The first half of the concert I attended on Friday night included traditional music from Scotland, an arrangement of Burmese pat waing drum tunes, a mash-up of Highland hornpipe and Balinese kotekan gestures, and compositions by Anthony Braxton. A massive global music summit? Not exactly. This was a solo bagpipes set by Matthew Welch, presented by the composers collective Wet Ink Music at the New York Quarterly Meeting House, a Quaker establishment not far from Union Square.
Welch is a one-man phenomenon: a composer trained by the likes of Braxton, Alvin Lucier and Barry Truax; the saxophone-wielding leader of a rock band called Blarvuster; and a distinguished practioner of Highland pipes. I reviewed his 2005 Tzadik CD, Dream Tigers, for Time Out New York and Weekend America (about which, see the footnote that follows this report), and listed it in my top ten classical releases last year. That the same record also landed on my TONY colleague Hank Shteamer's top ten list in the not-classical music section underscores the effect that Welch's music has: In filling a disc with pieces that are unquestionably chamber music in the conventional sense, yet somehow manage to negate the vast distance between that idiom, Celtic music and gamelan, Welch reveals our seemingly big, big world to be the intimate, interdependent place it really is -- especially in this globally wired superhighway age.
Under a blond mushroom cloud, Welch stalked the aisles of the attractively plain Quaker chapel with a set of improvised variations based on the drunken escapades of his friends -- tipsy tunes filled with happy melodies and deft ornamentation. The aforementioned Burmese numbers Welch arranged in collaboration with Burmese master drummer Kyaw Kyaw Naing. He followed with traditional Highland pipe tunes; the last, "The Battle of the Pass of Crieff," offered a hypnotic melody that intensified ever so slowly, the effect heigtened by the warm, humid air in the hall.
"Traversing Mad-hatten," a Welch original, offered frenetic arpeggios in a stream-of-consciousness flurry; "Gorgamor the Giant Gecko" was based on racing rhythmic patterns borrowed from a Balinese idiom. Welch closed the first set with a medley of two Braxton compositions for solo saxophone, Nos. 99E and 118. His rendition opened with tiny chirps and pecks spackled across a long, sustained drone, and ended with a sequence of tonal flutters, the rhythmic intensity of which increased as the pitch ascended.
Welch opened the second half of the program with a Lucier composition, Piper. An acoustical etude concerned with the sound of two open tenor drone pipes resonating as the player slowly explores the performance space, this had the effect that all of Lucier's best pieces produce: it was beautiful, magical, even elemental. The composer compels us to listen closely to details and contours, in the process revealing the alchemy of acoustics. As Welch slowly processed around the hall, on occasion minutely detuning his drones, two plain, reedy tones refracted into ghostly voices, clarinet choirs and throbbing pulsations.
The concert closed with an ensemble piece, Viola, a tribute to artist Bill Viola composed by Alex Mincek and performed by Welch with the Wet Ink Ensemble. The glowering overtones and stabbing riffs of Mincek's lengthy, episodic postmodern concerto grosso proposed a sort of common ground between Morton Feldman's glacial gestures and the amplified swarms of Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth. The core ensemble positioned Mincek's bass clarinet and tenor saxophone and Erin Lesser's flute in opposition to Matthew Hough's electric guitar and Ian Antonio's drumset (especially a gloriously trashy Chinese cymbal any drummer would envy), with Jeff Snyder providing electronic textures. For a long central stretch, these players were engulfed in teeming harmonic clouds provided by Welch's pipes, two harmonica players and the accordion of Eric Wubbels. At several points, the piece abruptly shuddered from near-silence to cacophonous rumble; even at its gnarliest and most confrontational, the overall effect was intoxicating.
(As for Weekend America, I must sadly report that the program has indefinitely suspended its CD reviews. And that's a shame: Talking about classical music for a non-specialist audience can be a challenge, but in my reviews for that show, I always knew that the musical excerpts would state a composer or performer's case more eloquently than anything I might say.)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis; Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus"; Job - A Masque for Dancing - London Philharmonic Orchestra/Vernon Handley (Classics for Pleasure)
Ludwig van Beethoven - Elegiac Song; Luigi Cherubini - Requiem in C minor; Marche Funèbre - Boston Baroque/Martin Pearlman (Telarc; release date January 23, 2007)
Giuseppe Verdi - Don Carlo - Gundula Janowitz, Shirley Verrett, Franco Corelli, Eberhard Wächter, Nicolai Ghiaurov, Martti Talvela, Vienna Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra/Horst Stein (Opera d'Oro)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Flourish for Glorious John; Symphonies Nos. 8 & 9 - Philharmonia Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (RCA)
Tallis Scholars - The Tallis Scholars Sing Thomas Tallis (Gimell)