Europe at galleryHOMELAND

I have attended a lot of exhilarating concerts in Portland, and the exceptional concert on Monday, February 23, was no exception. Four extraordinary musicians from Europe played in three sets, very different from each other but all concerned with pushing acoustic instruments to their limits–to beyond their limits. (To making a mockery of the idea that there are any limits.)

The International NothingKai Fagaschinski and Michael Thieke (as The International Nothing) played five short composed pieces from recent years and months (a couple of them so new that they didn’t even have names yet). A clarinet can play a variety of wild and extravagant noises. Two adds the possibility of exquisite clashing of said noises. These five lovely pieces, however exploratory, were rather meditative than wild–long, soft lines that invite such close listening (at least I find it to be so) that one finds oneself hyper-aware of all sounds, inside the piece or not, to the extent that outside and inside disappear.

Ninh & DonedaThe next set featured a more flamboyant kind of virtuosity but no less sensitive and skilled. This set was Lê Quan Ninh on bass drum and Michael Doneda on soprano sax. How undescriptive that description is! Ninh plays the drum head up, like a tom, playing the skin with a moistened thumb (which makes it sound like a string drum), with cymbals of various sizes dragged across the head (or, vibrating, pushed flat towards it), with hands and with objects (one of which makes the drum squeal exactly like a saxophone)–all of this and more either with or without other objects placed on the head, included up to three Tibetan singing bowls humming along on the surface, Ninh occasionally pushing the smallest one gently against one of the larger ones for a lovely, echoey chattering. And all the while the soprano is alternating between long, high, shrill tones and over-blowing and multiphonics, between all that and virtuosic pyrotechnics of the fieriest kind.

Ninh, Doneda, Sielaff, Fagaschinski, ThiekeAfter all this extravagance, the last set, with all four guests joined by Jonathan Sielaff, was rather subdued. It was a time of relative calm, of perhaps tentative (or even courteous) gestures of cooperation and goodwill. I found myself thinking less about the music than about the musicians, how they were reacting, or not reacting, to each other–determined almost to stay out of each other’s way.

But that was only at first. After a few minutes of each guest running through some of the same kinds of things they’d done in their earlier sets, with Jonathan being the elegant and self-effacing host, they all five gradually fell into some quite exciting music-making that was every bit as flamboyant, every bit as subtle, every bit as satisfying as anything that had gone before.

If you see that any of these people are playing in your town, and if you love your ears, you won’t want to miss them.

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