Sound never dies. That’s what the audience at the Pan Am Pool for WNMF concert six was told, and this helped tremendously with an approach to Matthew Patton’s premiere Afterlife Mutilation – with its origins in a plane crash – and Gavin Bryars’s amorphous early 1970s work The Sinking of the Titanic. Each piece is a slow, mysterious dissolve of atmospheric music, sound interjections, grief, and space. Into that space the listener, if suitably open and generous, can engage individually and communally with the complex necessities of elegy.
Patton’s composition is perhaps the most appealing I’ve heard at this year’s New Music Festival. Afterlife Mutilation is full of silken echoes, incessant breath, and longing. The musicians and instruments, high on the diving platforms, were appropriately stripped of identity, and sorrow was allowed to gradually fulfill its proper duration. We are terrible at lament in our culture, but Patton knows how imperative it is that we learn again how to articulate both beauty and pain.
Bryars’ Titanic, which exists in malleable forms and diverse lengths, included this time the innocence of children’s voices from the Sistema Choir, who were perfect, and two mercifully subtle synchronized swimmers. Possibly the most effective bit of arrangement was the creation of gorgeous thick clouds of dry ice, in which the swimmers could, from time to time, reveal or conceal themselves. The water was hypnotic; with the murmured music and low lighting in the huge room, water was allowed its place as both instrument and theme. The ripples spoke whenever the ghostly swimmers moved at all, telling of water as both destroyer and preserver. I remain only partly reconciled to Bryars’s use of hazy and indeterminate taped voices of the shipwreck’s survivors, but it would take someone far more curmudgeonly than me to deny the power of the slow hymn tune that serves as anchor and leads, at the end, toward a lingering and amazing Amen.
I finished the evening in a very different mode, listening to Stephen O’Malley’s drone doom at Union Sound Hall: one guitar, one unspeaking man, a small mountain of amplifiers, and bits of equipment which provide the equivalent of a Pandora’s box of distortion. O’Malley created a massive wall of sound that did not waver from a note that was, as far as I could tell, B flat. It shouldn’t work. But it does. You allow the huge sound to make its way around your bones and capillaries; you are taught patience and humility; you are spun, briefly and maybe even blissfully, free of ordinary human language. Alexander Mickelthwate was there, pondering, surely thinking about how to get his head around O’Malley’s orchestral piece that he must conduct in Friday’s concert. Maybe he will just have to let it conduct him.
Sue Sorensen is grateful that she knows how to swim. She also recognizes that a sentence like “maybe he will just have to let it conduct him” indicates that a week of avant-garde music has possibly addled her brain.