An ethereal mix
of satellite sounds and violins
Pythagoras and Plato taught that the movements of heavenly bodies wrought a music of the spheres. “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st but in his motion like an angel sings,” Shakespeare wrote. Then along came Sir Isaac Newton with his newfangled ideas about celestial mechanics, and the cosmos fell silent.
But the sky still sings for those who know how to listen, including composer Annie Gosfield. Her “Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites,” a work for violin and recordings of satellite sounds, received its U.S. premiere Friday night at The Stone, downtown Manhattan’s vibrant experimental music space.
Half a century ago, ham radio operators eavesdropped on the beeps and twitters of Sputnik, a human artifact speaking an inhuman language from high in the heavens. Gosfield’s amalgam of satellite noise sometimes suggests the chirrups of jungle creatures or the whistles of far-off trains; at other times, the static whir and crackle evoke a remote, terrifying void.
Violinist Jennifer Choi engaged in an intense dialogue with these otherworldly sounds, echoing them with sweet trills, shredded tones and glassy whispers in her instrument’s highest register. When the satellite whistles and gurgles suddenly cut out, Choi’s violin continued, forlorn, seeming to reach out toward its faraway companion. (“Lost Signals” is the title cut of Gosfield’s latest Tzadik CD, available at tzadik.com.)
The rest of the program also probed the boundaries between music and noise. “The Manufacture of Tangled Ivory,” inspired by early 20th century sweatshops, opens with tinny sampled piano sounds that might be a silent movie soundtrack heard in a nightmare. Wisps of exquisitely tapered electronic sound give way to an explosion. Guitarist Roger Kleier’s riffs were often touched with klezmer melancholy, while percussionist David Cossin created a thumping industrial racket. Felix Fan allowed his cello’s overtones to float and mingle and also ground away sassily in the general raunch.
Marco Cappelli stunned in “Marked by a Hat,” a right-hand-only work for extreme guitar (an instrument juiced up electronically and with additional strings). For all of its micro-tunings and blizzard of needle-sharp tones, “Marked by a Hat” is at its most complex and enthralling when its sound is reduced to the sigh of skin against metal. Fan and Cossin excelled in “Pilfered and Plonked,” a sultry excerpt from a full-length score written for choreographer Karole Armitage.
The Stone is a no-nonsense place, with no food or drink, no advance tickets and little decor besides black velvet drapes to blot out the Alphabet City din. But it throbs with cutting-edge music six nights a week.
Before Gosfield’s show, percussionist Susie Ibarra led her trio—with violinist Choi and keyboardist Craig Taborn—in a set of shimmering works from her SongBird Suite and Folkloriko CDs (Tzadik). Partially improvised, reminiscent of Debussy and even calypso, Ibarra’s music is hard to categorize, but no less engaging for that.
Afterward, one out-of-towner in Bermuda shorts chirped, “I liked that better than the Philharmonic!”
ANNIE GOSFIELD. Chamber and solo works. Attended Friday at The Stone, Avenue C and Second Street, Manhattan. Visit www.thestonenyc.com.