Primavera, UCSB’s five-day festival of contemporary arts and digital media, brought sprawling musical variety, a rich subset of which was showcased on Wednesday and Thursday (April 22 and 23) in Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall. The Ensemble for Contemporary Music’s “Redolent of Seasons and of Hours” showcased eight spare, striking pieces appropriately evocative of springtime; CREATE’s “Improv,” provided a brief, intense electronic blast of the collective’s usual sonic stimulation.
Despite both nights’ sparse audiences, the performances were pulled off impeccably-in that way that avant-garde music can be impeccable. Bending the rules and creating new ones, contemporary music’s risk factor is a prime dimension of its appeal. While the possibility of aesthetic failure looms large, the successes compensate by being both thrilling and surprising. Both the ECM and CREATE racked up many small successes, performing accessibly but with enough daring to keep listeners guessing. Together, the shows constituted a flavorful taste of contemporary composition’s possibilities.
Opening strongly (and very thematically) with Thea Musgrave’s voice-and-flute “Primavera,” a piece bolder than its simple components predict, the ECM followed up with Pietro Dossena’s “Eglantina,” a six-player 2005 composition with its own surprisingly restrained feel. (Dossena’s presence in the audience, pointed out by conductor and ECM director Jeremy Haladyna, came as a surprise that brought hearty applause. Given the piece’s attractive, engaging ambiguity, he deserved the extra ovation.)
Moving on through former Korean political prisoner Isang Yun’s “Quartett” and “A Requiem in Summer” by the festival’s declared presiding spirit Henry Brant, the evening took on a bright sense of humor. Linda Holland’s rendition of her own blues-progression-based “Flute-‘n-Boots” made quirky use of both its titular instruments, and Lisa Sanderson’s comedic “A Short Recital” played out a slightly goofy character’s struggle to establish just the proper attitude and stage ambience required for her piano piece.
Like most of CREATE’s shows, Primavera’s benefited from being heard in the center of the hall, so creative and strategic do the performers and engineers get with the speakers that encircle the audience. After visiting artist David Wessel, director of UC Berkeley’s Center for New Music and Audio Technologies, fired off a few jungle-drum-and-futuristic-wave improvisations on his custom touchpad instrument, the “SLAB,” Luke Taylor’s “Critical Mass” hailed white noise and then cut through it like a synthesized buzzsaw. Iannis Xenakis’s vintage 1957 “Diamorphosis” sounded not the least bit out of place among the more recent experiments, and UCSB media arts and technology professor Curtis Roads’s “Touche pas” evoked a rain of sonic granules of all sizes, shapes, and colors pelting the hall’s roof.
The availability of such wonderful sound experiences is apparently one of Santa Barbara music’s best kept secrets; perhaps it’s time to let the secret slip.