Imagine a musical world that never existed

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Jonathan Potter writes for the Brattleboro Reformer:

Like a paleontologist dreaming of bones yet unearthed or an anthropologist pondering evolutionary what-ifs, a foursome of composers and musicians is following an imaginative and innovative line of inquiry in creating a new piece.

Brought together by Yellow Barn’s Artist Residency program, composers David Smooke and Ken Ueno and the Pictures on Silence featuring Jacqueline Pollauf on harp and Noah Getz on saxophone have gathered at the Greenwood School to create a new piece that extends the range of their instruments—literally.

Deconstructing and reconstructing the saxophone and harp, the four are exploring new sounds and new ways of playing, while imagining what the instruments would be like if they had evolved differently.

"We are considering the conflated history of their instruments, and the larger history, which I think is the history of the development of technology," Ueno, who arrived in Putney from UC-Berkley. "We are creating an imaginary trajectory for their instruments ... a tributary that got lost."

The resulting music created for and by these new instruments will be intriguing, it may be beautiful, and some of it may be hard to take. But it is music created in an atmosphere of liberation; the instruments have been cut loose from the evolutionary lines that produced the harp and saxophone as we know them.

"One of the functions of art is to open up people’s expectations. We want to confront people’s expectations of what music can be," said Ueno.

The public can get a glimpse of the creative process in this residency titled "Utopia/Euterpe/Dystopia," this Friday at 7 p.m. at the Greenwood School library. Admission is free.

To do that, the four have embarked on an unusual path, one that began with trips to area hardware stores, where they found plastic tubing, metal hardware and other tools and materials to make these new instruments.

"We took a sax down to the hardware store, and began taking it apart. To their credit, we didn’t get a lot of strange looks," said composer David Smooke. "I wonder what you have to do in Brattleboro to get an odd look at a hardware store."

Freshly reassembled, Noah Getz’s sax, mischievously renamed a "hookahphone," is a new animal—capable of low, rumbly didgeridoo-like sounds and higher, mournful, almost human cries.

For Getz, who is still mastering the new instrument, the experience has been liberating. The music world has challenged the boundaries of key, pitch, rhythm, harmony and form. Now the accepted boundaries that come with playing a certain instrument have been broken down.

"Those parameters are not mandatory," said Getz.

Moving to Mike Kohout’s Greenwood School woodshop, the four are also building a new harp—a 10-foot, two-stringed creature that could be called Harposaurus, capable of ominous, low sonic vibrations.

When asked what her 10-foot harp is like, Pollauf had a disarmingly simple answer: "It’s huge."

"We’re trying to figure out how to transport it out of here. It’s a challenge of somewhat epic proportions," said Smooke.

The four hope this epic challenge eventually results in a full-length production that explores the confluence of music, performance and other art forms—something all four are interested in.

"As performers, as musicians, we are always participating in an act of drama on stage," said Getz.

Pallouf, Getz and Smooke have worked together on smaller projects and had dreamed of collaborating on something more extensive. The Yellow Barn residency made that possible, and allowed them to welcome Ueno into the project.

"We really want to thank Yellow Barn for giving us an opportunity to work together," said Ueno.