New Music Detroit’s multi-day new music marathon Strange Beautiful Music celebrated its 15th anniversary September 16-18 with performances by some of the city’s leading artists, including Marcus Elliot and Shara Nova. One of the driving factors behind Strange Beautiful Music’s lasting success is its commitment to an expansive and diverse representation of what new music sounds like. Over this three-day event, New Music Detroit presented programs chock-full of contemporary classical music, experimental jazz, free improvisation, electronica, and works that aren’t so easily defined.
The second night was presented at The CUBE — the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s black box performance space. The evening opened with Yannis Kyriakides‘ eight-movement electroacoustic suite once there was (2018), which explores the darker side of nursery rhymes with distended jazzy dreamscapes and abstract popping and sputtering washes.
The opening movement, “On a wall, in a beck,” is based on the story of Humpty Dumpty — but far from the common singsong telling of the nursery rhyme, it ruminates on something far more sinister. Scraped piano strings and aggressive drum rolls and cymbal hits rip into an anxious backdrop of electronic, staticky beats. Pianist Justin Snyder and percussionist Joe Becker expertly navigated the thorny rhythms and subtle shifts in texture, tone color, and gesture that the work demands. Their tight ensemble work was especially apparent in the rapidly hocketing passages of the fourth movement, “Until the sun,” which takes “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” as inspiration, and the menacing, creaking sixth movement, “All the birds in the air,” which references the rhyme “Who Killed Cock Robin?”
The darkness of Kyriakides’ work was balanced by Marcus Elliot’s Fill the Room with Light (2022, world premiere). Just one week after Elliot was asked to write a piece for New Music Detroit, his father was placed in hospice care. According to Elliot, Fill the Room with Light was “created to honor the gift my father had and the gift that he saw in me, and all of his children, which was to fill the room with the light you carry.” Elliot led the ensemble on saxophone, and was joined by Snyder, Becker, vocalist Jocelyn Zelasko, cellist Úna O’Riordan, saxophonist Erik Rönmark, and percussionist Ian Antonio.
Fill the Room with Light moves organically through several different sections, trading off luscious swells and riveting off-kilter grooves. The ensemble harbored a powerful and ever-shifting energy that gave the work a compelling forward momentum, and, at the climax, Zelasko shook the hall with a sublime, ecstatic vocal solo. In one particularly impactful section, the relentless ostinato groove suddenly drops out, revealing pale, pianissimo piano clusters over the distant rumble of a gong. The work ends with Elliot playing an impassioned and fragmented saxophone solo; it’s a welcome moment of introspection, and an opportunity to reflect, connect, and process.
The second half of the evening featured 12 songs by composer-vocalist Shara Nova, who was joined by violinists Yvonne Lam and Alex Volkov; violist Jim Van Valkenberg; bassist Kevin Brown; drummer Ian Ding; and Snyder and O’Riordan again, on piano and cello, respectively. With one foot in the contemporary classical world and the other in pop music, Shara Nova has released five albums under the moniker My Brightest Diamond. Even though I was already familiar with her discography, Nova’s live performance surpassed all expectations — this was the most fun I’ve had at a concert in recent memory.
Nova emerged from the back of the hall dressed in a costume I can only describe as “undercover cabaret,” barking and throwing fake $100 bills at audience members. As she made her way to the stage, the band tore into a tight, snappy arrangement of her tongue-in-cheek song “Big Dog.” Ding’s cool command of the drums and Snyder’s dazzling piano solos were the icing on these fantastic arrangements.
Over the course of her set, Nova gradually removed elements of her costume and used them as props, and by the final song, her bright orange hair flowed freely as she rocked out on an electric guitar. Nova’s songs are infused with emotion, exploring with equal weight the highs and lows of the human condition. “Champagne” and “Pressure” are high-energy pop anthems that showcase her sultry and smooth vocals. Another standout is the downtempo ballad “A Million Pearls,” which Nova says is “about being a woman composer — working through the struggles of feeling unseen, and remembering you aren’t alone in that.” Nova is not only a brilliant songwriter and vocalist, but a superstar performer with a ridiculous amount of charisma.
Though the annual festival just wrapped up, I’m already looking forward to next year’s lineup. Glancing around at the audience during the concert, I saw a community that was connected by a shared interest in not just contemporary classical music, but more broadly new music in many different aesthetic domains — Shara Nova, Marcus Elliot, and New Music Detroit certainly filled the room with light.
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