Greek tragedy and hazardous space objects inspire new and exciting compositions

The Grossman Ensemble of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (Photo courtesy of Jean LaChat)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

The first year at the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition (CCCC) came to a close on Friday night at the Logan Center where the Grossman Ensemble gave the third and final concert of its inaugural season. It was a pleasing concert featuring four works, all of which were world premieres.

My favorite piece on the program was by David Dzubay, who also served as the conductor for the concert. He presided over the 13-member ensemble (flute, harp, oboe, piano, clarinet, saxophone, horn, two percussionists, and string quartet) for the first performance of his work “PHO.” This stands for “Potentially Hazardous Objects” and refers to astronomical bodies such as asteroids or comets with orbits that may come dangerously close to Earth and could cause serious damage were they to crash into our planet.

His work captured the sense not only of the strange foreign quality of these celestial bodies but the vast, cold world of outer space. Dzubay does not employ the humanizing effects of, say, Holst, who personified the planets and even gave them marches and anthems to make them seem more understandable. Dzubay instead paints a spacescape just as he sees it, even presenting a color printout from NASA in his brief remarks introducing his work.

His music captures the enormous emptiness of space as well as the threat posed by the frozen, rocky objects that hurl precipitously through our solar system. He offers the musical radiance of these objects, their rapid movement, and underscores the unpredictability of our universe. He creates a sense of profound mystery without resorting to the melodramatic. His new work was exciting and offered an open door into the unknown.

The most thought-provoking piece on the program, and the favorite of the audience as judged by the extensive applause, was Kate Soper’s “Missing Scenes: Lost Greek Tragedies.” Soper augmented the ensemble with electronic sound as well as spoken voice and singing, with the composer herself providing the last two elements. It begins as a lecture about these ancient plays, noting that much of Greek drama has not survived, except for tiny fragments. Soper moves from lecturer to singer, employing a lovely soprano to sing the words of the fragments. As described, it sounds a little odd, but in performance it is deeply affecting. The sung words hang in the air like the peculiar little artifacts that they are: perhaps momentous in the context we will never know, or perhaps the most trivial aspects of a play that will never be complete to history.

Her work makes you ponder context and meaning, the nature of interpretation, and even the fleetingness of our world, which itself may be lost to history in the distant centuries ahead. The electronic portion of the score is designed to completely cover some of her words, so that we might imagine a Greek chorus murmuring words we cannot hear which bury some of the words Soper speaks. We cannot always recover what was past and will never know what was intended by some ancient artists.

The other two works on the program were both influenced by dreams. Joungbum Lee’s “condensed serenity” attempts to present a musical realization of a recurring dream of the composer, which features a strange and weird state of being. The work has a calmness to it, which enhances the bizarre world he draws.

Steve Lehman’s “La Vida es Sueño” (“Life is a Dream”) is similarly dream-based, and it is a homage to the 1635 play of the same name by Calderon de la Barca. Lehman had a bit more time than the other composers to discuss his work, because before it could be performed, the bars on the vibraphone had to be replaced with specially tuned bars the composer himself had created. Tuned slightly “off” (sometimes a quarter-tone higher or lower than the usual pitch on that bar) adding a wonkiness which enhanced the dream element. He was effective in creating a sound-world of a place which couldn’t be understood as real or true, except in the imagination.

The concert was followed by a reception where the composers and musicians mixed with the audience and conversations about the compositions filled the airy lobby outside the concert hall.

It was a fine outing for the CCCC which only got off the ground last year. They must surely have hoped for a larger audience (there were fewer than 150 present), and they certainly deserved a larger hearing. The Grossman Ensemble has proven itself to be a splendid ensemble, playing with care, technical skill, and committed musicality and I look forward to next year, with a new crop of compositions.