ICE at MCA: Composers, Composers, and More Composers

Impressions from Row G
by Arlene and Larry Dunn (@ICEfansArleneLD)


There is a special buzz in the air at the premiere performance of a musical work. The excitement vibrates even stronger if the composer is in the house. Imagine the tingling rush we felt at MCA on February 5 when ICE with “George Lewis and Friends” presented two World Premiers and three Chicago Premiers. All four composers were present, and three of them played as well. How could we push the excitement even higher? With the help of Chicago-based composer Marcos Balter, we parlayed some extra tickets into our own “young composers forum” with his current students Riley Hughes and Danny Hinds and former student Christiaan Dageforde.

The program opened and closed with works by George, with pieces in between by his proteges Steve Lehman, Nicole Mitchell, and Tyshawn Sorey. The mix epitomized contemporary music-making, at turns raucous (George’s The Will to Adorn) and ethereal (Nicole’s Cave of Self-Indulgence), uncertain (George's Artificial Life 2007) and precise (Tyshawn’s Ode to Gust Burns and Steve’s Impossible Flow).

Artificial Life 2007 is uniquely designed for pure improvisation with a score containing no musical notes, only a graphical set of improvising strategies for the players. It was a highlight for all of us. Christiaan, who attended last year’s ICE InFormation workshop with George (as did we) was eagerly anticipating hearing it unfold. Danny and Riley heard it with no preconceptions. We had just heard ICE play it in Oberlin, and were amazed at how radically different it could be while following the same “score.” The MCA performance included more groupings of more musicians, including Nicole on flute, Tyshawn on trombone, and Steve on alto sax. We were treated to a menagerie of sounds -- angry birds darting in from the flutes, small animals scurrying on the forest floor from the percussion, a rumble in the jungle from the bass register horns.

The closing work was The Will to Adorn, inspired by the 1934 Zora Neale Hurston essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” As George and conductor Steve Schick noted in a setup discussion from the stage, the piece was boisterous, loud (George said maybe not yet loud enough), and full of “jump cuts” in tempo, texture, and color. It was loud, but we’d say it could get louder still. It was a fitting musical evocation of Hurston’s observation of the stylistic bent towards heaping embellishment upon embellishment.

Cave of Self-Indulgence was our favorite of the other pieces. The flutes, played by Eric Lamb and Claire Chase, tossed nascent ideas back and forth, sparks bouncing off the walls. Ross Karre further conjured the cave milieu with rumblings on the bass drum and tom-toms and tingling of bells and cymbal as water dripping from stalactites.

Each of these works on the program incited spirited discussion in our “composers forum” following the concert. Larry struggled to find a handle on Ode to Gust Burns, but it was Danny’s overall favorite. Arlene got lost somewhere in Impossible Flow, while Larry loved it’s M. C. Escher-like inconceivabilites. Though hardly of one consistent opinion, we did all enthusiastically agree on one thing -- we want to hear every one of these pieces again.

Arlene (acornarlene [at] gmail [dot] com) and Larry (acornled [at] gmail [dot] com) 

Listening Tips: 

• George Lewis: Les Exercices Spirituels on Tzadick Records

• Tyshawn Sorey: “oblique-I” on Pi Recordings

• Steve Lehman with his octet, including Tyshwan on drums: “Travail, Transformation, and Flow” on Pi Recordings

• Nicole Mitchell with her Black Earth Ensemble: “Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler” on Firehouse 12 Records