featured Mouse on Mars, an avant-electronica duo from Germany and opened with a Martin Matalon's score to  accompany Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou as a "cinema counterpart".  Film, lights and a smoke machine, combined with an almost cinematic-style amplification, showed the nearly packed Harris Theater that this is not your father's classical music.
Without any preamble, the evening started with Martin Matalon's score to Un Chien Andalou called Las siete vidas de un gato.  [Watch the film here.]  André de Ridder conducted, acting as intermediary between the film and ensemble--via the now-ubiquitous click track.  Though the program doesn't indicate it, it seemed like there was either a percussion track or ingenious micing and processing.  Either way, the production was slick, mimicking the quality and volume of a modern movie house.  The non-linear, non-narrative surrealism of the film--with its slicing eyeballs, dead cows in pianos, and impossible scene changes--was nearly matched in the music, whose nervously ascending scales and off-beat brass hits were tempered by the regularity of the rhythm and texture.  Each medium--sound and visual--was worthy of maybe 60-70% of my normal waking attention, so I tried to expand my mental bandwidth but still fell a little short.  If it were a competition, the music would have won, garnering slightly more attention than the film through its incessant activity and volume.  The structure of the music supported the film but did not fit with the film's intertitles, another choice that helped allow the two to coexist as equals instead of as film and music having the usual dom-sub relationship.
Though frenetic and anxious, I enjoyed the layer of mood and form that the Matalon's score brought to the film.  That being said, an ending is more than just a cessation, and when the piece took a turn around a dark corner and promptly fell off a cliff, it was more disappointing than effective.  (6.7 / 10)
After 16 minutes of surreality, Bates and Clyne come on stage, welcoming first-timers brought in by Mouse on Mars and introducing the electronic duo to everyone else.  The duo were joined by 12 CSO musicians, again conducted by André de Ridder, to perform skik field, part 1, part 2, and 11, a MusicNOW commission and world premiere.  From this cryptic title and minimal program notes, the audience was meant to understand that their performance had something more like 8 sections, none of which had anything to do with the Société Kaos Institut Kritik, which is the only non-MoM entry on Google.  [MoM have a track from 2006 called Skik, but I don't hear any connection.  Hear it here.]  
The performance was a post-apocalyptic essay in the benefits and dangers of human-machine relations.  It opened with an unnerving mid-range tone in the electronics that seemed to hypnotize me with its phased out-of-tuneness.  The horn came in ~1/2 step lower but seemed to occupy an entirely different timbral world--both somehow irritatingly minimal.  These two worlds coexisted apart in the rest of the first section; in the second, they were brought together but locked in struggle for dominance resulting in a dense mass of rhythmic melodies and melodic rhythms.  Finally, in the third section, MoM found a happy balance, creating symbiosis between human and machine, focusing on rich timbres than Jackson Pollack textures.  
The 5th and 6th sections were also sparse enough to showcase the rich possibilities in the interaction between acoustic and electronic as the MoM duo sampled, delayed, and otherwise processed the amplified musicians.  
Something like the 8th section was all electronic.  Finally.  The guys from MoM could do what they do best without worrying about balance and hyperdensity problems.
What felt like the 15th section was some disposable sound mass by the humans.
The final section suffered from the same ending aesthetic as Matalon's piece: too sudden to relieve the built-up tension.
In the end, with their precision and indefatigability, the machines always win.  The duo from MoM were in their element behind a table of gear, whereas the symphonic musicians looked somewhat bewildered trying to follow de Ridder's arm-waving, who, in turn, was often submissive to a click-track.  The machines were perfectly precise, while the musicians were only human and reliant on de Ridder as the intermediary.
In a review on the MoM website it says "the band's raison d'être is to place electronic flies in any aural ointment they choose to muck through."  This seems a propos to this concert: a concatenation of ear-catching moments and some mucking through in an unctuous sea of confusion.  But it didn't add up to a whole.  And, thanks to the scant information in the program, the audience didn't know what to expect; I gave up trying half-way through; gave up caring a little later; nearly gave up listening.  It would have been better to have no program, no expectations, and no awkward applause in between sections.
Rather than a Terminator/Matrix scenario, the real battle was a clash of cultures, each having its own set of values and expectations--each speaking its own language.  While someone like Mason Bates can inhabit both worlds with ease--speaking each language fluently--Mouse on Mars still breathes the air of another world and speaks with a heavy accent.
I'm not even sure how to rate it.  Other pieces on MusicNOW concerts have played it far safer; but when the stakes are lower, you don't win as much.  As we say in Chicago, "make no small plans"; MoM made big plans that fell flat.  A for effort; D for planning/structure; B for execution.  Still, I feel conflicted and confused; would need to see them another dozen times to make sense of it all.  (5.2 / 10)
While writing, I've been listening to their albums Idiology and Radical Connector, which are mostly electronic with processed acoustic sounds and some vocals.  Everything seems to fit together, and the result is almost danceable.  Like their performance, however, it's fairly static; for so much activity, there's a surprising lack of motion.

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