For an event meant to showcase the cross pollination of classical and electronic music, The Hotel Utah Saloon seemed like an odd venue. This place is old and looks old. You would sooner expect some ragtime from a dirty piano or maybe a down and out solo country singer to be playing here before the contemporary pastiche of sounds that were to be played. Regardless, the setting was comfortable and just the sort of place that new classical music should be brought to.
The night opened with Harlan Otter playing some solo piano pieces inspired by, or having to do with, mountains. Save for the first piece by Alan Hovhaness, an ominous sounding work ending in a spastic romp called Mountain Dance No. 2, the mountain references were hard to decipher. Otter portrayed the works, which also included some pieces by Bay Area composers Jason McChristian and Doug Michael (Moto Perpetuo and Clusters respectively) interjected with Philip Glass’s Metamorphosis, with specific attention to accuracy. Glass’s music was easily the most moving of what was played although, at times, it felt like the performance was too rough or rigid. Either way, it stood out much more than the other modernistic pieces. Of special note was Clusters, which transitioned into the George Hurd Ensemble’s set. In this piece, electronics were added to the piano part. This wasn’t done in a particularly effective way as the two never really meshed very well, instead feeling like two separate pieces played at the same time, but it was an excellent choice by Otter who should also be applauded for taking a chance on some new music.
The George Hurd Ensemble, comprised of a viola, violin, cello, upright bass, piano, and electronics, appeared to be in good form. On the other hand, the sound system did not. The mix coming out of the speakers didn’t make the group louder as much as it threw off the balance. The nice part of amplifying a classical ensemble is that it does away with that concert hall hush. People are free to roam and chat a bit and, if someone coughs, the rest of the crowd doesn’t look at them with scorn in their eyes. The bad part of all this is that the subtleties of the compositions can be completely glossed over by a bad mix or sound system. Pop music has been plagued by this issue for years and it looks like classical music will have to welcome a new challenge if it’s going to modernize itself in this way. Still, while the sound wasn’t perfect, the music was able to shine through.
The set started off was a groove heavy piece marked by liberal use of pizzicato to give it a playful feel. Hurd has a particular penchant for this technique but it never sounds overdone. The next couple of tunes continued in this vein and also made apparent a possible trip-hop influence. One of the stand out parts of the set was a piece for solo piano. It may have stood out because it was the only one to not make use of the whole ensemble but it also offered some insight into more of Hurd’s influences. It acted as a sort of interlude that reminded me of a solo Thelonious Monk performance with hints of romanticism thrown in. The rest of the group came back in for the remainder of the set which contained a work that seemed to be mimicking koto music and mixing it with synthesized harpsichord (which was skillfully implemented, avoiding the expected baroque feel). The performance ended with an energetic foray that could only properly be described as swingin’.
George Hurd seems to have found a balance between accessibility and depth. This music sounds fresh and new while retaining its connection to its roots. And, while this combination of electronic music with classical music is being attempted by people like Mason Bates, it sounds much more naturally integrated in Hurd’s work. He regularly leaves one with impressions of various musicians or genres but the sound is always his. This is classical music’s equivalent to indie rock.
To tie together the classical-meets-electronic theme, the night ended with a set by William S. Braintree mixing some highly energetic IDM. Unfortunately, I’m uncertain whether he was mixing all original music or whether this was more of a DJ mix. Either way, you could tell Braintree was a huge Aphex Twin fan. The set started out very strong with a very organic flow. By the end, maybe because the crowd started to dissipate, the transitions seemed a lot less inspired. Still, it felt like a perfect end to the night. Intentionally or not, the music managed to hint at a classical influence that culminated in a few final chords that sounded like Franz Liszt playing through an FM modulator.
It occurs to me that large classical institutions could learn something from programming of this sort. For instance, there didn’t seem to be a person over 40 in the room and the space felt much more communal than what you would experience in a concert hall. From the players dressed in a fairly casual manor, the violist having a beer during his set, to the audience, which at one point even included people who looked like they would sooner go to a punk show than a classical concert, this was an event that was very in touch with modern sensibilities.