"Bent Frequency: Playing What's Good For You"
Creative Loafing Atlanta
Vol. 32, No. 2 (May 21 - 27, 2003)
Review by Mark Gresham
Atlanta has a checkered history of grappling with ensembles dedicated specifically to presenting "new concert music." This year, yet another group of musicians has chosen to take up the gauntlet. Robert Ambrose, Nickitas Demos, Stuart Gerber and Alexander Mickelthwate have formed Bent Frequency, which played its inaugural concert at Eyedrum May 12.
Interviewed weeks before the concert, the group discussed why Eyedrum was a deliberate choice. "[It] gives us this kind of spin that we are more of an alternative band that is usually associated with the independent scene," says Mickelthwate. Ambrose concurs. "We want all of the stuffiness out of it," he explained, adding that there were elements of "almost a rock concert" that they hoped to achieve.
After all, why can't the people who go to the Tabernacle for a show also come out to hear, say, Stockhausen? "There is no reason why [they] could not have that same experience," Gerber says. "Why not give them some really good music, played at the highest artistic levels, but give it to them in a way that they are used to getting their other music?"
In an effort to avoid the pitfalls of typical new music concerts, the plan was to enhance the concert with various non-musical elements, or as Demos put it, "to incorporate a fusion of visuals with the music." However, he added that the music would be the No. 1 priority.
Bent Frequency achieved its goals to some extent, but not entirely. They attracted a reasonably sized, diverse audience, including new faces (says an Eyedrum representative) plus some recognizable ones from Atlanta's "new music" community.
Fourteen musicians and two visual artists joined in as performers for the evening. Ambrose and Mickelthwate took turns on the podium, each leading three works. The program opened with a recorded intro to David Lang's "Cheating, Lying, Stealing," that steadily increased in volume as the musicians took the stage. Unfortunately, when the climactic cutoff arrived, the band's first live sounds did not seamlessly dovetail with it, in what could have been a great opening effect. Still, the band nobly forged ahead with the jagged, jaunty music.
"The Light That Fills the World" by John Luther Adams followed. For the last quarter-century, Adams has lived in the boreal forests outside Fairbanks, Alaska, where that vast wilderness has greatly influenced his aesthetic. It is "klangfarben" (sound colors) music of slowly shifting textures. The players captured the stillness, but the electronic elements had a timbral opaqueness and narrowness of sonic space that failed to produce either the translucence or vastness that the work's title implies.
But the ensemble came into assured, sharper focus with Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Kreuzspiel," and fully found its groove in delivering a top-notch performance of John Zorn's "Cobra," in which the musicians' obvious enjoyment, game playing and humor broke the ice with the audience.
Demos' own "Notes from the Edge of the Millennium" and Anthony Davis' "Wayang II (Shadow Dance)," with its unabashed jazz-rock jam-time feel, concluded the evening.
Promised visual elements, light and video projections, were marginal, neither interfering with the concert, or effectively contributing. The tiny, mostly vague, mostly ignored images were lost in irregularly hung sheets near the ceiling. The music may come first, but if added elements do nothing to engage it, what's the point of going to all the trouble?
Still, the concert overall was an enjoyable musical success, and plans are for Bent Frequency to present several concerts next year. One can hope that they return to Eyedrum. The concert atmosphere was, as intended, not stuffy. And judging by the crowd, it worked.
As Demos pointed out, "If you say, 'This is your broccoli, it's good for you, you must eat it,' [then] nobody's going to want to come to that."