Frequency Festival: Hard Liquor, Hard Music

by Jen Hill
photos by Jeff Kimmel

throughout the festival, i found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the space between consonance and dissonance -- a physical distance to be compressed or expanded, or destroyed altogether. it is a neutrality capable of fostering growth and conflict, but this gap is also a middle ground. at what point does tone subsume noise and vice-versa and what do these distinctions refer to in the context of their collision? and how does dal niente inhabit the spaces their concerts create?

with hard music, hard liquor, ensemble dal niente showcased a wide range of stylistically and technically challenging music, highlighting bodily discipline and control. the liquor part of the concert served as the coming-together of worlds, bringing the stakes down a notch and loosened the grip of intensity.

with ray evanoff's Midway Through, "If I", mabel kwan hurled the concert into motion with an acrobatic piano solo augmented by preparations and toy piano. the two keyboards pointed inward towards kwan and she dynamically swivelled between broad piano articulations and aggressive jabs into the toy piano. even in the angular silences, constant motion propelled the unsteadying descent into evanoff's journey through hell.

two more solos came racing behind: Circular Song by joan la barbara and un-fini I by mark andre. la barbara's piece from 1975 employed a self-evident process that directed attention to amanda deboer bartlett's virtuosic performance of vocal circular breathing. un-fini I similarly highlighted ben melsky's playing through a "meta instrument", winding threads of resonance and suppression through the strings of the harp while and around the bass drum and tam-tam.

following the first intermission, a short vocal solo by michael baldwin darted past, leaving a large space, tentatively prodded at by huck hodge's Apophenia. the title refers to the "experience of a specific and abnormal meaninglessness and is related to the human tendency to seek patterns in random or incongruous information." figures and motions erupted without apparent cause, obscured by fragmentation and divergence, giving its meaninglessness a reluctant frame of reference.

the second intermission set the stage for the world premiere of the widely hyped Swan by murat çolak with video from dan tramte. Swan creates a zone in which beat-driven motives are unexpected, but are “inevitably related to new music.” the piece develops through an organic cooperation of material that slides into an up-tempo dance beat and then back into subdued texture with luxurious ease. çolak directs specific attention toward the overlapping roles played by instrumentalists and electronics, wherein a sound seems to be coming from everyone all at once with the specific intention of delicately smashing the sounds preceding it, but ends up falling back into aesthetic abstraction with textural motivations that are dependent on the culture of New Music. Swan ends up never being able to sufficiently distance itself from the suffocating dogmatism that New Music depends on. the concert hall robs the piece of its radical possibilities by allowing Swan to effortlessly retreat into the primordial soup that spawned it. it's too easy to begin and end the piece with exploratory textual drone; the risk of making a "pop music" is absolved and absorbed into the "serious music" from whence it was born, continuously reaffirming the binaries it seems to oppose.

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the primary reason for writing a review, as i see it, is to look back and offer an account of the highs and lows of an event -- but when the gap between high and low is more or less insignificant, there becomes very little to account for. is it too much to ask for more? there were a number of breath-taking performances in the festival, but my overall impression is still, weeks later, stuck in a rut somewhere between “good” and “not bad."

i want to be the one who asks for more. that this festival opened with mocrep's youthful sonic theatre and closed with a deeply institutionalized dal niente sets up a strange sonic dichotomy. differences between these two ensembles create an expanse of space that can be traversed by a dialog that asks "is this enough?"

in being part of a community, we are individuals inseparable from the whole. in this state, it becomes difficult to push and pull in one direction or another without either falling out or being trampled in the equal and opposite reaction. but i want to be the one who pushes and pulls; who asks for more. frequency festival has the weight to throw in one direction or another and pull the center of mass along with it, but instead it leans (sometimes forward, sometimes backward, it doesn't really matter in which direction). there is no risk of falling on the wrong side of the discourse because it doesn't matter where you stand when there's no line drawn in the sand.

if we're going to cite experimental music as our manifesto, let's experiment with music that isn't just consonant or dissonant; that isn't just serious or playful; that isn't just challenging or accessible. in these three examples, there is a wealth of discourse inhabiting the land between the dichotomy. i want to hear more of this in experimental music in chicago.