Abecedarian “Baby” Composer Deftly Expresses Fragility, Grace, Hands
Over Labor Day weekend, the New York-based new music ensemble loadbang breathed into Baltimore, filling the newest performance venue at the Peabody Institute, the Centre Street Performance Space, with lung-powered energy and verve. The second of their two concerts, occurring on September 8, was comprised solely of composer and Peabody Faculty member David Smooke’s monodrama commissioned by the group, A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was. The work is based on the abecedarian poem by Baltimore Writer Michael Kimball, and accompanied with video by hometown filmmaker Margaret Rorison.
loadbang—described aptly by Smooke as “astonishingly good”—includes a baritone vocalist (and occasional percussionist/zitherist), bass clarinet, trumpet, and trombone. Though an unlikely grouping, the ensemble has premiered an impressive number of works, leaving in their trail an amassed repertoire of uniquely orchestrated compositions and arrangements. Though the Pierrot ensemble and its kin remain regular features of contemporary instrumentation (and rightfully so, as one can hear with the LUNAR ensemble, which kicks off its season this Friday in Baltimore), groups like loadbang provide not only richly crafted music acrobatically realized, but also a shining example of an unusual ensemble that is making its way in the new music world—a hopeful sign to younger performers who may be interested in more experimental timbral pursuits.
The monodrama—which (spoilers ahead) eschews a precise plot (though Smooke writes of the “narrator gradually develop[ing] a sense of self, growing up with a doting mother and a nearly absent father”)—creates a series of resonances, emblems and touchstones that allow the listener to alight upon abstract stories-within-the moment. The text proceeds alphabetically, repeating words in sometimes minimalistic patterns with virtuosic grooves spiraling amidst vocal lines (“baby, baby, baby,” bounces buoyantly between my ears, still); sometimes the lines are operatic: the quiet statements of “eyes” give way to a Verdian “face.” Much of the important words are bodily images: “eyes,” “face,” “fingers,” “fat” (its counterpart, in the third part of the work, “thin,” receives similar textural treatment, a sudden emphasis on low, soft, slow tones that somehow convey both adiposity and a skeletal washed-out sensation).
Some of my favorite moments in Smooke’s music are the quietest: here, a natural, unhurried beauty emerges (his nonopera, Criminal Element, has a movement which takes place by the sea that is one of the most beautifully arresting pieces I have experienced). loadbang matches their earlier virtuosic vigor with variegated volume in these tender passages, such as “breathe” and “heart.” Here, Smooke paints words directly, with non-pitched air passing through the instruments for “breathe,” and soft slap-tonguings for “heart.” Though some might suggest such depictions are obvious, they do more than text-paint: they bring the listener into a state where one comes close to embodying the protagonist. In the hall, we are forced to experience the awakening conscious and conscience of bodiliness directly, and the room becomes aware of its own breathing, beating, organicism.
Images Jump, Keyed, Linking Mnemonic Newnesses Onto Performance
Rorison’s images offered living snapshots of Baltimore along with the awakening eyes of the singer/speaker/feeler: Penn Station, Old St. Paul’s parish, flocks of birds diving past swaying branches in local parks. These were accompanied by fingers, hands, feet—though never faces: Rorison was careful to enter into the spirit of the text penned by Kimball and enlivened by Smooke, leaving out anything that would grant the specificity of a personal identity. The images set up an interesting resonance with the text and music, sometimes mimicking onomatopoetically (electrical wires seemed to hum along with “mine, mine, mine”), sometimes suggesting alternative texts (the flock of birds occurs prominently amidst the “F”s). Though the videos were, perhaps, non-essential to the musical realization, they allowed for expanded sensory opportunities that, for me, led to un-looked-for connections.
The murmurations of birds, weaving and spinning and creating new shapes, seemed an apt metaphor for Smooke’s compositional process. In full disclosure, he had spoken with me leading up to the performance, mentioning that the second two parts of the work were re-configurations of the first. Incidentally, the same conversation also touched on his own misgivings of his contrapuntal chops. But, I feel, this work suggests a different sort of counterpoint, a temporal flocking that expands and contracts, shadowy outlines re-envisioned and turned over, revealing slowly pulsating, and, at times, entropic temporal zones (especially as we slowly approach the long-fermata’d “sleep”) that mirror our process as an audience endeavoring to parse the sea of semantic saturation in which we swim for this hour-and-a-bit. Again, we find our consciousness emerging, our surroundings novel, constructing our own meanings from this combination of sound and sense which glimmers and bubbles uniquely, depending upon what angle of incidence the musical ideas are struck by time and form.
Questing Repetitions, Sung Timbral Ululations, Xylophone-esque Yips: Zounds
More could be said about the many aspects of the work that add to the alternatingly hypnotic and dramatic experience: the microtone-and-mulitphonic-infused “no’s” (or is it “nose?” Or “knows?” As listeners, we don’t.) which incite a bell-like timbral recreation that would make any Spectralist composer jealous; the imaginative use of the singer-as-percussionist to provide timbral organization through the recurrence of a glockenspiel, and, especially the (spoiler alert) microtonally tuned zither that is played in place of the words beginning with the final alphabetical sigil; the wonderful “waves” created as we approached the end. But a detailing of these aspects would only desiccate the potential meanings of the work: its power comes from a potential to grow in each person, to interact uniquely with each observer and performer, at once a cipher and alpha-numeric decoder ring, growing in, growing out, growing bigger than up was.