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Exploring 'Boundaries'

All that jazz (and more) at Present Music season finale

May. 30, 2017
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Pianist and composer Cory Smythe, guest artistic director of Present Music’s last concert of its 35th season, says that, “after the first wave of gratitude and excitement had passed” after he was approached with the job, he soon realized what an enormous undertaking lay before him. “I’ve marveled at Artistic Director Kevin Stalheim’s unerring knack for illuminating innovative, probing new works beneath twinkling party lights—bringing a repertoire I had long associated with nerdy specialists to improbably large, diverse, rapt audiences,” Smythe explains. Thus began his search for “artists who, like Present Music itself, tethered their musical innovation to a deep commitment to connect viscerally and emotionally with their listeners” for the concert he was about to helm.

Present Music’s “Boundaries” concert seeks to explore the grey area between musical genres, making the individual works on the program difficult, if not impossible, to pigeonhole into neat categories such as classical, jazz, rock and folk. This conception brought Smythe to Steve Lehman, who Smythe describes as “a composer, improviser, performer and general talent whose work cuts across multiple scenes; Steve makes some of the most outlandishly original, impeccably crafted and undeniably electrifying music you’ll ever hear.” 

Lehman’s compositions lean toward jazz-flavored small combos—trios, quartets, quintets and so forth. Two of his albums have garnered prestigious awards thus far: Travail, Transformation & Flow (2009) won Jazz Album of the Year from the New York Times; Mise en Abîme (2014) won Best New Album from the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. In this concert, Lehman and Smythe (the latter a Grammy Award-winner, himself) come together to perform three works for the remarkable combination of saxophone and piano (occasionally further joined by live electronics): Lehman’s Laamb, a piece he derived from a recent collaboration with hip-hop artist Sélébéyone; Smythe’s Two Rooms (2014); and Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 6L (1971). Braxton (b. 1945) is a composer, instrumentalist and retired professor (Lehman’s a former student of his) who received the title of Jazz Master from the National Endowment of the Arts three years ago. 

Intriguing as those sax-piano duos may be, there’s much more to this season finale. Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho (b. 1952) wrote music early on that tended toward serialism—a musical technique tracing its roots back to Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone system. This penchant has given way in recent years, however, to musical spectralism—a compositional method originating in the ’70s that utilizes computer analysis of timbre in acoustic music or, alternately, uses non-natural timbres derived from a synthesis of the two. Saariaho’s nature-imbued works speak of gardens and summer. This concert features her Petals for cello and live electronics.

Other works by Lehman on the program include Nos Revi Nella (2010) for string quartet and Dub (2008) for piano, saxophone and string quartet. The String Quartet No. 4 (Amazing Grace) by Benjamin Burwell Johnston Jr. (b. 1926) will also be heard; it’s a seven-limit, microtonal quartet that has thus far proven to be Johnston’s most famous and widely recorded piece.

Cory Smythe’s Reenactment for piano, quarter-tone guitar, violin and viola receives its world premiere at this concert. The genesis of this piece is remarkable—an attestation of just how all-encompassing the inspiration can be for a musical composition. It’s also revelatory of how the same sounds, heard by different people, can move them intellectually and emotionally in totally different ways. 

Smythe recalls that he was exploring the combination of piano and detuned guitar, and the resulting sounds struck him as somewhat reminiscent of (as he relates) “present-day bands doing faithful recreations of Civil War-era tunes—preserving and renewing a repertoire of deeply disturbing, racist and violent melodic turns of phrase. Reenactment is a short, tightly wound ghost story premised on this lurid musical undertaking.” 

Present Music and guests Steve Lehman and Cory Smythe, perform “Boundaries” at 6 and 9 p.m. Friday, June 2 at Hot Water & Wherehouse Night Club, 818 S. Water St. For tickets call 414-271-0711 or visit presentmusic.org.


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