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New Music Triple Bill at the Atlas

In back-to-back concerts Friday night, the Atlas Performing Arts Center presented three of New York’s hottest new music ensembles, cementing its own reputation as one of the finest venues for contemporary music in Washington, D.C.

First, in the main theater, Sō Percussion played an assemblage of works by John Cage and more recent composers. The pieces were played seamlessly alongside and atop one another, in a model of what an inspired Cage tribute can be. Cage once avowed “a greater interest in quantity than in quality. If you have a large enough number of things, judgment decreases and curiosity increases.” As it was, the great quantity of sounds produced by Sō Percussion were also of impeccable quality. Some stood out, like Needles, a group composition by Sō Percussion and the electronic duo Matmos, which featured amplified cactus. It sounded at first like soldiers marching briskly over cobblestones, but soon the addition of whimsical electronic sounds and danceable counter-rhythms replaced the image of a menacing army with that of a fabulous high-stepping flag troupe. Use by Cenk Ergün presented the muffled scrapings and stirrings you might hear if you were a barnacle attached to a sailboat's hull. In Dan Deacon’s Bottles, a series of those objects in various sizes, suspended like gongs and amplified, were played and then emptied with the measured sobriety of a Shinto temple ritual.

The quantity of sounds was greatly augmented when, simultaneously with four Cage pieces, the entire packed house (press included) was enlisted in a performance of Deacon’s Take a Deep Breath. Following instructions in the program, we sighed, sang, and stomped, squeaked and squawked, made phone calls, surfed YouTube, and switched seats. Parents appreciatively abandoned all pretense of restraining their gleeful children (of which there were an impressive number). It was wonderful.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, So Percussion, ACME and yMusic showcase new sounds (Washington Post, December 3)

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, So Percussion’s Limited-Edition John Cage Project (New York Times, November 23)

Royce Akers Akers, Rob Moose from yMusic Seems Friendly and Smart Like You'd Expect (VICE, November 20)
Next, the Library of Congress presented ensembles ACME and yMusic in the Atlas’s smaller Sprenger Theater, where tables and a bar, along with the genial commentary of violist Nadia Sirota (member of both groups), created an uncommonly intimate atmosphere. A standout of ACME’s performance was Don Byron’s Spin, a violin and piano duet commissioned by the Library’s McKim fund. Its sharply contrasting sections ranged from aggressive Bartókian moto perpetuo to shimmering, jazzy harmonies executed elegantly by pianist Timothy Andres. Cage was present again, with the String Quartet in Four Parts. It was the Washington area’s second chance in as many months to hear this sparse, detached work, though here gentle amplification allowed one to get inside the music more.

Finally yMusic played a selection of their repertoire, which includes works by artists from Indie rock acts such as St. Vincent and Son Lux. These pop- and minimalist-inflected pieces were performed with warmth and skill by the six musicians, four of whom doubled or tripled smoothly on different instruments. Jeremy Turner’s The Bear and the Squirrel sounded like a contemporary version of a lush Mahlerian adagio. Andrew Norman’s well-crafted Music in Circles, receiving the premiere of its revised version, started out with hushed, wispy sounds like those of a distant passing jet, and ended that way, too, after a churning, melancholy middle. Finally, the enchanting harmonies and sprightly, irregular rhythmic hooks of Judd Greenstein’s Clearing, Dawn, Dance were a fitting coda to a rich night of music.

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