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Present Music: Lang, Koykkar, Ince, Johnson, McMillan

David Lang: The Anvil Chorus (1991)
Joseph Koykkar: The Frontlines (1994)
Kamran Ince: Hammer Music (1990)
Scott Johnson: Rent Party (1993)
James McMillan: others see us... (1992)

Present Music Ensemble
Terry Smirl, percussion
Marie Sander, flute
Dileep Gangoli, clarinet
Eric Segnitz, violin
Paul Gmeinder, cello
Kevin Stalheim, conductor


Present Music, based in Milwaukee, performed Friday evening at the First Unitarian Meeting House. All five works on the program were written in the 90s, and two were premieres. The pieces had in common a heavy reliance on rhythmic elements, with comparatively little development of melodic, timbral, or harmonic concepts. My strong impression was that all five composers overran their materials and could improve the works by shortening them considerably.

David Lang's The Anvil Chorus (1991), which opened the program, was in some ways the most interesting and successful work among the offerings. An underlying rhythmic structure that exists but isn't sounded serves to organize and coordinate a complex web of rhythms that are sounded. The sounds themselves are produced mostly by metal beaters on junk metal objects, many of them providing some pitch reference. Percussionist Terry Smirl seemed in firm control of what must be extremely difficult music to play, technically. Cast in several episodes, the work proceeds from a fairly straightforward ostinato opening character to a thick, polyrhythmic texture that recalled gamelan music.

Madison resident Joseph Koykkar's The Frontlines (1994) received its first performance. Written for flutist Marie Sander and clarinetist Dileep Gangoli of Present Music, it expands the duo concept to ensemble proportions by providing a multitrack tape of additional flute and clarinet sounds with which the two live players synchronize. The live playing was quite brilliant. The underlying rhythmic texture of the piece, though varied, quickly becomes a background of no great interest and sounds repetitive, as though the point were a kind of fear of silence. This helped sustain the notion that the piece is too long.

Hammer Music (1990) is the second piece by Kamran Ince I've heard. Scored for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello, percussion and synthesizer, with the electronic sound formally contrasting to the acoustic ensemble, Ince's work again impressed me as haphazard, rather than carefully composed, never achieving the full potential of its own ideas. And again the flow of the better aspects was punctuated by utterly banal tune fragments of movie-music quality.

Another premiere, Rent Party (1993), by Madisonian Scott Johnson, revealed a more successful merger of melodic and rhythmic aspects than other works on the program. Scored for vioin and cello (Eric Segnitz and Paul Gmeinder, respectively), it affords considerable opportunity for soloistic playing, which I thought was first-rate. The instrumental technique is basically traditional, but deployed in such a way as to provide sufficient variety and contrast between the quicker outer movements and the more lyrical section between them.

James McMillan's others see us... (1992) is a series of seven portraits of famous English men and women, the music accompanied by a series of slides of the subjects. Scored for large ensemble, the work displays lots of great musical ideas, but it's over-long and the slides end up being a distraction from the music, rather than an elucidation of it.

I think Present Music is doing absolutely essential work, pursuing fairly high-risk ventures in an effort to expand our musical sensibilities. Not every effort rewards us with an immediate success, but nevertheless were it not for such groups, we would have even less contact with conptemporary creative forces.

Isthmus, November, 1994
Copyright 1994 Jess Anderson

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