Music Review: chatterbird makes auspicious debut with its otherworldly sounds at abrasiveMedia

chatterSomething’s definitely in the water here in Nashville. The new contemporary chamber music group chatterbird, modeled on yMusic, held its first concert last Thursday. A healthy-sized crowd of about 90 gathered in the great studio space of abrasiveMedia in Houston Station. This was a different crowd than the “regulars” at Indeterminacies, or the old Chamber Music society.  The vibe was professional, but had the vitality of a community gathering together. This felt more like a pop-up supper club than anything else. Dress was respectful, the handful of people in business attire did not seem out of place, nor did the smattering of jeans-and-T-shirts.  In short, the room was definitely more casual than a contemporary fare at Nashville Opera’s Martin Studio space, but much more professional than Fresh Faces at the Basement,

I think Audra Harvey’s space at abrasiveMedia contributed to this in meaningful ways because it’s equal parts dance studio and art gallery. But it’s not a white-walled gallery, it’s a brick-walled and wooden-floored industrial space.  This gives it a de facto human warmth and character.  The audience sat in portable chairs arranged into concert seating.

The program opened with magic with everyday objects by Missy Mazzoli. Traditional chamber musicians might call this piece – arranged for flute, clarinet, distorted electric guitar, double bass and piano – unconventional. But this is normal by the standards of today’s new music ensembles. This is the kind of work often presented in this town by collegiate new music ensembles. It was a delight to hear such gnarly music performed with such polished professionalism. It takes heart to make this music sing, and chatterbird has heart.

Bryan Clark’s 23 Lazier Fare began with a literal bang.  The ensemble was backed by a recorded/programmed gamelan ensemble of various clangs, bangs and gongs. Again, this is normal in serious music cities, but way too rare here.

My first thought upon hearing this piece, which included cello and gamelan, is “hire thoroughbreds and let them run.” The musicianship was impressive – Emily Wasson Bowland is a blast to watch on clarinet.  Clark paired members of the ensemble in non-traditional ways to great effect – clarinet and double bass, cello with piano, electric guitar and flute.

Clark (full disclosure: I studied electroacoustic music with him at Belmont University) has quite the fertile mind – clanging gamelan eventually gave way to jazz guitar (clean 9th/11ths) in the style of Bill Frisell, trading two’s in a heavy two, clarinet and cello, clarinet and electric guitar, demonstrating the overwhelming versatility of chamber music.

The third work on the program was Without a Frame by Gabriel Kahane. Celine Thackston, chatterbird founder and flutist, gave a brief biography of Kahane’s work in Brooklyn, which sparkled with numerous commercial music credits.  I have mixed feelings about this – If she had said he was a Tanglewood or Aspen fellow I would have rolled my eyes, if she said he’d opened for The National on tour, I would have rolled them the other way.  That said “classical fusion” or “Alt-classical” is the hottest thing going right now, and Nashville is better prepared than almost any other city to take advantage of this. The rest of the country struggles to find performers who have enough experience in so many styles to give a convincing performance (hip hop; pop; baroque; and jazz in one piece? sometimes simultaneously?) and this is where Nashville is poised to make a meaningful contribution to the international conversation, as we have so many player/performer/composers with resume’s like Bryan Clark. His eclectic background – composer of classical music and TV scores, bluegrass album producer – is absolutely ideal for playing the music that is coming out of labels like New Amsterdam and Nonesuch.  Festivals like Big Ears, MusicNow and Ecstatic Music continue to bring great attention to the viability of the genre.  I for one, am thrilled to finally have a new Nashville ensemble that gets this.

To be fair, the Kahane performance was missing the sparkle the first two works evidenced so brilliantly.  The best thing that happened in the work was the gorgeous tone of Jon-Paul Frappier on trumpet.

The intermission (of sorts) was a delightful performance by FALL, the aerial dance company (previously in residence with abrasiveMedia). Inter-disciplinary work is so engaging because it can bend the “rules” of two genres at once, and mine the forgotten corners of both.  My favorite part of the presentation was actually the magnified shadows on the walls. It was a brilliant production decision, as it amplified the smallest details of movement. Kudos to Rebekah Hampton Barger for continuing to develop this passion project into a veritable force on the local scene.

Timo Andres’ The Night Jaunt reminded me of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night.  The musical language isn’t nearly so romantic as the Schoenberg, more like the post-rock instrumental guitar duo Explosions in the Sky, but with acoustic instruments.

The thing about these Brooklyn neo-romantics (like Timo Andres) is they tend to sit right on the edge of self-indulgence.  That’s always been my gripe with Now Ensemble.  It’s like Sigur Rós meets Philip Glass, and sometimes it can be more about the composer’s love for his innate genius than musicality or cohesion.  To quote the social satirist ancient philosopher Seth McFarlane, “it insists upon itself.”

Dai Fujikura’s Poison Mushroom is for solo flute and tape. I loved the unconventional use of the flute – Thakston coaxed some otherworldly sounds out of her instrument, and Fujikura set her up well – more than once you weren’t sure if the sonic anomalies were from the audio file or the flute, which is the gold standard for accompaniment, in my mind.  It was so evocative, and a flute is capable of so much more than just “morning mood” or Jethro Tull.

I also heartily support Fujikura’s decision to conclude his piece with a soothing rainstorm.  Somewhere out there a critic has likely balked at such a conventional moment in an otherwise unconventional and dark work, but I’ve tagged more than one crazy aggressive atonal work with a hymn. It serves as a kind of musical chaser, to re-establish the emotional equilibrium of the audience.

The evening closed with the Nashville premiere of proven badlands by Annie Clark (stage name: St. Vincent). From one impresario to another I applaud Thackston’s vision and hustle to land this premiere.  This chamber piece is notable more for its existence than its content (not that it’s bad, its fine, I could take it or leave it) because its composer is a heart-throb in the indie music world, and it’s very cool she wrote a chamber music piece for yMusic. It stands as a landmark as to the kinds of places chatterbird is headed.

If there was a star tonight, it was Thackston’s artistic vision.  Not just pseudo-artistry by moonlighting songwriters, but real art music presented for its own intrinsic value.

Local audiences supporting local artists. This is the very beginning of what we’ve been waiting for.  Not the country-club set observing imported talent from New York, but local open-minded folks paying real money ($20) to see a mixed-bill of local and imported work performed by local professionals.

Photo: Alison Groves

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville's Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by Brassworks4.com, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.