Friday, May 25, 2012


I always enjoy going to the Velaslavasay Panorama. It's a beautiful space to see/hear chamber music, and it seems like a perfect fit for a Microfest concert. Gnarwhallaby played there on Tuesday night.

Gnarwhallaby is a quartet consisting of trombonist Matt Barbier, cellist Derek Stein, clarinetist Brian Walsh, and pianist Richard Valitutto. These fellows are all monsters on their respective instruments, and their combined efforts are capable of gnawing through the most gristly of  Polish complexist scores. I first heard them perform as a group at Royal T, playing a piece by Edison Denisov.

Valittuto got to play with all the cool toys, switching from toy piano, melodica, pump organ, chromelodeon, and MIDI keyboard. The show began with Sussurrous (adj.) by Matt Barbier. The piece offered a wonderful Stuart Dempster-esque wash of tones, orbited by a constellation of toy piano notes.

Then came Nick Deyoe's FLUFF: Nos 1, 7, 8, & 11. In stark contrast to the other two pieces on the first half, FLUFF was a set of refreshingly aggressive bagatelles. It was obvious that these were the right men for the job, as they attacked the piece with the necessary ardent furvor (they even played one piece twice) - and a great excuse to blast away on a melodica!

Klaus Lang's Rote Asche steered the concert back towards the post-Feldman/Oliveros territory of Sussurrous (adj.). With Valitutto switching now to pump organ, I imagined LaMonte Young standing on the beach listening to planes take off overhead.

The second half of the concert was devoted to two pieces by Tasmanian composer Ron Nagorcka. I had never heard Nagorcka's music, and I don't think I've heard any Tasmanian music before at all. I found myself thinking of his music as a spiritual cousin to Conlon Nancarrow or John Luther Adams - an educated composer who decided to take his business elsewhere, like Mexico, Alaska, or Tasmania.

For Song of the Central Tree, Nagorcka joined the ensemble onstage to sing the basso profundo melody (a setting of text by Keith Harrison). The piece had Valitutto triggering audio samples from a MIDI keyboard. Birds, forest ambiance, woody creaking, pitched down spoken recitation of lyrics, and reverb-tinged marimbas all made cameos in this deeply idiosyncratic song while the rest of the ensemble supported Nagorcka's voice in this piece reminiscent of Dane Rudhyar.

With Myriad Degrees of Light-Dark Infusion is an otherworldly chorale, in which Valitutto alternated between chromelodeon (one of two belonging to John Schneider, Microfest impressario) and sampler keyboard, while the rest of the ensemble stirred up a fascinating pot of microtonality to match. I imagined one of the myriad ensembles that inhabit Ives' world of simultaneity, but pared down and playing Ben Johnston for their local New England church.

Gnarwhallaby is an exciting new music ensemble that I look forward to hearing more of. I also plan to spend some time on Ron Nagorka's website, getting to know a bit more about his wonderfully enigmatic compositions.

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