Sound artist and composer Fay Victor’s powerful voice cut through the din of chatter at Joe’s Pub, marking the beginning of International Contemporary Ensemble’s September 20 concert. She and the ensemble were performing FLOW TO THE NEXT, a piece that asks artists to bring their own text and melodies to the stage, devising a series of different paths. You could zero in on any performer and find something different: interdisciplinary artist Chris Ryan Williams read from a pale blue pamphlet, edi kwon made her violin tremble and sputter, and Lester St. Louis grasped his cello horizontally in his hands.
FLOW TO THE NEXT proved a fitting opener for the evening, which presented four pieces that each turned vibrant individual expressions into collective journeys. At the heart of the concert was the world premiere of Lesley Mok’s still-leafed chatter and Chris Ryan Williams’ Odu: vibration 1, which were commissioned as part of ICE’s “Call for ___” program.
Mok’s still leafed-chatter foregrounded the idea of balancing singular voices with a group sound. The artists — Mok on drum set, kwon on violin, Cory Smythe on piano, and Dan Lippel on acoustic guitar — each passed around textural solos. kwon’s flexible, unpredictable violin playing was the highlight of the performance, blossoming from sweet, lullaby-like melodies into shrieking, vibrato-laden glissandos. The rest of the ensemble contributed inquisitive beats underneath kwon’s extended riffs, or took on their own probing and virtuosic solos — but kwon’s violin drove the performance home, eventually fading away with a feathery high pitch.
After a brief pause, Mok returned to the stage for a solo piece, Hologram: becoming visible to myself, which sought to unite Mok’s perception of herself with her mirror image. Mok illustrated this idea using drum set and electronics, combining metallic, whirring noises and chopped up voices with eerie cymbal scrapes and broken-down rhythms. Her playing teetered between haunted quietude and boisterousness, branching out from barely-there rings to uncanny buzzes and robotic vocals. Her music felt sparse despite all the activity, and her tools were part of what made it so intriguing — but unfortunately, a music stand sat in the middle of the stage obscuring her, often making it difficult to see the intricacies of her work. Nevertheless, she found a transfixing balance between ethereal and ominous textures, effectively creating the feeling of seeing a mirror image that looks like you, but isn’t quite the you that you know.
Williams’ Odu: vibrations 1 closed out the evening with a remarkable performance by Fay Victor and bassoonist Rebekah Heller on stage and Lester St. Louis in the sound booth. A lamp, created by Josephine Wang and Williams, sat on a table between the musicians; its cream stained glass shade looked as if it were falling down in real time, halted just long enough for the performance.
Odu: vibrations 1 particularly succeeded in how it celebrated the adventurousness of Victor and Heller’s musical relationship. They began by blowing into bassoon bells, ricocheting off of each other. A recording of Victor telling a story about her grandmother’s house simmered underneath those whispers and growls, conjuring a sense of warmth in its content and chaos in its sound. As the recording faded away, electronic rings grew into sirens, at one point so loud they felt overwhelming and jarring. But by the end, the duo turned to lyricism, floating away with gentle grace.
The audience watched every performance with intent, soaking in the detailed improvisations and cheering once they ended. But Joe’s Pub was an awkward location for the program — many of us sat at cabaret tables, facing each other instead of the stage, craning our necks to see how the ensemble made their unexpected sounds. While there’s a coziness to the venue that had the potential to match the onstage intimacy, the room simply wasn’t the right fit for the program. However, not much could bring down the music’s unbridled energy. The artists shined a light on the nature of spontaneity and creativity, showcasing how playing in a group doesn’t mean individuality has disappeared — instead, it allows further exploration of the self.
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