Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ensemble SIGNAL: Popups and Canons

UB's spring semester opened with Ensemble SIGNAL's residency at the University's new Creative Arts Initiative—a residency that included a masterclass, an open rehearsal, a discussion on artistic entrepreneurship, and Performance in the Dark, a concert of works by Steve Reich and Georg Friedrich Haas (read more about it here).  That was just the first of two non-consecutive weeks of SIGNAL's residency, and the second week took place earlier this month, bookending the semester with exciting events featuring the NY-based ensemble.

SIGNAL's Bill Solomon performs a
solo kalimba micro-concert
The second week began on May 2, with "popup concerts" at various locations around UB's North Campus.  Consisting of 15 'micro-concerts' in a span of 30 minutes, each popup concert featured one or two of the ensemble's musicians playing brief (3-15 minutes) unannounced lunchtime concerts around the campus.  The following day featured a workshop performance of the minimalist classic In C by Terry Riley.    For this event, the ensemble invited anyone able to read music and play an instrument to sit in with them through a reading of Riley's work, introducing UB students and community members not only to the famous piece's challenging form, but also to the excitement of playing alongside some of the most skilled new music performers.  The residency concluded with a celebratory concert of works by Steve Reich.  SIGNAL have long been renowned for their interpretations of Reich's music, especially their Harmonia Mundi recording of Music for 18 Musicians (which received a Diapason d’or in June 2015 and appeared on the Billboard Classical Crossover charts in May 2015).  This concert featured several of the composer's "hits" (1972's Clapping Music, and 1985's New York Counterpoint), as well as two recent works:  Radio Rewrite (2012), based on themes from two Radiohead songs, and Quartet (2013) for two vibraphones and two pianos.

But SIGNAL is not finished yet!  The ensemble will be back next month as one of the six resident ensembles at June in Buffalo.  At this year's festival, they will perform a concert of works by JiB participants (June 7, 4:00pm, Baird Recital Hall), taking their experience collaborating with renowned composers to JiB's young artists, helping them articulate their musical visions and offering authentic interpretations of their works.  SIGNAL will also perform an evening concert (June 10, 7:30pm, Lippes Concert Hall), which will consist of a single large-scale work:  Schnee by Hans Abrahamsen.  The Danish composer—who will be on the composition faculty at this year's festival—composed Schnee ("Snow") in 2008, and the work has since been called a "hidden gem" by the New York Times.  The piece has its roots in 8 Canons, a collection of Bach arrangements which used repetition and slow durations to open up a new way of looking at time in these often taken-for-granted works:
I became totally absorbed into this music and arranged them with the intention of the music being repeated many, many times, as a kind of minimal music.  Obviously, I didn't know which durations Bach had in mind, but by listening to his canons in this way, a profound new moving world of circular time was opened to me.  Depending on the perspective on these canons, the music and its time can stand still or move either backwards or forwards.
One of these arranged canons, Kanon zu acht Stimmen, BWV 1072, can be heard below in Abrahamsen's arrangement.

Schnee emerged through a similar idea, and, using the Bach arrangements as a model, Abrahamsen composed a pair of two large-scale canons for nine instruments divided into two halves (piano and 3 strings, piano and 3 winds, with percussion in the middle).
In my own work, an ongoing idea has persisted, of at some point writing a work consisting of a number of canonical movements that would explore this universe of time.  […]  In Schnee, a few simple and fundamental musical questions are explored.  […]  Can a phrase be answering?  Or questioning?  [Schnee's] two canons are identical like a painting in two versions, but with different colors.  And where the first one does not include the space, the second one does, as well as containing more canonical traces.

The piece soon expanded into ten canons which gracefully unfold over the course of an hour.  The airy, ghostly music begins with whispering, feather-soft gestures, and reduces itself from there as the piece develops.  The performers are told to detune their instruments between movements, moving lower and lower as the piece progresses, creating stranger and more otherworldly sounds.  The work's frigid title makes reference to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", and many of the sparse melodies have a frosty lightness to them, sounding almost like snow falling gracefully downward.

Brad Lubman
SIGNAL is directed by Brad Lubman, who is a special guest at this year's festival.  Lubman has played an important role in contemporary music for the past twenty years, acting not only as the founding co-Artistic and Music Director of SIGNAL, but also as a frequent guest conductor of many of the world's leading ensembles (including Ensemble Modern, London Sinfonietta, Klangforum Wien, ASKO Ensemble, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, WDR Symphony Cologne, Finnish Radio Symphony, and the Center's own Slee Sinfonietta). Currently on faculty at the Eastman School of Music, Lubman is known for his versatile conducting technique and skilled realizations of contemporary and classical works alike.

We're excited that Brad Lubman and SIGNAL will be returning to this year's festival (for more on the long, productive relationship between the ensemble and June in Buffalo, see last year's profile).  Whether realizing classical minimalist works with UB students, premiering new works by emerging composers, or articulating the delicate subtleties of wintery canons, SIGNAL is always a reliable source for strong, proficient performances.