The lively What's Next? Ensemble, directed by Vimbayi Kaziboni and John Stulz, performed "2 Operas" at Royal/T on Friday night. The show consisted of two pieces: Shaun Naidoo's Nigerian Spam Email and Michael Gordon's Van Gogh.
While listening to Nigerian Spam Email, I imagined a twisted new version of Berio's Sinfonia: quoting not Mahler, but Cage's Second Construction, Ghanian drumming, and the daydreams of Spambots. The piece, written for solo percussion and pre-recorded audio, takes it's "libretto" from those absurdly worded spam emails we've all gotten. This topical text is spoken by layers of computer voices which sound like the ones that come with any Apple computer (and which I love the sound of).
While these digital voices pleaded with you to send them a check in US dollars to save a king/uncle/pack of wild orphans, percussionist Nick Terry flailed away at his multi-percussion setup. Terry's array of brake drums, metal objects, cymbal, and African drums was augmented by pre-recorded layers of those same instruments played back through the speakers - a neat trick that created the effect of a cyborg percussion ensemble.
The connection between the voices and instruments wasn't always transparent, but every now and then things would line up and make a well-coordinated transition or phrase. Terry's final musical gesture even knocked over one of his drums (accidentally, I think), a surprisingly timely gesture which did nothing to diminish the excitement of an exuberant performance.
For the second half of the concert, the ensemble gave a solid interpretation of Gordon's Van Gogh, conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni. The piece is a musical setting of letters from Vincent to his brother, Theo. The ensemble deftly navigated Gordon's music, nary a noticeable beat out of place. Soprano Angie Engelbart, tenor Matthew Miles, and baritone Adrian Rosales shone in this performance, and the well-balanced (hiding their drumset behind plexiglass sound baffles) ensemble supported them solidly.
The music itself was a veritable catalogue of Bang On A Can effects and affects. There were Glass-inflected demi-ostinatos, rambunctious percussion, distorted guitar, pandiatonic processes, etc. I noted that whenever I hear scraped brake drums, I immediately think of David Lang's Little Eye. I wondered if this was a deliberate reference, as the corresponding text spoke of "a new man has arrived who is so worked up that he smashes everything and shouts day and night..." Gordon's use of repetition and spoken text also brought Einstein on the Beach to mind, but such is the burden of post-minimalism (or post-anything): to be oriented primarily by the presence of a larger entity (minimalism proper in this case - which is not to say BoaC's post-minimal oeuvre is any small small feat).
Overall it was an exciting performance by a strong young ensemble dedicated to new music. I look forward to hearing more.