Wednesday, May 29, 2019

[1] S.E.M. Ensemble at Bohemian National Hall | #1Summer50Concerts

WHO: S.E.M. Ensemble
WHAT: New York - Ostrava: Influences and Initiatives
WHERE: Bohemian National Hall
WHEN: May 28, 2019, 7:30pm

Yes, last night I chose a new music concert over the New York Phil playing Beethoven's Eroica. But I saw the Phil do Eroica last season. And at this rate, I'll probably get to see it next season. And the next season. Ad nauseum.

Besides which, this concert had the universal college-student trump card: it was free.

As New York's new music ensembles go, S.E.M. is ancient. Founded shortly after Czech composer Petr Kotík moved stateside in 1969, they were -- and are -- closely linked with the American experimentalists that make baby boomers wrinkle their noses. They now perform regularly, mostly in Brooklyn Heights's Willow Place Auditorium (best described as a cross between a parochial school auditorium and a YMCA basketball court -- one of my favorite quirky concert venues in NYC).

Not pictured: the gymnastics mats piled in the back left corner

The program was composed of new pieces written by students of S.E.M.'s biennial Ostrava Days festival along with older stalwarts of the ensemble's repertoire. Particularly of note was violist-and-composer-on-the-side Anna Heflin's Included/Excluded (2019), which found a string quartet sitting with their backs to one another, each playing a fiendishly difficult and independent line. Then, all of a sudden, one of the violinists shouted: "CHAIR!"

I was sort of confused -- maybe she said "share" or something like that? No, she said it again, "CHAIR!" at which point the cellist began clapping at rhythmically constant, but seemingly arbitrary intervals. A couple minutes later, the cellist launched into a tirade about how people who drop dead on the street are still expected to make polite banter with passers-by. It was absurdism at its finest; I found myself scratching my head, but oddly and thoroughly satisfied.

Other highlights included Alvin Lucier's Navigations for Strings (1991), a piece which consists primarily of ever-so-slightly compressing and widening microtones; if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound oscillations getting faster and slower with the changing dissonances. Kotík and Wolff's pairings of pieces each displayed a very distinct narrative of their compositional evolutions.

But, perhaps most amusing of all was the final piece, Earle Brown's Available Forms I (1961). The sheet music of the piece takes the form of six unbound pages, each with five "events." The events can happen in any order, the pages can be played in any order, with any number of repetitions. Kotík had constructed a nifty music stand-mounted cardboard contraption with which he could show the orchestra how to move between pages; the events were shown with the fingers of his non-baton hand.

Overall, a great start to the project. If you're in the mood for something a little weirder, S.E.M. is your group. Oh, and be sure to take a visit to the Bohemian National Hall on E 73rd St -- it's the only consulate-plus-cultural-center-plus-restaurant you'll ever visit, I assure you.

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